Truth decay has become a major problem in today’s world. In this time of rampant conspiracies, info wars, and social media manipulation, the survival of our democracy depends on not getting mired in the confusion.
The question of how we know things is more important than ever, and perhaps, more difficult than ever. Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we know things. What can it teach us?
One aspect of knowing is whether our knowledge is firsthand or not. Another is whether we have certainty, or if not, what level of confidence we can have.
Our firsthand knowledge is based on what we experience with our senses and what we can know by reason in our minds. Things we experience personally we know with virtual certainty. Things that we infer or deduce through careful reasoning we also know with virtual certainty.
As we move away from firsthand experience and reasoning, the possibly of certainty gets harder. The English philosopher John Locke tells us that we can not know these things with certainty but have to settle for levels of confidence in what we learn secondhand. He gives a useful set of criteria for setting that level of confidence in information we receive from others, which he calls testimony.
1) The number of witnesses. 2) Their integrity. 3) Their skill. 4) Their purpose in supplying their report. 5) The internal consistency of what is conveyed. 6) The circumstances of it being conveyed. 7) Whether there is contrary testimony.
This list can serve as a good starting point to assess how much confidence we should have in what we get from our news sources, and how to fact check a news item.
1. Number of sources — Are there multiple sources for a story? If you can only find one, that’s a red flag.
Many years ago, a German professor colleague of mine told me: “Every morning I read three newspapers — one in German, one in English, and one in Chinese. They all lie about some things, but by reading all three, I can get a good approximation of the truth.”
However, this can sometimes be a trap. We often see an echo chamber of strongly related sources propagating a single original source. What we really need is multiple independent sources.
2. Integrity — Does the source(s) have a well-earned history and reputation for providing accurate information? Do they correct their mistakes in a timely and appropriate way?
Everyone makes mistakes occasionally; being careful to not make too many mistakes is part of integrity. This is an area of some disappointment for me in today’s media market, where economic pressure and the tyranny of timeliness for online reporting has led to much regrettable sloppiness in reporting.
3. Skill — Some sources are just more competent than others. By training, talent, and experience, some reporters are more likely to report, as Carl Bernstein says, “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
This can be tricky, because many of the same skills that make for a good reporter or commentator also make for a good propagandist, and it can be hard to tell the difference. The relevant skills are, first and foremost, the ability to clearly communicate the facts and their relevance.
4. Purpose — Here’s where we really have serious problems today. It’s often called bias, and it definitely exists. Fox News is admittedly biased toward conservatism, and effectively toward the GOP. CNN and MSNBC are, at this time, effectively biased toward liberalism and the Democratic agenda. These biases and others must be considered in assessing the truth and validity from such sources.
On the other hand, one of the standard tricks of a propaganda agent is to claim the mantle of truth for itself and vilify almost all others (such as the mainstream media) as biased.
Individual reporters will certainly have their personal biases, but if they perform in a professional manner, they will report objectively. Frequent name-calling, repeating insults and slurs, mocking, and ad-hominem attacks and insinuations are a give-a-way of extreme, disqualifying bias.
5. Internal consistency — Sometimes a headline will make a claim, but the story doesn’t back up the headline or may even refute it. Sometimes a claim is made, and later statements contradict that claim. Sometimes our common sense tells us that one part of the story can’t be true if other parts are.
6. Circumstances of conveying of information — we are now in deep water here. Today it is possible, by means of artificial intelligence, to generate “deep fakes” — artificially created high quality videos of people seeming to say things that they never said. Selective and misleading editing of text, audio, and video is likewise out there. Anyone employing these tactics should be exposed and condemned for a serious lack of integrity.
7. Contrary reporting — To fact-check a claim made in one report, I often search for contradictory claims. If such exist, they raise doubt about the original claim.
At that point, the previous six points come into play in relation to this contradictory report.
It’s not easy to be sure of what we know. But these are a few tests we can use to critically analyze the information we receive and to raise our confidence that we are accurately informed. Thank you John Locke.
John Sigle, a Carlisle resident, was a visiting professor at Dickinson College from 2012-14 and an adjunct professor this past spring.