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Identifying the Gold in Today’s Information Mine

Once upon a time we woke up, opened the door, and found the newspaper of our choice on the doorstep – or at a convenient newsstand. We returned home and either before dinner or going to bed, we turned on ABC, NBC, CBS – or maybe PBS. And we went to bed believing we were properly informed about the state of the nation and the world.

Some might say it was an illusion, but I would say it was a well-founded feeling because those entities had been in business for many decades. We felt we knew personally the writers we read and the presenters we saw. Beyond that, those people and news outlets had reputations. If they were guilty of distorting the news we would learn about it – from their competitors, or when they were fired. Yes, those violating the canons of journalism were dismissed. They had different perspectives, some more left, some more right, that is natural, but they were trained to be fair – although some correctly point out that there has been recent slippage.

We understood, however, that behind the face on the screen and the byline in the paper there was something You Tubers do not have: a veritable army of researchers, fact checkers, editors, and publishers anxious to protect the company’s reputation.

But things have changed. A combination of occasional reporter scandals trumpeted by rivals and politicians and an explosion of information instantaneously at our fingertips has made it hard to distinguish real and fake news.

What is at stake is nothing short of the survival of our democracy – our voice in the way we are governed. No commentator, ancient or modern, pro- or anti-democracy, let us forget that a well-informed electorate with critical thinking skills was necessary for democracy to function.

Those thinkers, some better or lesser known to us, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, John Stewart Mill, and the Founding Fathers of the United States had strong opinions on the topic. I will cite Thomas Jefferson for an example: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

They all believed the rights and gifts of citizenship are accompanied by responsibilities, like the duty to be well-informed.

But Huntley, Brinkley, and Cronkite are long gone. What can we do in the Internet era? It’s hard work and takes time – but it is the price of freedom and insuring citizens will have a say in how they are governed – democracies do die.

Here are some tips and guidelines.

Rule 1: Facebook posts and You Tube videos are not credible sources of news. They are the equivalent of what we used to hear from quirky cousins at family dinners and opinionated colleagues at the water cooler. Back then, we rolled our eyes and walked away – but today the words we see on a bluish-screen have a strange hold on some people.

But here is an important caveat: yes, there have been real conspiracies in the past that mainstream media have missed or covered up. You should have alternative sources of news, but you must put them to the test – and expose yourself to mainstream sources, yes, left and right, for perspective.

Rule 2: When you hear an outlandish claim, first speak to people you trust who are experts in the field – isn’t that what you do at work from 9-5? Would you ever base a report to your boss on a You Tube video – ever? You rely on the experts in the field when you make your important decisions at the office or at home – why not politics?

Rule 3: Look for evidence. Remember the maxim of astrophysicist Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Yes, there are conspiracies, but beware what I call paranoid conspiracy theories, the kind that says one person or group is responsible for all the evil in the world all the time.

Here is the toughest but most important piece of advice of all, because it might suggest always believing the establishment – which we must not do either.

Rule 4: If you do not find credible evidence, or if experts in the field that you trust tell you what you read or heard was ridiculous … even if it has some ring of truth, let it go!

When you build a world view that you begin to hold passionately, it is very hard to alter it even when confronted with facts and contradictions. That is human nature. So it is important to be careful about your world view.

To be sure, imagination is vital to our understanding of the world, but if it is not linked to serious fact gathering and logic – Socrates taught us we must constantly apply consistency-testing and work to avoid contradictions – it is mere fantasy.

These days, too many people’s political views are based on sheer fantasy: what they saw, heard, or read painted a clear and bright picture in their minds – but it could be totally false.

And there are in the world individuals and groups – like Putin’s agents – who work very hard and are very good at painting those pictures.

I wish to also share a formula that has served me well through the years:  When assessing a situation, 1) identify everything in the realm of possibility, 2) assign probabilities to each element. Note, however, that when the probabilities are low, if they are potentially catastrophic, they must be taken seriously.

But to assign the probabilities, you have to research with serious sources and check with experts.

Finally, while we must not be shy about arguing with our fellow citizens – based on facts and logic, with respect even in the heat of passion – at some point, end it. As the Greeks say “on a deaf man’s door you can knock forever,” and as another American revolutionary leader, Thomas Paine said: "to argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead."

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