Saturday, July 19, 2008

Balances of Power

Knowledge is power, as they say, and information is knowledge. The problem, one among many, is discerning what you know from what you think you know. Telling the difference between facts and beliefs. Discriminating between information, disinformation and 'opinion presented as fact'.

Most people have a pretty stable comfort level for this. Most people assume that:
1) Other people need a reason to lie
2) People are about equal in their desire to share information
3) If information comes from multiple sources it is more likely to be solid

The first assumption falls apart in many of the environments that I spend time in. People who live extremely marginal lives, unprotected by society and surrounded by people they can't trust (most criminals) need a reason to tell the truth. Disinformation is habit. Giving people in power (not just might power, but also ego stroke power or emotional leverage power) what they want to hear is habit. Most of what you have read derived from interviews with criminals (or written by criminals themselves) have been self-serving lies. It just is. If that rankles and feels judgmental, that is a measure of your value system, and an indicator that you do not understand theirs. In that world, lying is neither right nor wrong, it is simply smart.

The second assumption falls down in some very important places and some very important ways. Sometimes the people with the most information are prohibited (by law, policy, or morality) from sharing that information. I am aware of a case of a fairly highly placed person in a certain local government publishing some pretty outrageous lies. The truth was well-documented, but was documented under a work-place disciplinary status. Completely forbidden to be shared. The lies went unanswered. In some venues, information has to be limited because leaks can cost lives. Simple as that. The people who could explain the best are afraid that even a slight, accidental slip could lead to disaster- and so they say nothing.

This absolutely doesn't work the other way, and I am appalled frequently by some of the ignorance freely spouted on subjects that I am familiar with. The more I see the silence of the involved versus the voluability of the voyeur the more grateful I am for the quiet professionals who do the jobs we never really hear about. If you assume an equal desire to share information, the noise from one side will seem truer than the silence from the other.

The third assumption... people confuse different sources with independent sources. Radioisotope decay AND estimated mutation rates and changes in DNA over time AND geological layering AND the fossil record all independently support the concept of evolution. Different mythologies (and nothing else) support the theory of creation. Some of the more interesting pseudoscientific political issues are worth a look: in a few of them (I'm thinking of a specific example for this) you will find hundreds of sources. Those sources will quote other sources, who will quote others... but in the end almost everything goes back to a single opinion- and this guy has been known to quote people quoting him to bolster his argument.

This is a hard one to winnow out unless you are willing to do a lot of research... but in many of the hot-button topics it has had a definite influence. I think because it mirrors what the people who choose a side already believe, and people do not distinguish well between facts and beliefs. Full circle.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

[i]Those sources will quote other sources, who will quote others... but in the end almost everything goes back to a single opinion- and this guy has been known to quote people quoting him to bolster his argument.

This is a hard one to winnow out unless you are willing to do a lot of research... but in many of the hot-button topics it has had a definite influence. I think because it mirrors what the people who choose a side already believe, and people do not distinguish well between facts and beliefs. Full circle.[/i]

I've been amazed at how pervasive this is and how it appears in places where having (or not having) the facts matter. After a few cut and pastes, opinion becomes fact, "common knowledge" and possibly doctrine.

sdmp said...

The Internet, while a great tool for research, also has this happening more often than before IMHO since now people can see it "in writting" so it must be true.

At least our children our being taught to consider the source of the webpage...and if it has no source and no 'valid' references they are reminded that it is just opinion.
Take care,
Sondra

jks9199 said...

Wow.

I've read this post several times now. There's a lot there.

Too many people don't understand that criminals lie as a fact of life, like they eat or breathe. They lie because they think they'll bet out of trouble... or get someone else in trouble.

Too few people discriminate between the sources of information at all. If "everyone" is saying it, it must be true. Even if there's no way it can be false. Or they assume that some piece of information that is valid in one place is equally valid somewhere else. (Hence the proliferation of West Coast gang experts who don't know squat about the same gangs on the East Coast...)

Something else that's important to remember is that people LIKE to be called "expert" or seen as being knowledgeable. A few years ago, someone wrote a good article talking about how they got quoted as a talking head in an area that they knew something about... and were soon sought for comments on all sorts of stuff that they knew nothing about.