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Friday, 15 September 2017

A Rousing Review

Welcome back. I hope that, like me, you’ve had a bit of a break from your regular routine. I also hope that, unlike me, you spent your time as productively as you had hoped. Oh well, it’s time to get back to the important business of tracking the truth—of finding ways to distinguish the gems from the junk in the heaps of information to which we’re daily exposed.
Two robots are looking down a road talking about resuming their search for truth.

One article I recently encountered highlighted how much more challenging it will soon become to identify what’s true. It was an article in Maclean’s1 that noted the tight relationship between truth and trust, and how the precipitous decline recently in people’s trust of the media and other institutions is affecting their ability to determine the truth. The article also noted how Adobe is working on software that can mimic people’s voices.2,3,4 Given samples of a person speaking, it will be able to realistically simulate that person saying something completely different. Imagine using the software to produce fake audio of a USA Secretary of Defense forcefully talking about an upcoming military strike. Now imagine using other emerging technologies that could produce corresponding video of the Secretary saying the words. That would be actual fake news of the very scary kind. As technology marches ahead, our challenge will be to become ever more skilled at peering through the information fog to see what’s truly real.

As a reminder of a couple of key terms, the definition of ‘truth’ I’m using as my guide is that a true statement is an assertion about something in the present or the past that is in accordance with reality. A related but different term is ‘belief’, which is something held as an opinion. Believing something is easy: You just do it. There are no rules about what you can believe. Knowing what is true is much harder: Knowing the truth is believing something that accurately reflects reality. Take a peek at my past posts if you’d like more of a refresher.5,6

In prior blog posts, we’ve uncovered a few techniques we can store in our mental toolkit to help our quest for the ever-elusive truth.

One technique is: Use a fact-checking service. If you want to check a claim, there are numerous websites available that might have already done the research for you.7 Of course, there are a couple of challenges with this approach. One is allocating the time to fact-check every piece of information you encounter. Another challenge is finding a fact-checking service whose research you can trust. You might recall that I collided head-on with that problem using Snopes.com as a research source for a previous post in this blog.8

That led to two other techniques: Check information against multiple sources and consider the trustworthiness of your source. Any one person, website, or other source of a ‘fact’ can be wrong, innocently or intentionally. Whenever you can, verify your information against other, ideally completely distinct, sources. In choosing your sources, do your best to ensure they can be trusted to provide you with accurate information. (Trust is a rather big topic that we’re going to explore more at a later time.) Of course, if fact-checking once is often impractical, doing it twice doesn’t make matters easier. The trick in both cases is to budget your fact-checking: Do it only when it’s particularly important that you have the actual facts. If your friend tells you last night’s billion-dollar lottery number and it matches your ticket, I strongly recommend you verify the number elsewhere once or twice before ordering that yacht you’ve been craving.

“Check multiple sources” is related to a more-general technique: Examine various kinds of evidence. That and another one, consider opposing points of view, came from examining how legal trials are conducted.9 Imagine how objective and analytical we’d be if we would frequently run trial-like questioning in our heads to assess truthfulness…
 
     Father: Why, dear teenage daughter, were you out so late last night?
     Daughter: Dad, I was home by 7:30.
     Father: Exactly, and what were you doing that kept you out so late?
     Daughter: Shopping for school supplies.
     Father: Seems unlikely. And what boy were you with?
     Daughter: I wasn’t with a boy.
     Father: Another dubious statement. Can you offer any evidence?
     2nd Daughter: Dad, she was shopping with me for school supplies, and you said we had to be back by 8:00.
     Father: Uh, this could be a conspiracy. What further evidence can you provide, dear 2nd teenage daughter?
     3rd Daughter: It’s true, Dad. They took me with them.
     Father: OK, that’s… good. Let that be a lesson to you all. Now, I can’t keep chatting. I’m sure I have important work to do somewhere.
 
Playing that ‘trial’ out silently in my head would have been much better for my objective-and-analytical father image. I suspect my real mistake was having three daughters—all smarter than me.

We’ve got two other techniques in our toolkit so far, both of which we gleaned from the legal system. One is: Be willing to revisit previous conclusions. How easily do any of us change our minds about what we think we know? Find someone who believes the 1969 moon landing was a hoax and try to change his/her mind. Conversely, try to change the mind of someone who believes it was real. Try having the same conversation with someone about the legitimacy of horoscopes or professional wrestling. Many, most, or perhaps nearly all people hold many beliefs very tightly, and it’s often possible to find others who believe the opposite just as firmly. Most of us feel it’s those others whose beliefs need revision, but could we rationally explain why we’re the ones who are right?

The final technique on our list so far is: Find and foster respectful environments. Imagine living in a family whose members all devoutly believe that a solar eclipse is a sign that the Sun God is angry with us. Imagine the challenge, as a member of that family, of trying to openly debate whether that’s true. A calm, respectful discussion among the family members might lead to some useful observations, research, and deductions that change some minds. A rancorous, disrespectful argument would likely lead nowhere. If we hope to discover the truth, it’s vital that we (and, ideally, those around us) carefully listen to and then thoughtfully consider others’ opinions, however much they seem contrary to our own.

That’s our current collection of techniques. Next time, we’ll resume adding to our toolkit.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017

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1 Scott Gilmore, “The decline of trust and truth.” Maclean’s, Sept 2017.
2 Scott Gilmore, “Fake news? You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Maclean’s, 8 Aug 2017 http://www.macleans.ca/opinion/fake-news-you-aint-seen-nothing-yet/, Accessed 22 Aug 17
3 “Adobe Voco ‘Photoshop-for-voice’ causes concern.” BBC News, 7 Nov 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-37899902, Accessed 22 Aug 17.
4 “#VoCo. Adobe MAX 2016 (Sneak Peeks) | Adobe Creative Cloud”, YouTube, 4 Nov 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3l4XLZ59iw, Accessed 22 Aug 17
5 Cal Brown, “Defining Truth.” Tracking Truth, 12 Mar 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/03/defining-truth.html
6 Cal Brown, “What is a Belief?” Tracking Truth, 27 Mar 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/03/what-is-belief.html
7 Cal Brown, “Myth-Busting Buddies.” Tracking Truth, 17 Apr 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/myth-busting-buddies.html
8 Cal Brown, “A Cautionary Tale.” Tracking Truth, 10 Apr 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/04/a-cautionary-tale.html
9 Cal Brown, “Legal Lessons.” Tracking Truth, 7 Mar 2017, http://www.trackingtruth.info/2017/05/legal-lessons.html

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