I’m a scientist now working in IT. I’ve been blogging at idontknowbut since 2002, when it was the fashion to pick an unusual “nym.” I decided to be different and use part of my name (not all, to cut down on spam), but the day came when I found other “james”s with the same idea and so I tweaked the name. I’ve worked in Berkeley of the Midwest for years, but I’ve never met Dan.
I’ve some expertise in physics, and interests in history, Africa, autism, and various “squirrels” that distract me.
“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”
What Twain actually published was: “Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.”
If you prefer a more recent source: “It’s better to be uninformed than misinformed. I even doubt some of the pictures I see in the papers.” (Orville Hubbard)
A commenter here on HVAC and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect wrote that he tries to interpret news stories using a simple procedure: determine the bias, and then assume the opposite of what the story claims. As a rule of thumb it has the obvious problem that every now and then a liar tells the truth–as with Twain’s liar.
One of the things they tried to drill into us early on was that you had to measure the measurable, but your measurement wasn’t complete without an estimate of the error on that measurement. And if you screwed up, say so. These disciplines aren’t common, but they’re valuable.
How do we figure out what’s real?
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” (Feynman)
I can go to trusted sources and believe them–just like everybody else does. They listen to their sources because they trust them, and they trust them because they’re just like what they’ve always listened to.
True, I have to compare a report with what I already think I know. If I estimate that it is consistent with what I have heard and believed already, it’s probably true—but those who believe the NYT and CNN do exactly the same. They’re in an echo chamber: I need to be sure I’m not.
We’ve lots of news sources. Sometimes they tell the truth. How do I know when?
Truth is generally binary, but unfortunately the probability that I trust a story has to be on a spectrum. If I have seen the scene myself, I consider it very true. OTOH, I don’t always know the context, and … “There’s a Bene Gesserit saying,” she said. “You have sayings for everything!” he protested. “You’ll like this one,” she said. “It goes: ‘Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.”
“even doubt some of the pictures I see” After the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Goodyear blimp started showing the city instead of the now-cancelled ball game. We had friends in the area, and kept the TV on with someone eyeing it all the time. The blimp kept coming back to the same burning building. No doubt the effort to control the fire made a fine narrative, but what I wanted was a pan of the city to see how extensive the destruction was. All I was allowed to see was one burning building. And, to be fair, the bridge too.
If the story is from a known liar on a topic which he has lied about in the past and has an interest in lying about again, I judge the probability small. But not zero—as Twain noted, you can lie telling the truth—just leave out important context.
For each story, suppose the bare facts of the story (strip out the emotive stuff) are correct. What context is missing? Sometimes I can infer the missing context from “What would X be likely to do, and how would CNN interpret that?”
When trying to figure out the missing context, recall that people like to think they’re good people, and justify themselves. If that involves misrepresenting someone else’s motives or leaving out benign details, they’ll do it. But if they have any residual integrity, they’ll be uncomfortable leaving too much out–so there may be hints as to what’s missing. Otherwise I have to draw on what little I know of the characters involved to imagine what they left out.
I can assume that if CNN reports on controversial politics or social mores the report is false; either false in its facts or false in its framing. But what if they report on a storm, or a revolution in Chad, or a new business? They have no obvious reason to lie, except of course the reporter’s need to have an interesting story on a deadline. NYT and Daily News reporters have been known to make stuff up—not that long ago, either.
And sometimes politics and corruption invade what ought to be non-political realms. Remember Lysenko? Stories about his work might have seemed like science, but behind the scenes it was ideology down the line. Stories about a business (especially green ones) seem not infrequently to be puff pieces designed to spur investment in the bubble.
Lies about non-socio-political topics will probably trip me up, unless I have some prior knowledge about the situation.
Often if you remember prior stories about the same topic, you’ll notice that the “breakthrough” is incremental at best and rate the story accordingly. Or that the suspect seems to appear rather frequently in the police blotter. I don’t know about you, but my memory isn’t that prodigious.
I can cross-check. Do I hear the same report elsewhere?
Unfortunately the masters of smear and of advertising have learned how to spread their stories around so that they appear to be verified independently. Many outlets grab the same press release independently. Can I tell what the source was from reading the story? Sometimes yes. If I can’t figure out what the source is, that counts against the story’s veracity.
Can I check the original source? I’ve had a hobby of researching science reports in the media and comparing them to the originals—and a depressing hobby it is, too. By the time the telephone game plays out to the clickbait headline, the research often isn’t recognizable. Sadly, some of the originals are paywalled or in languages I don’t know or in notes never actually put online.
Apply the 24-hour rule. First reports are generally wrong. OTOH, sometimes the first report is all you get.
Is the story trying to manipulate my emotions? Does the sick widow really represent the majority of the attempted immigrants? Common sense says no, and counts against the story’s veracity.
Does the story make sense? Someone (haven’t found the quote) wrote that a 19’th century Englishman would commit any crime, do any treason, before he would walk Trafalgar Square without his pants. I was solemnly told back in 2016 that there was pedophilia dirt on Trump that was being kept secret. Tell me that Hitler regularly vacationed in London in 1943; it’s just as plausible—the secret couldn’t be kept.
Similarly, we were all solemnly assured that Vladimir “my country stays afloat with hydrocarbon sales” Putin wanted Donald “fracking” Trump to win the election in 2016. Nope; that’s an obvious lie. The advantage of it is that I could note who trumpeted it and put them on my liars list.
Maybe a case history showing how I tried to understand a story would be helpful. Or interesting. Or not.
Let me use a relatively simple story: Wuhan 2019A aka Covid-19 aka Wuflu aka horrible plague aka “nothing-burger.” (I have family and friends who were knocked down for 3 months with it. That’s not trivial. I also had friends mildly sick for a week.)
The first stories were about Wuhan, the Diamond Princess, and the Italy disaster.
Wuhan reports were of a contagious and dangerous virus, and that the government was using extreme measures to halt it. They had a motive to lie—the same one all dictatorships do—underplay the problems, trumpet the good things. Announcing problems is against interest, so we could assume the problem was at least as bad as they claimed. The Chinese released a RNA sequencing of the virus, which sounded like they’d been working on it for a while, but were offering info in good faith. And they claimed some success using hydroxychloroquine. Since they were confessing problems, and seemingly acting in good faith, I could give some credence to the early stories.
The Diamond Princess showed that it was deadly, but only a few percent would die, even in a population that skewed older. It was a nice controlled environment for testing, with few confounding issues. Some people stayed sick for a long time (see later personal experience above). The Diamond Princess owners would have had a great incentive to lie about illness aboard their ship—bad PR—but the Japanese didn’t. It seemed trustworthy information.
Reports from Italy sounded like a true disaster. Unfortunately, they didn’t come with the demographic details that would let one compare it to the Diamond Princess numbers. How much excess capacity did Italian hospitals have? If none, any plague will have people dying in the halls. Things sounded bad, but when you started asking questions about rates, the numbers weren’t there. The Italians didn’t seem to have a reason to lie about it, so the information was true—but not complete or useful.
I did not listen to the news. I gather from the effect of the news on other people that the media played up the danger-danger-danger aspects.
The early Chinese reports mentioned hydroxychloroquine. Hydroxychloroquine seemed a very odd medicine to treat a virus. (I had taken it weekly for years as a malaria prophylactic.) So I went to Google and looked up the papers that dealt with that. (I trusted Google not to hide the information. Why would they lie about medicine? Politics, sure, but why bother to lie about this?) I skimmed the papers I found, and learned to my surprise that the drug has been used against viruses too, and that the Chinese tests against Covid were preliminary and low-statistics, but positive.
A doctor claimed positive results in Europe, in another low-statistics sample. A later study using it on gravely ill patients found no benefit—I hope no-one here is surprised. So far, these reports seemed reliable within their limits, and didn’t disprove each other.
At this point I started taking a little more note of the news and found that chloroquine was now claimed to be both useless and dangerous (heart issues—actually retinopathy is the more common risk). From what I knew now, neither claim could be justified. Chloroquine had merely been proved not to be a miracle cure for the dying, and the heart risk was lower than the risk of the disease. From a reporter I could expect such exaggeration, but these came from health officials—or at least the officials never seemed to correct a misinterpretation. Somebody was lying.
Why would they lie? Just because Trump had said the drug might be useful? That’s an unworthy motive, but I sounded a sample of acquaintances and concluded that they were prejudiced to believe that anything Trump said was a lie and must be opposed. I could no longer trust that NYT/CNN and even the FDA/CDC could tell the truth on what ought to be a non-political question.
At the same time, I started frequently reading that chloroquine was a miracle drug and that anti-Trump people and big-pharma (in search of expensive/profitable new drugs) were suppressing it. (Chloroquine hadn’t been proven useful yet—that would take a large study. I looked at one of the meta-studies that asserted that it wasn’t useful, and wasn’t impressed.) Oops. I couldn’t trust the “right-wing” channels either. (The claim about big-pharma isn’t easy to prove or disprove.)
Skipping to the present—YouTube and Facebook have been caught deleting stories about the disease. They claim this is merely deleting dangerous misinformation. No doubt some of it is—but how do I know that? They’ve lied before. I can’t rely on the search engines to find unskewed information. I can’t even rely on DuckDuckGo: it turns out to rely on Bing, and Microsoft has already been caught censoring stories on China’s behalf.
I’m not a doctor or a medical researcher–this was a layman’s attempt to figure out what was going on.
At end of the day, unless I’m willing to put in work to find out the truth, I’m not going to get it.
I am not advocating utter skepticism. A lot of the news stories are more or less accurate–or would be if they were ever followed-up on. My stint on a grand jury gave me an appreciation for how inaccurate initial crime reports can be.
But I try to cultivate a “not proven” attitude to the news–especially early reports. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” We can’t rely on journalists–we have to do it ourselves.