The Laramee Filter: pseudorandom thoughts, subsequently put on the Internet.
 
Author:
Tom Laramee
Date Published:
April 22nd, 2021
Word Count:
4,019 (25:00 read time)
Filed Under:

How Are We Supposed To Understand What Is True?

We Live In a Time of a Massive Information Paradox

I think part of the difficulty of navigating today's information landscape is a sort of information paradox: one shouldn't be too sure of themselves (lest they remain in their own confirmation bias bubble), and yet not being too sure of oneself is a major pathway to having your beliefs usurped by anti-vax, flat-earth[0], Sandy-Hook-crisis-actor, drinking-bleach-cures-autism, yoga-can-leave-you-psychotic, covid-is-a-hoax, Holocaust-denial nonsense.

In other words, trust your news source too much and you'll be mislead ("contained") inside your own biases. Don't trust them enough (or at all) and end up believing that we elected a Kenyan Muslim in 2000, that QAnon is proof of the existence of a deep state, and that wind turbines cause cancer.

The downsteam problem one faces in either case is: when I read something new, how do I know whether it's true or not?

(As a side note, a lot of this thinking is in preparation for trying to explain some of this to my kids. I'm continually shocked, and a bit disappointed, that there's no Digital Literacy class at either of my kids schools. This is arguably the single greatest challege their generation faces, as information rules all).

Thinking About Information In Terms of Natural Selection

For many years I was mistaken in thinking that information was Darwinian in that only the best ideas would be propagated.

Inherent in "best" is that they are accurate, and correspond to a true or hypothetical observation. Said another way, ideas that continue to propagate are, over time, unfalsifiable (that, and that they're largely testable).

In this way, ideas that are easily disproved would eventually disappear from the information landscape, culled out after being proven false.

If this was true (that information was Darwninian in this way), information natural selection would select out information garbage like (1) Holocaust denial (2) anti-vaccination propaganda [e.g.: the Covid vaccine has a microchip in it] (3) flat-earth theory (4) drinking bleach cures autism (5) Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, (etc).

If this was true, people like Alex Jones would self-select out of the information gene pool because he just makes stuff up all day, none of it rooted in the real/observable world (e.g.: Jade Helm, Sandy Hook As Hoax, etc), so he would eventually be wholly ignored by people seeking true/accurate reflections on socio-political culture.

Information Is Darwinian, Just Not In the Way I Thought

Unfortunately, it turns out that information is Darwinian in a wholly different, unrelated way. If you think about it from the perspective of the natural world, a species primary goal is to survive, which means it needs to reproduce. Information is the same.

In today's information landscape, the most shocking, sensationalistic and confirmation-bias-reinforcing ideas are the ones that are propagated (that reproduce). These often don't appeal to the rational part of people's thinking, it's much more emotional and knee-jerk.

Incidentally, the "Like" button on Facebook should probably be labelled "Breed", as that's it's primary function.

An Important and Timely Aside
 
It's been proven that the first thing people hear about a given subject can be awfully difficult to shake later on, even when presented with information that contradicts said first thing.
 
If the very first thing you heard about Covid was that it was a hoax, or that it was no worse than the flu, you're likely to seek out the information that most-confirms these ideas. This is the "confirmation-bias-reinforcing" nature of information propagation.
 
It's why the Covid-is-a-hoax idea propagates so readily. Once someone believes this, they seek out sources that reinforce their belief, and then "Like" and/or "Share" them.
 
Similarly, if you believe Covid is a hoax, you're likely to summarily dismiss all of the data that suggests it's not. In this way, it's much easier to believe a single, simple "truth" (Covid is a hoax) rather than to have to wade through the mountain of data that demonstrates it is not[1]. Note that this is why Twitter is so dangerous. It's "the first thing many people read" about a story or topic, and since it's near-real-time, there's no validation of any information.

In this way I think of conspiracy theories and propaganda as highly successful viruses - they're really, really good at replicating themselves - even though they're extremely harmful to the overall information system.

Censorship is a lousy solution, because it implicitly elects "gatekeepers of truth" (which is fine if you're a gatekeeper, but everyone else should be wary of accepting a view of information that's been pre-filtered). And censorship also has the Herculean problem of having to "get to the bottom of everything" in the search of an objective truth, which is a wicked problem to have.

So where does that land us? Cling too tightly to ones information source is bad, don't cling tightly enough and that's bad too. In either case, we need to take in new information from time to time.

A Couple Of Quick Clarifications

The question "How do I know something is true?" is deceptively difficult to answer. I've been doing a lot of thinking about this question lately, and would like to attempt to answer it for myself.

It might help to define the verb "to know", which for my purposes it means "understanding that something is true with 100% confidence", and by "true" this is to say the truth is unfalsifiable.

Now, things can get pretty complicated pretty fast here, so I'm going to stick with the following meaning of "unfalsifiable", which isn't the traditional meaning:

Once a theory (or truth) has been falsified, the proponent of the theory (or truth) must not adopt all manner of ad hoc strategies to avoid admitting that their theory has been falsified.

Make sense? When I read "discussions" and "arguments" on the Internet, it's the case that 100% of the time, when an argument is proffered, and then falsified, the original author executes a lateral[2] and changes the topic. That or, offers up a straw man. Either way, the original author never acknowledges that their argument was falsified.

A fantastic example is when a flat-earther performs an experiment that end up proving that the Earth is round: he must admit his flat-earth theory has been falsified. Same deal here.. This experiment proves that the flat-earth theory has been falsified. In response, the experimenter said:

"We weren't willing to accept that [result], and started looking for ways to disprove it."

I can think of no more perfectly succinct example of confirmation bias than that. It's such a wonderfully clear example it could be cited on the wikipedia definition page for confirmation bias.

This is all very well understood. The following is from an article in The Atlantic, cited in the footnote:

This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as “motivated reasoning.” Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe — they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs[3].
The Truth Is Often Wicked Complicated

It seems to me that we can't confidently know, with 100% certainty, much of what is true (or false). There simply isn't enough time, nor is there a pathway to discern the truth (e.g.: Who shot JFK? How bad is climate change? Is there water on Mars? How do vaccines work? How did the universe begin?[4] )

I'm convinced that truth has layers, (picture a pyramid, working from top to bottom, in which a narrow, well-understood truth is at the top while, as you work your way down the pyramid, the potential truth(s) become increasingly cloudy, and sprawling).

Here'a a sample of layers-of-truth related to 9/11[5] (an event that has a truly impressive number of conspiracy theories surrounding it):

The conclusion at level one is universally understood to be true. No matter what else you think about 9/11, the fact that there was an event on that day, of historical importance, is unable to be disputed. Level one was observable.

The further one walks down the pyramid, the less confident one is in the conclusions stated. Which means the further down the pyramid you go, the more unfounded theories are introduced.

Level two is partially disputed (not by me). Specifically, that the 3rd plane flew into the Pentagon. Lots of conspiracy theories regarding that third plane. Level two was also observable.

Level three is also disputed, though the historical record currently reflects what I've cited above. Level three was not necessarily observable, but could be pieced together via evidence, like flight school registrations.

Level four is also disputed. Motivation for the attack is where the most conspiracy theories can be found - including (a) that the entire attack was orchestrated by George W Bush as pretext for the Iraq invasion and (b) the attack was planned by Larry Silverstein to get out of a lease on the twin towers.

Level four is not observable because motivation is not observable, it can only be known internally by the original individual. The reason why the historical record reflects what I've cited above is because Osama Bin Laden said that was his motivation[6].

My conclusion here is that we can't know everything. For the vast majority of all news & events, we'll have to settle for Level-1 level detail.

Here Are Some Fundamental Limits on Truth

I'm convinced that there's a time delay on truth. Meaning, it's impossible to say you "know" something immediately when you read/watch the news. For example, when you see something on Facebook ("Obama wants to take away your guns" or "Social Security Will be Insolvent By 2025"), there's no way to say with confidence you "know" either of those is true [yet].

A great example was during the early period of the pandemic. The overall level of information was overwhelming, and sometimes contradictory. As time progressed, the objective truth began to emerge: (a) Covid is real (b) it's a lot more harmful than the flu (c) it's mostly transmitted via moisture droplets in the air [from respiration, coughing, sneezing, etc] (d) masks help slow the transmission (e) we should try to get it under control before a variant emerges that doesn't respond to the vaccine (f) the vaccine is wholly unrelated to 5G, Bill Gates, and does not contain a microchip.

Further complicating things is that some information that was accepted as historically accurate eventually turns out to be wrong. A good example of this is any recommendations that came out of the USDA in the 70 and 80s. "Fat is bad for you" / "Drink one quart of milk per day" / "Eat meat and eggs for breakfast" / (nothing on the effects of sugar on inflammation caused in your circulatory system) / etc[7].

The second problem is that no source of information is infallible. Even the most diligent news organizations make mistakes from time to time. Most issue retractions, but those occur in the future, which complicates the idea of knowing that something is true now.

Which means that to be 100% confident that anything is true is actually very, disconcertingly, difficult (it could even be argued that it's technically impossible).

Let's Start Figuring Out What's True

I use four main metrics when trying to discern the truth:

  1. Source Reliability
  2. Source Bias
  3. News vs Opinion (vs Court Cases)
  4. Evidence
1. Source Reliability:

I'm not sure why more people don't do this, but it's really, really helps to do a quick historical retrospective on a given source of information to see how they fared from a truth perspective.

Meaning, as time progresses, the likelier we are to have access to the information we need to make an informed decision. This makes it easier to go back a year, or two, or ten, and look the overall accuracy rate of a given information source over a period of time in the past.

(Past reporting accuracy informs present reporting accuracy)

Just to pick on my friend Alex Jones again: if you do a historical retrospective on his reporting, you'll note two things:

  1. He says a lot, lot, lot of stuff.
  2. Literally almost none of it is true, and if it ends up being true, it's just a conicidence.
His "historical information accuracy rate" is incredibly low, and the take-away here is that your confidence in hearing him speak truth in the present tense should be incredibly low.

I think you can apply the historical accuracy of an information source directly to what they produce in the present, meaning, if they're 50% historically, it's a coin-toss odds that the information produced today is true.

Compare and contrast that to someone like Rachel Maddow, who, from a historical perspective, appears to be nearly prescient. Her reporting is incredibly well-sourced and fares quite favorably from a historical perspective (and I'm no big fan of MSNBC, but I do think Rachel Maddow is an excellent source in the search for truth).

2. Source Bias:

Media bias charts are relatively common:

These are great for dismissing outliers. If they're too far left or too far right, I dismiss them entirely (except for research purposes).

Many news sources these days will readily admit their bias. My favorite example of this is Fox News[8]. Former employees have gone on record saying they were ordered to carry right-wing, Republican propaganda. Other examples include Jacobin, which is socialist, and Reason, which is libertarian. They're very up-front about it. It doesn't mean you need to eschew them, but when reading them you'll understand the perspective to which they bend their stories.

For other sources, the bias can be easily discerned. My favorite example is The Huffington Post, which I consider to be hopelessly biased. Their main MO is "bias through omission", meaning, they present news by cherry-picking the parts that help support their bias, and ignore the parts that contradict it.

The conclusion here: the more biased the source, the more work you'll need to do to filter the information produced from the source through your own internal bias-filter.

3. News vs Opinion (vs Court Cases)

Another easy one is to consume less Op/Ed and more reporting. I agree that the line between the two can be fine (to the point of not being discernable), but many opinion pieces are clearly labeled as such.

These days, many news programs consist almost entirely of opinion. To pick on Fox News again: Tucker Carlson's show is 1% reporting and 99% his opinion (and his opinion is wildly misleading[9]). So is Fox & Friends.

Another great mechanism for understanding truth and bias is when someone has to go to court and testify under oath.

Back to my buddy Alex Jones, when asked whether his rants make him unfit to be a parent, his attorney offered up the following:

“He’s playing a character,” attorney Randall Wilhite said during a recent pretrial hearing. “He is a performance artist.”[10])

Knowing that, how is one to determine if Alex Jones is playing a character on his show, or playing himself? And how much confidence can we have in his "reporting" when his defense is "He's playing a character?"

Another court case that's helpful: Fox News attorneys successfully argued that no reasonable viewer should believe what Tucker Carlson says:

She [the judge] wrote: "Fox persuasively argues, that given Mr. Carlson's reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism' about the statement he makes."[11]

Knowing that, just how much creedence should be assigned to Tucker Carlson? (I say "Zero").

4. Evidence Is Good

Since we're all awash in information, and therefore time is of the essence (there are simply too many news stories in a given day to wade through), I find it helpful to apply Hitchen's Razor early and often when I hear a new consipracy theory. Stated succinctly, Hitchen's Razor states:

`That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.`
Christopher Hitchens.

A friend of mine had cancer and posted that he was entering chemotherapy for treatment. One response was "Eating ginger would be more beneficial than chemo" (This was part of an argument for eschewing chemo altogether).

This can be dismissed by applying Hitchen's Razor. But in addition, if there was any evidence that ginger cures cancer, there would be a handful of double-blind clinicial trials, and the data would be analyzed, and it would show that the people who ate ginger saw their cancer go into remission at higher rates than people who did not [eat ginger] (and/or those who entered into chemotherapy).

Either way, there would be evidence. And in the complete absence of evidence, this claim may be dismissed.

So very many conspiracy theories may be similarly dismissed.

Another Quick Aside
 
A lot of conspiracy theorists argue, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Well ... prove it's not true".
 
E.g #1:
[Conspiracist] The Covid vaccination has a microchip in it.
[Response] There's no evidence of that.
[Conspiracist]: Well, prove that it doesn't.
 
E.g #2:
[Conspiracist] QAnon really is a high-level intelligence official within the US Govt. [Response] But it could be anyone, US citizen or not .. you don't really know.
[Conspiracist]: You can't prove that he isn't.
 
This is a logical fallacy, in that it's impossible to prove a negative. It also falls under Hitchen's Razor.
 
It's also a disingenuous way to attempt to further an argument.
 
When you get to this point, it's best to stop, as this is when the bob-and-weave / deflection / shape-shifting / changing-of-the-subject usually begins.
We're Almost Done (In Conclusion: Follow the Trends)

Once you've done a quick historic retrospective on a news source and found it to be wholly, if not entirely, unreliable, don't dismiss it - it's still incredibly useful.

Whatever stories that source is pushing will be found elsewhere. For example, Infowars serves as a major provider of information for many media outlets, like One American News Network (OANN). Like poison slowly spreading through a body, you can follow the bias, and over time get a good idea of where the dangerous media echo chambers are.

The same goes for left-biased news sources. The Huffington Post is often cited by other news sources, which is a tacit admission of bias.

In summary:

Footnotes:
[0] Flat-Earth theory is a fascinating topic, in that it flies in the face of logic, and sense, and all of the things we've discovered about the Earth, other planets, the sun, and the galaxy over the past few hundred years.
 
To me, it's a Herculean display of willful ignorance.
 
And on the subject of denial: Incidentally, Here are Some of the Things You Need To Summarily Dismiss (and/or Ignore) To Believe The Earth Is Flat:
[1] Arguably, the root problem these days is that for any given idea, you can find a massive variance of relatively complex data, such that it would take an impossibly long time to sift through it all. I think of "anything medical" in this way. Any pharmaceutical seems hopelessly complicated (just read the data sheet for a given medication, these usually leave you with significantly more questions than answers).
 
TLDR: The world is pretty complicated.
[2] Well there you have it. Two sports metaphors in one post.
[3] This Article Won’t Change Your Mind
[4] Personally, the "Big Bang" theory has always been one of the most dissatisfying theories in science. It doesn't make sense to me in that, what happened prior to the big bang? As in, how did all of the energy & matter in the universe become concentrated into a single tiny sphere?
 
It makes a lot more sense to me to think of the universe as "always having existed", and to think of time as "beginningless time".
 
To think that the universe has been expanding for billions of years at a time (as it is now), and then begins collapsing for billions of years at a time (due to gravity perhaps), down into a single point, whereupon you have another Big Bang, and the cycle repeats*, ad infinitum.
 
* lather, rinse, repeat.
[5] Let me guess: controversy ensues. Mention 9/11 in any capacity: controversy ensues.
[6] Wikipedia: Motives for the September 11 attacks
[7] Why Nutrition Science is so Complicated
[8] Some pseudorandom Fox News factoids:
 
i. Fox News typically looks at the issues from a conservative perspective.
 
ii. In October 2018, Fox News added to their terms of use that they are an entertainment company.
 
iii. When it comes to sourcing, they typically utilize pro-Trump pundits such as Rush Limbaugh, who has an abysmal record with fact-checkers and credible sources such as the Wall Street Journal.
 
iv. FNC has also been deemed the least accurate cable news source, according to Politifact.
[9] Fox News won a court case by 'persuasively' arguing that no 'reasonable viewer' takes Tucker Carlson seriously. The network asked a judge to dismiss the case, arguing that "Carlson's statements were not statements of fact and that she failed adequately to allege actual malice." Source. You Literally Can't Believe The Facts Tucker Carlson Tells You. So Say Fox's Lawyers
[10] InfoWars' Alex Jones Is a 'Performance Artist', His Lawyer Says in Divorce Hearing
[11] (See Footnote #9). You Literally Can't Believe The Facts Tucker Carlson Tells You. So Say Fox's Lawyers