Seek The Truth

"I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help me God."  These are the words you state when making a sworn testimony in a court of law, but the sentiment should not be limited to the courtroom.  I believe we should all conduct ourselves in such a manner that we are committed to always being honest and truthful, at all times.  That includes not spreading rumors or gossip that you don't know, based on the evidence, to be true.  "Do not spread false reports" Exodus 23:1

In today's world, we are inundated with information: news, reports, stories, videos, images and more.  Clifford Stoll stated that "Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom."  Information is a good thing, but it must be distilled, verified, and validated before it graduates to become knowledge. With such vast information comes an individual responsibility to research and validate that information, so that it may become knowledge which will then lead to understanding and hopefully wisdom.  Some, if not much, of the information we see and hear is false or misleading.  Fortunately, we also have the best research tools available in the history of the world right at our fingertips to wade through the noise and find the facts.  

It is especially incumbent upon every one of us to research and vet information before sharing it with others, as if it is the objective truth.  If you do not know if something is true, it is critical that you preface any such information with that disclaimer.  To fail to do so will inevitably destroy your credibility with other people, and put plainly: people won't trust you.  Personally, I never share anything with others that I don't believe to be true after I have performed the due diligence and research necessary to be reasonably confident in that claim.  

Research consists, at a minimum, of using various search engines and other resources to dig deeper than the initial article you read or saw and verify, if at all possible, the facts that it was based upon.  When possible, get the information straight from the horse's mouth.  Never trust an intermediary such as a writer, a politician, or a reporter to interpret an event or "summarize" information for you.  You've probably had the experience of reading a news article or watching a news clip about an event that portrayed it as one way, only to discover upon watching the actual event footage or speech, that what was said was completely different than how it was described.  Other people (including media personalities) can be very biased, lazy, and manipulative.

Always dig deep.  Look for the evidence, the data, and the facts.  Are you reading anecdotal stories, or are you reading double blind study data directly?  Anecdotal stories can be found for both sides of an issue, and they are particularly appealing from an emotional standpoint, but they aren't the whole picture.  Be wary of stories or accounts that reference multiple anecdotal accounts, but lacking in data based on studies and statistics.  Just because someone's grandfather, for example, lived to be 97 and smoked 30 cigarettes a day, does not necessarily mean that cigarettes do not cause lung cancer or contribute to long lives.

Correlation does not imply causation.  Many people mistakenly assume that just because item A correlates to item B, that item A caused item B.  This is known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc, in Latin, which means "with this, therefore because of this."  An example of this is that numerous studies showed that women taking hormone replacement (HRT) therapy had a lower than average incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD), which led doctors to propose that HRT was protective against CHD.  However, when a series of randomized controlled tests were conducted, they actually determined that HRT actually caused an increased risk of CHD.  In this case, there was also what's known as a hidden variable at play: it turns out that women undertaking HRT were more likely to be from higher socio-economic groups with better than average diet and exercise, which was the real reason they were experiencing reduced incidence of CHD, not due to the HRT.

Humans, and even machines, are biased.  We all have different experiences which cause us to interpret the world in different ways, and even interpret data in different ways.  People often draw conclusions that support their beliefs or expectations, that is confirmation bias, which means you need to be particularly careful to vet information that you want to believe, i.e. that aligns with your belief system.  Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories.  Just because you think it might be true, or want it to be true, does not make it true.  Availability bias is bias that arises from having one set of data, but lacking another, and so your conclusions are based on the data that you do have, and not on the data that you do not have.  Unfortunately, even machines and artificial intelligence are influenced by the biases of their programmers who create and maintain the algorithms on which they run.  For example, I believe that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, when they founded Google, were operating on the best of intentions.  Their goal was "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" through the development of proprietary algorithms based on math alone.  Larry's Page Rank algorithm was revolutionary: based on the number of references made to a particular web page on a particular topic, he could infer the usefulness of a web page and thus assign it a rank of importance on that topic.  However, today, Google's algorithm has been re-tooled based on internal decisions and public pressure to block or de-emphasize (through sorting) huge swaths of the web.  You can easily observe this (don't take my word for it) through the injection and prioritization of negative articles and references over positive ones for particular political candidates versus others.  These negative references are 15x more effective at swaying opinion than positive ones, and so it is an extremely powerful tool.  Facebook has admitted to doing the same thing.  While I trust algorithms more than I do humans to avoid bias, even AI is tainted by the biases of the code on which it runs.  Therefore, when you perform research, use a wide variety of source materials, including search tools.  I personally have found search engines such as Duckduckgo and Bing to be far less biased than Google has become.

Circular reasoning or a circular argument is another thing to watch out for.  Circulus in probando or "circle in proving" is a logical fallacy in which the reasoner begins with the end in mind.  These come in the form of "A is true because B is true; B is true because A is true" and thus it assumes what is trying to prove.  It either restates it in a different way, or in stronger terms, but does not offer any additional external evidence that it is true.  For example, "Indianapolis is in Indiana, therefore Indianapolis is in Indiana" offers no external evidence, data or proof that Indianapolis is in Indiana, it simply restates it.  "Mike was the best candidate for president, because he was totally better than any of the others" simply restates the same premise in stronger terms, but offers no evidence.

Beware of self-fulfilling prophecies.  According to sociologist Robert Merton "The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning."  For example, if a coach expects his freshmen players to be unskilled and uncoordinated, and therefore does not play them often.  Thus, due to lack of training, those players become unskilled and uncoordinated, even if at one time they had been skilled and coordinated.

Peer reviewed studies and articles are not a panacea for the truth.  It turns out that many peer reviewed studies are unrepeatable or essentially unproven, yet can still become published (often for a fee) and then can become cited by other studies as a form of circular logic, as we discussed above.  Investigative journalists have proven that they can create totally fabricated articles, and successfully pass them through a peer review processes and become published.

Fact check sites such as MBFC, PolitiFact, Snopes, and Factcheck.org can be quite useful for high level research, but as always, they are subject to human bias.  Snopes, for example, is known for it's leftist bias.  That does not mean you should dismiss their conclusions as wrong out of hand, simply that you should verify what they submit as facts, ideally from the source, as you should be doing anyway.

Ultimately, it is our reputation on the line.  When we share something with friends or family or even strangers, we owe it to ourselves, and to them, to ensure that we are not passing along false reports.  If we shun the objective truth, based on sound evidence and data, in deference to subjective feelings and anecdotes, we are no longer reasonable people.

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