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The Tree of Knowledge

Elements of Truth

Michael Baumann lists eight essential questions for judging the reliability of information.

We live in times where a lie is halfway around the world before the truth gets halfway out of bed. From half-educated half-wits declaring themselves as experts in anything, to the sharpening and levelling of political information, to the smearing of opponents, to the latest rumours in a crisis, to the creation of alternative facts, to targeted disinformation campaigns, how do you know that what you are being told is true?

You don’t.

Birmingham Museums Trust via Unsplash

Almost nothing you know or believe about the world is based on your own experience. Almost everything you know or believe about the world you know on trust. This applies to both information regarding questions of fact and information regarding questions of causation. There is good reason for the motto of Britain’s Royal Society (of science): Nullius in verba: ‘Take no one’s word for it’. Rather, you yourself must assess the reliability of the information presented to you.

Here is a list of eight questions you should ask: four regarding the information source, and four regarding the information itself.

1. What is the quality of the information channel?

Did the information reach you through a peer-reviewed publication, a monograph by a professor, a textbook, an edited secondary publication, an encyclopaedia, a lecture, a presentation, a face-to-face conversation, a newspaper article, a TV broadcast, a blog, a YouTube video, or a social media post? You must gauge the quality of the information according to the quality of the information channel.

2. Who is the primary source of the information?

Is the primary source a specialist scientist, a generalist expert, a civil servant, a professional in the relevant field (an accountant, physician, banker, or lawyer), a journalist, a teacher – at a university, high school, or elementary school – a friend, a co-worker, a person ‘in-the-know’, a politician, a salesperson? Is the author of the information competent? What are her credentials? What is his record?

3. Is the primary source of the information independent?

Who is paying the primary source’s bills? Taxpayers, a newspaper, a television station, a business, a political party, or an interest group (for example, the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, the petroleum industry)? Follow the money.

4. What is the intent of the communication?

To encourage, to enlighten, to inform, to educate, to test, to self-aggrandize, to calm, to convince, to confuse, to mislead, to deceive, to enrage, to panic? Who benefits from the communication?

5. How was the knowledge obtained?

Through original research (for example, from a theory, or through laboratory experiments, or field studies), through records research (a literature review, an exploratory review, a comparison of texts, or a meta-analysis), from anecdotes, from hear-say, by guessing, as folk wisdom?

6. Does the information appear to be complete?

Is the information current? Has someone pre-selected the information for you? Have inconsistencies been addressed? Have alternative interpretations been explored?

7. Can the information be independently validated?

Was the communication peer reviewed? Are references cited and available? Are the research hypothesis, experimental design, data collection, and data analysis, described in enough detail that you could replicate the results, at least in principle?

8. Does the information appear to be unbiased?

Are the results statistically significant? Is the effect size statistically relevant? Are the logic of the argument and the conclusions valid?

Judging the reliability of information requires you to think, and thinking in general makes many people uncomfortable – though hopefully not you! In any case, it is your duty as a citizen to be well-informed.

Eight questions, four regarding the information source and four regarding the information itself, is an easy enough checklist to keep in mind.

© Dr Michael Baumann 2021

Michael Baumann lives and teaches in Vancouver. This article is an excerpt from his public service project The Elements of Truth, which can be found at ElementsofTruth.ca. It is a toolbox for the informed citizen.

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