How to Build Your OWN Opinions
An embarrassment of (dubious) choices
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
- Robert J. Hanlon
Just the facts, ma'am
Nowadays, every enemy of the West uses dezinformatsiya against you. Not only that, they use it against each other. Even our friends, even the West itself uses dezinformatsiya to cajole and persuade you. The CIA tells you to STOP. THINK. LOOK AROUND... but how?
I’ve learned a lot from writing this article. It made me realize that my method is flawed, as it should be (I'm only human), that searching for the truth is an arduous, never ending, hit-and-miss process, and that we should know what pitfalls await us on this quest, and how to embrace them.
First, the Internet's not going to change. That's a given. You have to change. And you'll NEVER be as advanced as the providers of lies, so you'll never have any opportunity to rest on your laurels. This is a forever fight, and you're ultimately responsible for what inhabits your head and guides your thoughts, actions and allegiances. Fact checking a lie takes longer than throwing out this same lie. Most lies try to provoke outrage, so if fact checking lags behind, outrage wins. Every time. And guess who lies the most...
Those who are responsible for the contents of social media might be working to stop the worse disseminators of lies, but rest assured that all sorts of dog doody will still find its way on there to keep on clogging your synapses as soon as you get online, overwhelming, transforming or hiding whatever is true. This goes for the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and will probably be true for whatever they come up with next.
You could do worse than read this, straight from the horse’s mouth, if you’re the reading kind. If not… read on?
Just a thought...
There is a good reason why we begin this article with this section about critical thinking. It's because it's the principal objective and the ultimate reason for writing it. From the next section, “Be a skeptic” on down, those are just travel advisories on your way to becoming more aware of all that dezinformatsiya that's being dumped on us, every day and in every way.
Critical thinking is what they mean when they say “elite”. Nowadays, to be a reasonable member of the human race, one must now learn thinking skills that only the super-educated were once reputed to possess (accent here on 'reputed'). But that was a century ago...
Critical thinking is a voyage of the mind, a voyage of the self. Wikipedia tells us that it's
“self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking.” One must treat an idea, a suggestion, just about anything you hear or read, like an archaeologist looks at an artifact he just dug up.
Here is a list of the questions that you must ask yourself when analyzing any bit of information. Remember the five journalistic questions : Who, What, When, Where, Why (some add How)? If the following, culled from an excellent article at the website Skills You Need sound a bit like these, it's because they are!
Did that person speak from authority? Knowledge. Did that person have an agenda?
What exactly did they say? Was it fact or opinion?
Was it during a speech in front of one hundred persons or was it said in a confidential manner?
Did something happen to provoke that person to say this?
What was the occasion. Did they explain how they came to this conclusion? What was their intent?
How (did they say it)?
Now's the time for a not-so-stupid question
What is truth?
Extremely simply put, truth is what corresponds with fact or reality.
Truth can come in many forms. It can be subjective or objective, relative or absolute. One thing is certain : a lot of people don't want to accept as true something they don't already believe, as lies are sometimes seen as somewhat more dependable, relatable and easier to defend.
Be a skeptic
“If it feels too good to be true, maybe it is, and maybe look into it...”
- John Iaderola, The Damage Report
A few years back, this writer went to Bosnia on his first intercontinental flight ever. After crossing the Atlantic, the plane I was in landed at Malpensa, the main international airport outside Milan, Italy. Upon landing and walking around the terminal, the first thought in my mind was “It's really true! Europe really exists!” I had crossed the Atlantic on a 777, fully awake, looking out the port all the way, and seen with my own eyes that there really was an European continent, fat Italian public telephones and all!
“It's really true! Europe really DOES exist!”
Did I say that I'm a skeptic?
I'm a skeptic.
I hate advertising, especially the kind that moves, that gives me motion sickness. I have three different ad blockers working on my browser. That's not because I think they make me advertising-proof. It's because I'm advertising averse. If something is recommended to me by an advertisement I can't avoid, I cross this thing off my buying list entirely and forever. I prefer to do my own research, thank you very much. I hate advertising.
Learn to be a skeptic
But that doesn't mean that one must systematically doubt everything! What is commonly called a healthy dose of skepticism means an ideal point of balance, difficult to attain, but necessary.
Here's a good example from the world of sports. There was a time when referees were given godlike powers. What they said, stood. But they were only human and when they made errors, the referee’s judgment stood. This and other, more important factors are a good metaphor for what led to a growing culture of refusal of authority. Nowadays, even with the added certainty of instant replay, most players feels that he, and only he (or maybe his whole team), is being harassed by the referee, or that the referee's been bought, or that the referee's a blind idiot, or both, or all three. Journalist Michael Lewis, in the episode “Ref, You Suck!” of his excellent podcast “Against The Rules”, takes us on a tour of the multiple facets of this problem.
So! How do you attain this ideal point of balance?
Sources, sources sources!
Remember when it was expected of a politician that he be a man of substance and gravitas, speaking with authority on the subjects he knows about and willing to listen to experts on those he didn't know, even if he sometimes lacked objectivity or stretched the truth a little? Nowadays, even in our democracies, just about any clown can attain the highest rungs of power, lie his head off and carry out an agenda that is absolutely contrary to the will of the majority of the people. Because of this, it's now imperative that we look back to find some guidance in the minefield between truth and belief.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
- Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Thus spake a man who was a sociologist, an ambassador, a presidential adviser, a senator and an American original. He was human, thus because of this one might argue that he wasn't always right or exactly, scrupulously truthful, but you have a better chance of finding out what's true by limiting your opinion-forging activities to reliable, knowledgeable sources.
The same goes for scientific evidence.
One scientist tells you that vaccination gives infants autism and a smorgasbord of other ailments including gastrointestinal disease and then tries to prove it with deliberately falsified research papers (that still made it into The Lancet !). In reaction, the rest of the scientific world denounced it as pure bunk, proved their point and had him stripped of his license.
Maybe, just maybe there was no worldwide medical conspiracy against him and he just really pushed false information. Measles, a disease once thought to be completely eradicated, now kills thousands of people worldwide each and every year..
At least he has an ex-Playboy bunny on his side...
But back to sources. They come in all colors, sizes, shapes and persuasions.
William F. Buckley jr. was a conservative Republican, born rich, who founded the National Review. Once this writer got over Buckley's snobbish-sounding Mid-Atlantic accent, though he rarely if ever agreed with him, he always found food for thought in his opinions because Buckley was honest and believed in what he said.
Likewise, George Macaulay Trevelyan was a British historian I particularly like. He was opinionated and partisan in his writings, but at least he always managed to tell you that he was and where his biases were. This warning added a whole new dimension to his writings.
Katie Bouman has been credited with devising a way to take a photograph of a black hole by using all the space photography resources on earth at the same time. She was trolled almost out of existence. Most trolls were arguing (!) that she got the credit because she's a woman.
Please be aware that we're all idiots in our own way. A big part of critical thinking is to be aware, to be acquainted with the limits of your own reasoning power.
And a further warning, this time about home-grown dezinformatsiya. The CIA tells us to use our heads to resist confirmation bias because it's in our nature to look for information that reinforces our preconceived perceptions of the world. So be acquainted with and attentive to your own thinking patterns, motivations and biases. Try to think independently and try to assess information with rational detachment. At least try. The CIA even adds that there's no app for that, although some might try to disprove this.
“Journalism is the first rough draft of history.”
- Possibly Philip L. Graham
Newspapers can be classified into some few categories. Take a good long look at this graph :
I was happy to see that almost every source that I know was about where I'd have classified them, except for Alternet. I gave Alternet a bit more credit than that. They did recently seem to have cleaned up their act, although I still find them to be very biased, but factual. And its writers often come up with brilliant ideas.
The Columbia School of Journalism's Review
Here's an example of their denunciation of fake news, straight from the Macedonian horse's mouth. Here's an excerpt :
“He pulled out the guy’s business card: Mirko Ceselkoski, then bold text: 'THE MAN WHO HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN US ELECTIONS.' - There was a caveat in smaller letters: '(me and my students from Veles).'
Then, in an interview with Ceselkoski, the reporter asked which were the countries he had done business with:
'He refused to disclose any of the countries, so I asked if any of them were known candidates. He says big enough to never communicate with him directly. 'They don’t want to be brought in a situation where…' he stopped and looked for a way to measure his words. 'They use a middleman.'”
The reporter then asked if a politician would deliberately spread untruths :
“I questioned whether any candidate would directly spread misinformation to their potential voters. 'Not necessarily fake,' Ceselkoski says. 'You’ll do real official marketing and when you combine several things, some untrue, everything else completely true, it can work.'”
Believe me, The Columbia School of Journalism doesn't mess around...
Many are those who will warn you away from Wikipedia. I'm not one of them. It's true that its open, collaborative nature makes it possible for just about any idiot to stick whatever he wants in there. But this writer, as a registered user, sometimes edits pages in Wikipedia when he finds errors, or reports vandalism when he happen upon it, and a whole LOT of people do this, keeping Wikipedia not only extremely up-to-date, but mostly error-or-vandalism free.
It's really a permanent and free encyclopedia. I love it, and I have (guarded, as with everything else) faith in it.
Snopes.com, PolitiFact.com, Factcheck.org
PolitiFact and Factcheck are both nonprofit organizations while Snopes is the oldest in the fact checking business. Snopes asks for donations and derives most of its revenue from advertising. David Mikkelson, co-founder of the site, was quoted thusly : “... the site receives more complaints of liberal bias than conservative bias, but added that the same debunking standards are applied to all political urban legends.”
Also, keep in mind that The Onion is a parody website, admittedly a very good one. We often see some news piece about an extremely serious outfit, or even a government, that mistakenly used a reference to an article found in The Onion as a legit news source.
Beware the bullshit!
“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
- Harry Frankfurt, in On Bullshit
Keep in mind that a good lie almost always has a kernel of truth inside it, or at least the attribute that Stephen Colbert calls truthiness, and that even the worse, most truth-challenged pundits sometimes tell the truth. Sometimes.
Bullshit, however, has no relationship with reality and comes in all sizes.
There are websites, some very beautiful and professionally designed, dedicated to giving you only one side of the story... their side. Conversely, a website that looks almost like a 1995 BBS page might contain valuable, verifiable information.
Caveat emptor : be careful...
An oil company that seeks to convince you that, say, carbon monoxide is good for you to breathe will not skimp on the web design. It might even stick a chart or two in there and even use a font that their focus groups might have qualified as looking 'official' or 'trustworthy'. You can also bet your bottom dollar that whatever logo might be at the top of the page will be pleasant looking and professionally designed to inspire confidence.
THAT is bullshit.
Graphics, charts and such are a good way to visually convey information in a nutshell. Even fact checking websites sometimes use charts. But they can be deceitful when used by the bad guys. Some disingenuous people will stick a made-up, official looking chart in there that will support whatever they want you to believe that has nothing to do with real-world statistics or objective reality. And some readers will even instantly take whatever that page says seriously, just because there's a chart in it.
One is left wondering if just any old, unrelated chart might do...
Professional photography, references and citations and an absence of typos might also help to convey truthiness, but might contain only lies.
John Oliver made this kind of thing part of his comedy when he talks about a specific country on his show. A graphic illustrating that country's place on the map will appear over his right shoulder, and then John will reveal that this wasn't that country at all.
And this writer's not flawless either! Heck, no! He's in a never ending fight with his own confirmation bias, and his preferred, most trusted journalistic source, the New York Times, isn't flawless either. There's even a Wikipedia page dedicated to its various controversies.
But at least they try. Hard.
Some of the New York Times' articles were real doozers and one reporter, who eventually fired himself, actually made up most of his stories from whole cloth. Better late than never, the NYT changed its system and hired a fact checker in mid-2017.
In a case of fact checking in reverse, a new American ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote to Der Spiegel and tried to pass this journalism scandal off as an expression of anti-Trump, anti-American propaganda. The magazine properly rebuked him. On January eleventh 2019, Der Spiegel published an extensively researched and very unflattering article about Grenell exposing his association with AfD, a right-wing, far-right German political party.
Grenell is a Fox News contributor and was named ambassador by, who else, Trump.
Misinformation, disinformation, hate speech and propaganda, what's the diff?
Misinformation is information that is wrong, or skewed in some way, but is NOT intentionally misleading or false.
Let's say a South American native says that he was simply walking down a road through the jungle and suddenly government forces hidden in the thick foliage began taking potshots at him.
How did he know for sure that they were government forces if they were hidden?
Well, he might know stuff that we don't, such as that government forces regularly do this kind of thing in his neck of the woods, and he naturally assumed they were part of those government forces.
Whatever the nature of that first report, one suspects that there is something to learn from this “government forces regularly do this in his neck of the woods?" and that it might be worth digging deeper. That's a very real part of what journalism is all about, but it can work either for, or against, the truth.
As the CIA said : STOP. THINK. LOOK AROUND.
The upshot is that, all in all, when recognized for what it is, misinformation can sometimes still be useful.
Disinformation, hate speech and propaganda
This is what the dog doody that clogs the Internet is made from. It stems from diseased minds and hearts, usually inhabited by malicious intent, and its detection is what most of this article is about, in essence.
Some ordinary people are suffering and have adopted extreme means to be heard. This is true, but not all-encompassingly true. Some have taken their pain and twisted it to their gain.
Search no further.
Just STOP. THINK. LOOK AROUND.
Become your own fact-checker
The American Press Institute tells us this about Politifact's fact-checking method, so here it is :
Is the claim literally true?
Is the claim open to interpretation? Is there another way to read the claim?
Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?
Did we check to see how we handled similar claims in the past?
If a person, a journalist, or a pretend journalist gives dubious sources for his information, or doesn't give any, you might be in trouble. If the newspaper or website doesn't offer retractions when they are needed, you really are in trouble, and should stay away.
If you don't fact check your info, you'll never have an inkling whether whatever informs your opinions is true or not. Even PolitiFacts sometimes struggles with this :
“Two or three times a year, PolitiFact learns new information that causes it to significantly change its rating.”
- Liz Spayd, in The New York Times
On the Internet, lateral browsing is a good habit to acquire. If you find an assertion that might be dubious, open a new window and Google it, Bing it, or whatever is your preferred search engine. Then open your search engine's results in subsequent windows to read different opinions on the subject with an eye on the Trustworthy Sources chart at the beginning of this article. There also is this neat Firefox add-on called Reverse image that allows you to right-click on an image (even in Youtube!) and find it with Google Images, Bing, Yandex, Baidu and TinEye. Another neat add-on allows me to highlight any word in a web page and right-click on it to instantly open its Wikipedia page in the next tab, if it has one.
More on the subject of fact-checking here.
And lastly, zombie claims
A main zombie claim is the much touted but never seen replacement for Obamacare that keeps coming back. That replacement for Obamacare can now be classified as vaporcare.
Economist and Nobel economy prize winner Paul Krugman often tells us that the trickle-down theory is bogus, a zombie claim. That theory has been disproved time and again but always manages to rise from the dead and dig its way to the surface in the mouths of some politicos; some sincere, some misguided, some lazy, some plainly rancid and evil. That's what he calls a zombie claim… as rancid and evil as a zombie.
This article has been whittled down from fifty-odd pages. It is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but we hope that it will serve as an appetizer about the processes we use to make up our minds.
Apply some of these tricks to your decision-making process. You might become a staunch capitalist, or a rock-ribbed conservative, but you will be a well informed conservative with whom one can have a conversation, not a drone who repeats everything that's been fed to him/her.
One could do worse than finish this exposé with a quotation from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard:
"The truth is always in the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because as a rule the minority is made up of those who actually have an opinion, while the strength of the majority is illusory, formed of that crowd which has no opinion — and which therefore the next moment (when it becomes clear that the minority is the stronger) adopts the latter's opinion, which now is in the majority, i.e. becomes rubbish by having the whole retinue and numerousness on its side, while the truth is again in a new minority."
- The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, 1850s
I don't know about you, but I find this very sobering...