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Sunday, 30 April 2017

Legal Truth

If we wanted to conduct a thorough survey of ideas regarding truth and the search for it, where should we look? Probably lots of places, but one comes to mind because, in some sense, it’s a system designed to discover and deal with the truth. It might be both interesting and useful to consider truth from the perspective of the legal system.
Two robots are discussing how truth is handled inside the legal system

Before I begin, I have to acknowledge that legal systems vary greatly around the world. Standard practice here in Canada is not the same as that in the United States and also differs from the legal system to be found, for example, in France. One interesting place to get a sense of the diversity is The World Factbook published by the CIA.1 Yes, it’s published by that CIA. Shouldn’t I be suspicious of anything it produces? Yes, I should, and I promise that I will be. However, in this case, it’s rather convenient that the CIA maintains an online encyclopedia full of information, and my intent in using it isn’t to make any extraordinarily important decisions. Some might even suggest that I could save a few keystrokes by simply talking into my smartphone to request the info—and that they (or their friends at the NSA) would probably be listening. [Insert emoji here with expression of sad resignation.] But that's enough paranoia—something possibly deserving a future discussion.

In the Factbook’s listing of legal systems used by various countries, a quick scan shows the use of “US common law”, “French civil law”, “Dutch civil code”, “English common law”, “Islamic law”, “Buddhist religious law”, and many more. There’s even information about the legal system in Antarctica. Clearly, I’m not going to embark on a discussion that covers such diversity. Instead, I’m going to limp along with information gleaned from a few written sources, a lifetime spent watching too many courtroom TV shows (in the hope that Perry Mason represents real life), and my vast experience with the Canadian legal system. [I think a winking emoji deserved to be inserted after “vast experience”.] All you under-sixties might have to consult Google for help with the Perry Mason reference.

So, where does truth actually fit into legal systems? One might think that discovering the truth is fundamental to determining guilt or innocence. Recall the oath that seems to be repeated so often in TV courtrooms: “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Sounds promising. However, without entirely abandoning the notion that the legal system is completely committed to the truth, we should probably realize that the idea might be a bit idealistic.

In Canada, as in many places in the world, criminal trials are designed to be adversarial. One side, typically on behalf of the government, is represented by a lawyer intent on proving the accused to be guilty. The accused person is represented by a defence lawyer whose job is to prove his or her innocence. In this system, it’s the responsibility of the lawyers to research, organize, and present the case for their sides. The judge’s role is to conduct the proceedings, and either the judge or a jury decides the outcome. In the USA, at least as represented by TV, the basic process is very similar. However, elsewhere it can be different. For example, France uses an inquisitorial system.2 In that system, “the presiding judge is not a passive recipient of information. Rather, the presiding judge is primarily responsible for supervising the gathering of the evidence necessary to resolve the case. He or she actively steers the search for evidence and questions the witnesses, including the respondent or defendant. Attorneys play a more passive role, suggesting routes of inquiry for the presiding judge and following the judge's questioning with questioning of their own.”3

The intent of both adversarial and inquisitorial approaches, one hopes, is to find the truth and, based on that, guilt or innocence. However, that’s not necessarily the case, at least for participants in an adversarial system. In The Trial Lawyer’s Art,4 the author notes how “the best trial lawyers throw themselves into their characters. So ready are they to don the mask that they can fight tooth and nail… So committed are they to win that they give their all to the fray…” However, as he notes about one sample defence lawyer, he “loved the truth. But he deceived juries… he readily used his special knowledge to persuade jurors that black was white, the guilty innocent.”

Oops. However well intentioned we believe a trial system to be, we might need to keep in mind that the participants aren’t necessarily focused on finding the truth—they might just be focused on winning. Of course, Perry Mason was clearly an exception. Curiously though, as my keen memory assures me, he was faithfully committed to the truth and yet always seemed to win the trials. A nice gig, if you can get it.

Our reason for looking at the legal system is to help us uncover useful techniques for finding the truth. We rely on the courts to administer justice, and we hope they base their decisions on an understanding of what truly happened. It seems like an environment potentially rich in ideas we could use. Our challenge will be to peek inside the system, to identify the techniques, and then to find ways to apply them to our everyday lives.

We’ll start peeking next time.
 
© Calvin J. Brown 2017
 
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1 “Field Listing – Legal System.” The World Factbook, CIA, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2100.html. Accessed 21 Mar 2017.
2 “The French legal system.” About-France.com, http://about-france.com/french-legal-system.htm. Accessed 24 Mar 2017.
3 “Inquisitorial System.” The Free Dictionary, http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Inquisitorial+System. Accessed 24 Mar 2017.
4 Schrager, Sam. The Trial Lawyer's Art, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1999, pp. 174-175.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Myth-Busting Buddies

My last few articles proved to be a bit of a ride on the road to providing a few examples of phony Internet “facts.” I think it certainly accomplished what I intended, although in a way that was completely unintended.1 Having finished that bumpy journey relatively uninjured, let’s follow the topic a bit further. I suspect most people have encountered faulty Internet facts. Your own example might have arrived as a forwarded email from a friend, you might have seen it on your favourite information source (e.g. Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter), or you might have simply encountered it while browsing the Web. In any case, how can you know that what you read is true?

Two robots are wondering whether Facebook is real.

As we’re seeing, that’s actually a very big question, and I hope we’ll get better over time at fully answering it. For now, I’d like to extend one particular approach that proved central to this blog during the last couple of weeks: You could consider using a web service that helps you check facts.

Consider: A few months ago, I received an email containing an amusing story. It was about an attendant who collected parking fees at a lot outside England’s Bristol Zoo for 25 years. For all of those years, the zoo management believed the attendant worked for the city, and the city staff believed he worked for the zoo. One day, he failed to show up for work and, after some investigation, the officials discovered he worked for neither of them. A quick calculation estimated that he would have collected and kept about seven million dollars in fees over the years. It was assumed he had decided to retire and was living well in some distant, warm country.

When I read this, it gave me a good laugh. Having retired from my regular job a couple of years ago (to focus on writing), I was amused by (and possibly even a bit envious of) both the attendant’s ingenuity while working and his probable financial health in retirement. The story made enough of an impression on me that I might have even re-told it in conversation at a later time, except that I was slightly suspicious. A couple of days later, I decided to check on the story and, as you’ve probably guessed, discovered it was a hoax. It wasn’t even a new one: As I learned from Snopes.com, it was false and had been around for several years.2 (And yes, given the events of the past couple of weeks,3 I’ve since verified that it was false from other sources.4,5)

There are a number of questions this raised for me. Why did I initially believe it? Did I accept it as consistent with my knowledge of the world and it was, therefore (for me), perfectly plausible? Was I so impressed with the caper and its reward that I wanted it to be true and so chose to not doubt it? Then, sadly, there’s the lingering: If I was impressed with a criminal act, what does that say about my own moral character? (But in my defence, we are talking about seven million dollars!) Maybe I simply accepted the story because it had been presented to me (albeit via email) as a statement of fact? And also sadly, if this latter one is true, what does that say about my general ability to identify the truth?

Lots of questions to consider, all because of a single email making a claim about a distant stranger. For now, however, I’d just like to highlight the type of service that allowed me to get back on a fact-oriented track.

I used Snopes.com to find out if the claim was true. Prior to events of the past couple of weeks, Snopes.com (http://www.snopes.com/) tended to be my go-to service whenever I was wondering about something, but there are lots of others like it. Here are a few:


Perhaps fuelled by the recent U.S. election and the emergence of "fake news", "alternative facts", "post-truth", and "truthiness", there seems to have been an increased interest in web-based ways of validating information. Another interesting development is the emergence of real-time fact-checking. As an example, NPR (National Public Radio) in the U.S. provided near-real-time fact-checking of the first 2016 presidential debate. Their approach was to have a group of 30 newsroom staffers quickly checking and then annotating a transcript of what was being said.6 A different approach to real-time is that taken by extensions to Web browsers. The idea is that they monitor what you’re browsing (usually from particular sites) and offer information about its validity. Here are articles about a few:


In addition to the emergence (or at least our newfound awareness) of services like fact-checking websites, some major companies have committed to helping combat the problem. As reported by the New York Times on April 6th, “Facebook is launching a resource to help you spot false news and misleading information that spreads on its service … The new feature is part of a broader plan by Facebook to clamp down false news stories, which gained outsized attention in the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”7 On April 7th, CNBC reported that “Google launched a fact checking tool in its search and news results on Friday, as the technology giant looks to fight back against the spread of fake news, amid mounting pressure on internet firms to tackle such content.”8

Although I can’t attest to the effectiveness of these various services directly, it’s nonetheless encouraging to see such responses to the large and growing problem of nonsense on the Web. I’m hopeful the trend toward improved technological assistance in finding the truth continues. However, before declaring ourselves done for today, there’s an important question we need to ask ourselves: When someone or something flags information from the Web as being fake, why should we believe the flagger any more than the original source of information? And here’s another one: Since it’s not practical to use these tools to fact-check everything we encounter on the Internet, what other, more efficient ways are there for separating the junk from the jewels?

There’s certainly much more to consider.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017
 
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1 “A Cautionary Tale.” Tracking Truth, 10 Apr 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/a-cautionary-tale.html.
2 “A Well-Planned Retirement.” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/crime/clever/carpark.asp . Accessed 6 Feb 2017.
3 “A Cautionary Tale.” Tracking Truth, 10 Apr 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/a-cautionary-tale.html.
4 “The Bristol Zoo Parking Attendant.” ThoughtCo. 6 Jan 2017,  https://www.thoughtco.com/the-bristol-zoo-parking-attendant-3299515.  Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
5 “Parking attendant at British zoo takes off with the funds.” TruthOrFiction.com, 17 Jun 2009, https://www.truthorfiction.com/bristol-zoo-carpark/. Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
6 “Behind The Scenes: NPR Fact Checks First Debate in Near Real Time.” NPR, NPR ombudsman with Elizabeth Jensen, 3 Oct 2016,  http://www.npr.org/sections/ombudsman/2016/09/27/495654679/behind-the-scenes-npr-fact-checks-first-debate-in-near-real-time . Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
7 “Facebook Launches Resource to Help Spot Misleading News.” The New York Times, 6 Apr 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/04/06/technology/ap-us-tec-facebook-false-news.html?_r=0, Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
8 “Google expands ‘Fact Check’ tool to flag up fake news in search results.” CNBC, 7 Apr 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/07/google-fake-news-fact-check.html. Accessed 14 Apr 2017.

Monday, 10 April 2017

A Cautionary Tale

If you’ve seen my articles from last week, you’ll know it’s been an interesting few days. You might also appreciate the remarkable example I managed to discover (or some might say stumble into) to illustrate the perils of relying on Internet information.
Two robots are looking at the moon and discussing the trustworthiness of sources.

In today’s world, it seems wise to be ever vigilant about whether information you obtain from the Internet is true. I suspect there are few Internet users who haven’t encountered fraudulent “facts”, although many might not have known it. Even so, my realization that last week’s article contained faulty information was a jolt. If you missed my original Monday article and its hastily revised Tuesday version1 followed by the warning I posted later on Tuesday,2 here’s a quick synopsis:

In last Monday’s article, I included a few examples to illustrate my point. I posed some questions:

  1. Did the Mississippi state legislature remove fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of public secondary schools?
  2. Was the horse in the Mister Ed 60’s TV show actually a horse?
  3. Do lemmings commit mass suicide, as originally shown in a 1958 Disney documentary?

I provided the answers by using information from Snopes.com, a fact-checking website I’ve used many times in the past and have come to rely on as a quick, convenient place for debunking rumours and misinformation. The jolt I received was that, in two of these cases, my reliance on them was a mistake. Here are the answers to the questions:

  1. The original Snopes.com article I used said the answer was “yes”—Mississippi removed fractions and decimal points from the curriculum.3 The real answer appears to be that this is false—the truth is that Mississippi DID NOT remove fractions and decimal points from the curriculum. I’ll explain later.
  2. Another Snopes.com article I used said “no”—that instead of a horse, a better-behaved zebra with disguised stripes had been used as Mr. Ed.4 The real answer appears to be that this is true—they DID use a horse for Mr. Ed and the zebra story was nonsense. More later.
  3. One more Snopes.com article said it was false that lemmings commit mass suicide as portrayed by Disney.5 That still appears to be correct and corresponds to information that I’ve believed to be true for years—the Disney story about lemming suicide was faked and false.

When I originally cited those articles to support my assertions, the information I was missing was one more Snopes.com article they had posted that debunked their own original claims.6 In it, Snopes.com declared that they wanted to teach people a lesson about relying on single sources for establishing what’s true. Their approach was to keep several articles on their site that intentionally provided wrong answers and to provide the real answer in a separate article that revealed the hoax. And I fell for it. [Insert three emoji faces here: one that has eyes downcast in embarrassment; another that’s glaring in anger; a third that’s looking thoughtful.]

So, I learned my lesson, although it wasn’t the one intended by Snopes.com. It wasn’t that checking multiple sources for facts is better than relying only on one—I already knew that, and I try to apply it depending on the quality of the source I’m using and the risk of my being wrong. The lesson I really learned is that Snopes.com isn’t the trustworthy source I thought it to be. I’ve always accepted that its authors’ research could be occasionally wrong—anyone’s can be. What I didn’t know previously was that its authors might intentionally provide incorrect answers. Now I know.

Oh, and by the way, here are a few more references about last week’s questions:

1. Google searching seems to show that the Mississippi “fractions” hoax was widely distributed and accepted, sometimes with Snopes.com being given as support. It’s a tough assertion to disprove (because where do you find good evidence that something didn’t happen?), but here are a few interesting links:
2. Here are a couple supporting that Mr. Ed was actually a horse:
3. And here are a couple of reports about Disney’s faked lemming-suicide footage:

One of the goals of this blog is to discover or derive techniques that can help us find the truth in our daily lives. Here are a couple that clearly warrant inclusion:

  1. Check information against multiple sources. Any single source can be accidentally or intentionally wrong. Of course, given the volume of information we receive every day, it’s not possible or practical to do this all of the time. We’ll need to consider some enhancements to this technique at a later time.
  2. Consider the trustworthiness of your source. Trust is fundamental to the way we conduct our lives and gather information. It’s a complex and interesting subject worthy of later discussion. For now, remember to be very careful about whom or what you trust. Remember as well that trust tends to be very hard to earn, but very easy to lose.

More next time about distinguishing diamonds from droppings in our digital world.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017

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1 “Digital Truth.” Tracking Truthhttp://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/digital-truth.html. Posted 3 April 2017. Revised 4 Apr 2017.
2 “Digital Deception.” Tracking Truthhttp://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/digital-deception.html. Posted 4 Apr 2017.
3 “Half Measures.” Snopes.comhttp://www.snopes.com/lost/fraction.asp . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
4 “Horse of a Different Color.” Snopes.comhttp://www.snopes.com/lost/mistered.asp . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
5 “Suicide Squad.” Snopes.comhttp://www.snopes.com/disney/films/lemmings.asp . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
6 “False Authority.” Snopes.comhttp://www.snopes.com/lost/false.asp. Accessed 4 Apr 2017.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Digital Deception

I've just had a close encounter the very educational kind that I need to tell you about.

In yesterday's article, I used material from Snopes.com to help make my points.1 For me, Snopes.com has been my reflexive, reliable, go-to site for quick debunking of information I suspect might be false. It appears they decided to teach folks like me a lesson. In another article, Snopes.com has debunked some of their own material, some of which I used.2 I'm still absorbing everything it implies, but I wanted to ensure you heard about this matter as quickly as possible.

I've updated yesterday's article to reflect this new information. Here's what the latter part of it now says:

As to the questions I posed at the beginning, according to Snopes.com (which some of you might have discovered by immorally—OK, maybe alertly—looking ahead at the final reference list):

[4 April 2017: As you read my original (3 April 2017) material below, do so with your extreme skeptic hat on. I'll explain later.]

  • It is true that, in 1999, the Mississippi state legislature did pass a bill eliminating fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of all public secondary schools in the state.[1] Even when I read the Snopes.com report, I still had trouble believing this wasn’t a hoax.
  • It is false that Mister Ed was a horse. The part in the TV show was played by a more co-operative zebra.[2] I’m personally shocked—I was a fan and, although I had skillfully deduced that the horse couldn’t actually talk, I never doubted that it was a horse. (FYI: I can still sing the show’s theme song, although my family might debate whether it qualifies as singing.)
  • And it is not true that lemmings commit mass suicide. The famous footage in the Disney documentary that showed them plunging en masse over a cliff into the sea was faked, and the idea that this nonetheless accurately reflected lemming behaviour was also incorrect.[3]

[4 April 2017: The day after I posted this article on 3 April 2017, a friend pointed me to an article, also in Snopes.com, that indicates that they perpetrated a hoax with some of the very articles I relied on them for.[4] There's a serious lesson to be learned here. I'm still researching and absorbing the information. More on the results next week.]

I'll reflect more on this in next week's article. The incident certainly highlights the extraordinary nature of the world we're living in.

© Calvin J. Brown

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1 "Digital Truth." Tracking Truth, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/digital-truth.html. Posted 3 April 2017, Revised 4 Apr 2017.
2 "False Authority." Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/lost/false.asp, Accessed 4 Apr 2017.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Digital Truth

Did the Mississippi state legislature remove fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of public secondary schools? Was the horse in the Mister Ed 60’s TV show actually a horse? Do lemmings commit mass suicide, as originally shown in a 1958 Disney documentary?

I’ll come back to these pressing questions later.

Two robots discuss how hard it is to determine the truth.

As this blog progresses, I intend to cover a wide range of topics related to truth. Some of them might take us into subjects most have us haven’t thought much about before. Many of them might be exploring common subjects a bit more thoughtfully that usual. My hope is that all of them will be interesting and useful. Before wandering too far around that body of truth-related subjects, I’d like to discuss one that’s right at the heart of the matter, and that we should all be able to readily relate to: finding truth in a digital world.

For many people (and I presume that includes you since you’re reading this), a significant amount of the information we consume in our daily lives comes from the digital world. The TV we watch, the radio we listen to, the online news we read, the Tweets we browse, the Reddit posts we peruse, the email we scan, the Facebook news feed we keep up with—all are directly providing or depending on information from digital (i.e. modern electronic) sources.

Try to imagine life twenty thousand years ago: If your food supply was getting low, you went hunting for berries or game; if you were cold, you built a fire; if a stranger tried to steal your supplies, you chased him off with your club; if you didn’t have any of the necessary skills, your parents taught you. Your information and your decisions were probably quite dependent on what you were experiencing directly and on the people in your immediate surroundings.

Now imagine life a thousand years ago. Where did people get their daily information? Much of it was probably still from their direct, personal experiences: If dark clouds were overhead and you were getting wet—it was raining; if you could see dark clouds moving toward you, it was likely going to rain soon; if no one was buying the wool from your sheep, the economy was depressed; if someone was shooting arrows at you, you were being attacked. However, more of the information likely came to you indirectly and from a distance as well: A pair of migrant workers came through your town and said the sheep in the next county were dying of some mysterious illness; the king’s representative rode into town and posted new taxation laws in the town square.

Now think about today. Of course, we still acquire information from our direct, personal experiences. But how much do we now get from others. The massive volume of information we’re exposed to on a daily basis is huge (unless, of course, you’re off the grid on a vacation in Antarctica). But that’s not all that’s fundamentally changed. The information that we get is much more easily and anonymously manufactured and distributed. Over time, the balance of information we get from direct, personal experience and what we get from others about world affairs seems to have shifted dramatically toward the latter. Today we’re exposed to much more information about the world, and it doesn’t come to us from physical people moving at human-walking or horse-trotting speeds. Today’s information comes from anybody, anywhere and arrives at the speed of the Internet. We might hear of a banana crop failure in Latin America minutes after it’s forecast as a possibility. We might acquire a skill by watching an online video. We get our weather forecast from the TV, websites, and smartphone apps. We hear of the demise of a world leader as soon as anyone with a communication device learns about it.

The world used to be (or at least feel like) a simpler place, and it used to be possible to know or reasonably deduce who (oops: whom) the information was from. Perhaps, as a result, you were afforded a better (or at least much different) opportunity for assessing its validity. Today, the world seems much more complex, and knowing the source of information and assessing its truth is much harder. As you skim your favourite news feed in the upcoming days, it might be worth wondering which stories you should actually believe, and explicitly thinking about how you’re making those decisions.

As to the questions I posed at the beginning, according to Snopes.com (which some of you might have discovered by immorally—OK, maybe alertly—looking ahead at the final reference list):

[4 April 2017: As you read my original (3 April 2017) material below, do so with your extreme skeptic hat on. I'll explain later.]

  • It is true that, in 1999, the Mississippi state legislature did pass a bill eliminating fractions and decimal points from the mathematics curriculum of all public secondary schools in the state.1 Even when I read the Snopes.com report, I still had trouble believing this wasn’t a hoax.
  • It is false that Mister Ed was a horse. The part in the TV show was played by a more co-operative zebra.2 I’m personally shocked—I was a fan and, although I had skillfully deduced that the horse couldn’t actually talk, I never doubted that it was a horse. (FYI: I can still sing the show’s theme song, although my family might debate whether it qualifies as singing.)
  • And it is not true that lemmings commit mass suicide. The famous footage in the Disney documentary that showed them plunging en masse over a cliff into the sea was faked, and the idea that this nonetheless accurately reflected lemming behaviour was also incorrect.3

[4 April 2017: The day after I posted this article on 3 April 2017, a friend pointed me to an article, also in Snopes.com, that indicates that they perpetrated a hoax with some of the very articles I relied on them for.4 There's a serious lesson to be learned here. I'm still researching and absorbing the information. More on the results next week.]

Much more information about a much more complex world makes truthfulness much harder to assess—that’s our modern challenge. How can we begin to know which parts of our modern stream of information are true? That’s worthy of further thought. More on that next time.
 
© Calvin J. Brown 2017
 
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1 “Half Measures.” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/lost/fraction.asp . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
2 “Horse of a Different Color.” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/lost/mistered.asp . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
3 “Suicide Squad.” Snopes.com, http://www.snopes.com/disney/films/lemmings.asp . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
4 "False Authority." Snopes.comhttp://www.snopes.com/lost/false.asp, Accessed 4 Apr 2017.