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Sunday, 15 October 2017

Avoiding Fake News

For many months, a regular feature of American news has been accusations of ‘fake news’ directed at mainstream media organizations. For numerous people, including me, this has been a disturbing accusation. However, for our purpose, it does raise a useful question: How do journalists working for mainstream organizations guard against providing false information in their reports?

That integrity in reporting remains important to some was highlighted by the action taken by CNN a few months ago. “Three prominent journalists at CNN resigned … after the cable news network was forced to retract and apologize for a story on its website involving a close ally of President Trump.”1 Perhaps we shouldn’t be completely surprised. Some news organizations, upon discovering errors in their reporting, regularly admit to the errors—even tiny ones. The New York Times is an organization that puts its errors on public display on the Web on a daily basis.2 The Guardian is another, and it includes corrections for matters as trivial as an incorrect clue in a crossword puzzle.3 These organizations seem willing to acknowledge their errors, but how do they try to prevent them in the first place?

The American Press Association (APA) includes in its Principles of Journalism:4

  • “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”
  • “Its essence is discipline of verification”
  • “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover”

 The website of the American Press Institute (API), once deemed “the nation’s most venerable press-management and training organization”,5  provides a bit of insight into how some journalists are trained to guard against errors. They describe three core components of a “Discipline of Verification”:6

  1. Transparency directs journalists to provide information so readers can decide for themselves what to believe. It includes advice such as “Tell the audience who your sources are, how they are in a position to know something, and what their potential biases might be.”
  2. Humility says to “not print one iota beyond what you know”, and that journalists should always check out what they are unsure of.
  3. Originality, in part, says “the stuff that you know for yourself is better than the stuff someone else supposedly checked out.”

Imagine applying these standards to your Facebook or Twitter news feeds. How much of the information you see there was posted by others with principles like those of the APA and API in mind? How often have you followed such standards when you posted, liked, or re-tweeted something? Do you feel an obligation to the truth and always check out what you are unsure of? If the ‘news’ provided via tools like Facebook and Twitter is read and accepted as factual, think about how phenomenally powerful such tools can be (and clearly are) in spreading false information.

The Globe and Mail, a major Canadian newspaper, adds more specific advice on how to filter out news from dubious sources in the digital world.7

  • “Eliminate the usual suspects” suggests the obvious—if you learn something from an Internet source you have previously realized traffics in nonsense or unsubstantiated gossip, you should ignore it.
  • “Trust, but verify” advises that you be prepared to believe what you read if it’s from a source you trust, but that you check carefully you’re not being fooled. For example, they would prefer you not believe anything you see from a Twitter account named “@globeandmai1”. It might look like the Globe and Mail’s, but there’s something a bit off about that last character.
  • “The smell test” suggests that you carefully check any Internet source that’s new to you. Do a website’s main and ‘About’ pages look credible? Is an email message you’ve received coaxing you to follow a suspicious link?
  • “A second opinion” advises exactly that. If your news source seems legitimate, does the story it’s reporting fit with information from other (credible) sources?

From where I sit, it’s an easy choice: I much prefer to get my important news from sources that at least claim adherence to standards of honesty and integrity, like many of the traditional mainstream organizations. I’ll worry most about getting ‘fake news’ from all of the other sources.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017

1 Michael M. Grynbaum, “3 CNN Journalists Resign After Retracted Story on Trump Ally.” The New York Times, 26 June 2017,, Accessed 30 Aug 2017.
2 “Corrections.” The New York Times,, Accessed 30 Aug 2017.
3 “Corrections and clarifications.” The Guardian,, Accessed 30 Aug 2017.
4 “Principles of Journalism.” American Press Association,, Accessed 15 Oct 2017.
5 Paul Farhi, “American Press Institute to merge with NAA Foundation.” The Washington Post, 22 Mar 2012,, Accessed 15 Oct 2017.
6 “Journalism as a discipline of verification.” American Press Institute,, Accessed 30 Aug 2017.
7 “What is 'fake news,' and how can you spot it?” The Globe and Mail,, Accessed 30 Aug 2017.

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 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

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, Accessed 22 Aug 17
3 “Adobe Voco ‘Photoshop-for-voice’ causes concern.” BBC News, 7 Nov 2016,, Accessed 22 Aug 17.
4 “#VoCo. Adobe MAX 2016 (Sneak Peeks) | Adobe Creative Cloud”, YouTube, 4 Nov 2016,, Accessed 22 Aug 17
5 Cal Brown, “Defining Truth.” Tracking Truth, 12 Mar 2017,
6 Cal Brown, “What is a Belief?” Tracking Truth, 27 Mar 2017,
7 Cal Brown, “Myth-Busting Buddies.” Tracking Truth, 17 Apr 2017,
8 Cal Brown, “A Cautionary Tale.” Tracking Truth, 10 Apr 2017,
9 Cal Brown, “Legal Lessons.” Tracking Truth, 7 Mar 2017,

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Judging the Legal System

We saw in the last post that there are techniques apparent in the legal system that might be applicable to our own everyday use.1 A supportive environment, evidence, opposing viewpoints, and reconsidering a conclusion all seem to factor into how the court system tries to establish the truth and applies it to making decisions. It might be valuable to consider how well they work.

If you aspired to becoming a member of your country’s Olympic roller-skating team (and don’t worry, I think there’s still time—I believe it’s scheduled to be considered for inclusion as an official Olympic sport right after team juggling.) (Re-reading note: my sincere apologies for my sarcasm to all roller-skating and juggling lovers. My therapist would probably say I’m embittered by my complete failure at both activities. Hard to believe, I know, but just ask my kids.) (Re-re-reading note: I don’t actually have a therapist. Perhaps I should.) Let’s start over. In your pursuit of Olympic roller-skating fame, do you believe you’d fare better if you were surrounded by people who believed in your Olympic goal and encouraged you to pursue it? It’s easy to believe that as likely, if you consider the alternative: “Cal, give it up. You’re a loser and a danger to any kids skating near you!” And thus ended my roller-skating dreams. However, I can console myself that my misfortune has served to make an important point. It’s easy to imagine that pursing a goal or—as in our case—the truth is much more readily done if those around you are respectful and supportive. Alas, in my case, I can only dream of what roller fame I might have achieved.

If you felt something thump you on the head, you would wonder what had caused it. If you noticed that no one was near you, that you were sitting under an apple tree laden with ripe fruit, and that an apple had bounced off your shoulder and to the ground immediately after your thumping, then you might reasonably conclude that your head had been hit by a falling apple. Sherlock Holmes would be proud of your deductive skills. (But he might be appalled that this was the best example of a mystery I could come up with.) In determining that an apple was the probable culprit, you considered the evidence (i.e. sitting under an apple tree, ready-to-fall apples, an apple falling to the ground), and you formed your conclusion as to what was probably true. Considering evidence is something we do naturally and frequently as we pursue the truth daily, and something we shouldn’t be surprised to find used in trials in the legal system.

In trials, however, not all pieces of evidence are created equal. As one author puts it: “The basic rule of evidence is that all evidence must be relevant to the issues in the case … ‘Relevant’ in this context means tending to prove or disprove the fact that must be determined”.2 The author’s point: The fact that you were wearing your favourite sandals when your head was struck might not be relevant. Besides relevance, there’s another possibility: “Very often evidence is conflicting—a witness for the prosecution will say one thing and a witness for the accused will say the opposite.”3 The point here is that if, upon later examination by your CSI team, pieces of tree bark were found in your hair where an apple-juice stain would have been expected, you might have to think a bit more about what thumped you. All relevant evidence needs to be considered, including those pieces that seem to conflict. (And yes, I know my insightful little apple story is being stretched a bit far.)

In actual trials, the challenges regarding evidence can be numerous: Witnesses might lie or contradict themselves; eyewitness testimony can be unreliable for numerous reasons; who and how the evidence is handled (the “chain of custody”) can be problematic; expert witnesses might not be qualified or might provide testimony that’s confusing; evidence might be only circumstantial (e.g. seeing the defendant near where a shooting occurred, and not actually seeing the him/her commit the crime).4,5 There are even more challenges than these. However, the idea of using evidence still seems appropriate, perhaps even obvious, given our daily experiences. The consideration of it by the courts (and by all of us) for establishing the truth must be done carefully to avoid erroneous conclusions.

In thinking about courts’ use of opposing lawyers to pursue truth (and then guilt or innocence) in the adversarial system, it seems as if the technique should be effective. The structure ought to ensure a useful balance in the courts overall analysis of a case, shouldn’t it? Not everyone sees it that way. In William Pizzi’s book Trials without Truth,6 he notes that, in the United States, problems arise from making the system feel like a two-sided battle. In pursuit of victory, both sides can aggressively apply to have evidence excluded from trials on the basis of technicalities, without due regard for how that injures the objective pursuit of truth. To guard against the narrowness of a two-sided battle, he points out that “In some European countries, [the courtroom] is set up with three or four tables… so that there is room for others… to participate in the trial. In some countries, an attorney for the victim is permitted to participate…on an equal basis with the prosecutor and the defense attorney.” Pizzi’s point: the competition of two opposing lawyers might override the objective pursuit of truth.

In the court system, how effective is the process for re-considering outcomes? That’s a tricky question to answer. One measure would be to look at how frequently an Appeals Court overturns a previous decision. A hint comes from a study of the results of Canada’s Supreme Court as it considered cases presented to it from lower courts during 2000-2007.7 The study shows that there were 6.5 reversals per thousand cases. That’s a rather small fraction. One also must consider that reversals can occur because of a disagreement in the interpretation of the law, and not necessarily because of an error in establishing the facts in the case. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to conclude from this statistic whether having an appeal process adds much to ensuring the truth is eventually correctly discovered. However, one could conclude that the very existence of Appeal courts suggests that governments have recognized that errors can be made and decisions should sometimes be reconsidered. That’s a worthy thought.

A recent Special Edition of Time entitled “Innocent: The Fight Against Wrongful Convictions” provides another interesting perspective.8 Its articles offer a reminder that trials have existed in (what is now) the United States for centuries, and that they included the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93. Twenty people were executed as a result of those trials and, in some, the convictions for practising witchcraft were partly due to witnesses testifying about their communication with ghosts. Thankfully, standards for what’s admissible as evidence seem to have changed over the centuries.

Regarding more modern times, the Time articles point out how recent DNA tests have proven the innocence of many previously convicted people. Analysis has shown their original convictions were because “witnesses got things wrong. Jailhouse snitches lied. Police, prosecutors, and rogue laboratories cut corners. Defense lawyers coasted through their work.” and “People confessed to crimes they had not committed.” This 2017 Time publication says that, since 1989 in the USA, about two thousand people have had their convictions overturned, there are about three more added to that every week, and “these cases likely represent a small fraction of all innocent prisoners”.

Perhaps the bottom line is that it’s challenging to be confident that the techniques used in the legal system are completely effective for seeking the truth. Pursuing the truth in a calm, supportive environment sounds like it has good possibilities. Being open to reconsidering previous decisions also sounds like a winner. The effectiveness of using opposing lawyers in the adversarial system seems problematic because of the possibility that winning—not finding the truth—could be paramount. In general, though, we should keep in mind the principle that it’s valuable to consider different points of view. And lastly, the use of evidence to establish the truth seems solid (if it’s used carefully) in that it corresponds nicely to what we frequently do in our daily lives.

However, the number of times that legal systems seem to fail leaves a sense of doubt about their effectiveness. And that provides plenty of motivation for continuing to search for other useful ideas that can help in an ongoing quest for the truth.

It’s time for a vacation from the blogging world. Warmer weather has arrived in my part of Canada, and that means it’s time to tackle a long list of outdoor projects. That list includes some vigorous rounds of golf. (Yes: vigorous. And you’d see my point if you golfed like I do.) The list also includes intensive reading (outside in the shade) of a stack of books I seem to have accumulated. I hope it’s a lengthy summer because speed-reading isn’t among my skills. Nicely timed (or, as my family would suggest, rather frequent) naps probably don’t help my reading pace either.

I’ll be back in September. I hope you’ll be here to join me.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017
1 Brown, Calvin J., “Legal Lessons.” Tracking Truth, 7 May 2017.
2 Mewett, Alan W.; Nakatsuru, Shaun. An Introduction to the Criminal Process in Canada: Fourth Edition, Carswell Thomson Professional Publishing, Toronto, 2000, pp. 134.
3 Mewett, Alan W.; Nakatsuru, Shaun. An Introduction to the Criminal Process in Canada: Fourth Edition, Carswell Thomson Professional Publishing, Toronto, 2000, pp. 135.
4 Mewett, Alan W.; Nakatsuru, Shaun. An Introduction to the Criminal Process in Canada: Fourth Edition, Carswell Thomson Professional Publishing, Toronto, 2000, pp. 134-135,144,166-167
5 Axelrod, Alan & Antinozzi, Guy. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation, Alpha, A Pearson Education Company, 2003, pp. 153,262.
6 Pizzi, William T, Trials without Truth, New York University Press, New York & London, 1999, pp. 36-37.
7 “Appealing Outcomes: A Study of the Overturn Rate of Canada’s Appellate Courts.” Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 2009, Accessed 30 Mar 2017.
8 “Innocent: The Fight Against Wrongful Convictions.” Time Special Edition, Time Inc. Books, 2017.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Legal Lessons

Earlier, I introduced the notion of using the legal system as a potential source of techniques for finding the truth.1 From the perspective of formal interaction with the law courts, I seem to have led a distinctly uninteresting life. Consequently, I decided to supplement my experience. A few weeks ago, I wandered into the local law courts and spent several hours watching courtroom activity. Once I got through the security checks, I spent some time in several courtrooms that were open to the public. I didn’t manage to see high drama, but it was still a fascinating exercise.

Something that was evident throughout was how controlled and structured the courtrooms were. Judges and, in some circumstances, lawyers wore black robes, and anyone official who wasn’t robed was in formal business attire. All participants presented their information and reasoning calmly and respectfully. Phrases like “my learned friend” were even used to refer to the opposing lawyer (without a hint of sarcasm). (Oh, and if, like me, you’ve never heard anyone use that word while talking about you, in situations like this it’s pronounced lur-nid.) Any comments or questions by the judge were accepted and handled almost gratefully by the lawyers. Lawyers bowed toward the judge (or perhaps that was toward the court) upon entering and leaving the courtroom. It was all very structured and controlled, and that seems to be noteworthy: Truth might be pursued more successfully in a respectful environment and in the absence of chaos and emotion.

Of course, central to court discussions is always the notion of evidence. Evidence is supposed to be at the heart of how a court decides the truth about guilt and innocence. Did Joe steal his neighbour’s outdoor garbage can? Evidence that it was found in Joe’s basement full of empty beer cans could help decide. Did Josie hit a golf ball through her neighbour’s window? Evidence that she was seen by a security camera breaking into the neighbour's house to retrieve the ball could help demonstrate that.

In courtrooms, evidence comes in various types.

One type is the testimony of witnesses. Under normal circumstances, having someone testify who actually saw a crime being committed can provide quite strong evidence for deciding what actually happened. The testimony of the person accused of the crime can also be considered, if it’s provided.

For example, I’ve occasionally been accused of taking the last cookie from the jar in the kitchen. Yes, we actually have one—a replica of an old two-storey house we purchased in San Francisco many years ago. (Re-reading note: we bought the cookie jar, not the house.) Sadly, it’s not filled with cookies as often as I would like. I can almost hear the prosecution using that as possible motivation for my stealing the last cookie: “Honourable members of the jury, Mr. Brown has been known to work himself into a cookie-deprived frenzy when supplies are low…” In such a trial, someone might also testify to having seen me committing the crime. By the way, that evidence would never exist. I can be very stealthy when required. Of course, the notion of testifying against myself is absurd… unless a cookie was offered in payment (which hopefully would be entrapment or bribery or some heinous offence that would invalidate anything I said).

As another possibility, experts can provide testimony in their areas of expertise. In a trial, forensic experts can provide results from a multitude of tests (like TV’s CSI folks, although I suspect not quite as dramatic). Psychology experts might offer their views on, for example, the mental health of a defendant. I can imagine cases where firearms, accounting, or even weather experts could provide relevant testimony. In all cases, the idea is that it’s reasonable to take into account the analysis and opinions of people who possess special knowledge and have considered the particular situation.

In my riveting last-cookie example, one can imagine a CSI specialist providing a detailed description of the crumbs discovered as the result of careful analysis of my keyboard.

Physical evidence can also be presented at a trial. For a murder case, it might be a weapon found at the accused person’s home. For an embezzlement case, it might be a personal diary of how money was illicitly handled. For a last-cookie case, it might be… an empty cookie jar. You get the idea: To assist in finding the truth, it sometimes helps to personally see or examine an object that’s directly related.

In the trials I watched during my Law Courts excursion, I didn’t see many of these types of evidence being presented—the cases simply weren’t at that stage. However, there were other noteworthy techniques. One was that the opposing lawyers carefully presented their points of view to the judge. They cited established facts and tried to persuade the judge (or in one case, three judges) how those facts should be viewed to favour their side. As a general example, a gun used in a murder that was discovered in a defendant’s home could be evidence that the defendant is guilty, or it could be evidence that someone is framing him. Cookie crumbs in a keyboard could be from some past transgression and not the one currently being considered. In any case, using the evidence as a basis for considering multiple points of view is an important technique, both in trials and elsewhere.

There’s one more technique worthy of mention. One of the cases I watched was in the Court of Appeals. Its equivalent exists in many other jurisdictions. The point of such a court is to provide a mechanism for re-examining aspects of a case in which a judgement has already been rendered. It provides an opportunity to formally reconsider a case, and also provides a hint at another technique that could be important in our daily lives.

Fostering and using respectful environments, examining various kinds of evidence, considering opposing points of view, and revisiting previous conclusions are all techniques that are used in legal systems for establishing the truth and drawing conclusions. They also all provide food for thought in our quest for techniques we can personally employ in our daily lives. However, before we draw our own conclusions, we should consider how effective these techniques are.

That’s for next time.

© Calvin J. Brown 2017
1 “Legal Truth.” Tracking Truth, 30 Apr 2017.

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
1 “Field Listing – Legal System.” The World Factbook, CIA, Accessed 21 Mar 2017.
2 “The French legal system.”, Accessed 24 Mar 2017.
3 “Inquisitorial System.” The Free Dictionary, 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, 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 to find out if the claim was true. Prior to events of the past couple of weeks, ( 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
1 “A Cautionary Tale.” Tracking Truth, 10 Apr 2017,
2 “A Well-Planned Retirement.”, . Accessed 6 Feb 2017.
3 “A Cautionary Tale.” Tracking Truth, 10 Apr 2017,
4 “The Bristol Zoo Parking Attendant.” ThoughtCo. 6 Jan 2017,  Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
5 “Parking attendant at British zoo takes off with the funds.”, 17 Jun 2009, 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, . Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
7 “Facebook Launches Resource to Help Spot Misleading News.” The New York Times, 6 Apr 2017,, Accessed 14 Apr 2017.
8 “Google expands ‘Fact Check’ tool to flag up fake news in search results.” CNBC, 7 Apr 2017, 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, 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 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 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 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 article they had posted that debunked their own original claims.6 In it, 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 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 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 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

1 “Digital Truth.” Tracking Truth Posted 3 April 2017. Revised 4 Apr 2017.
2 “Digital Deception.” Tracking Truth Posted 4 Apr 2017.
3 “Half Measures.” Snopes.com . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
4 “Horse of a Different Color.” Snopes.com . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
5 “Suicide Squad.” Snopes.com . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
6 “False Authority.” Snopes.com 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 to help make my points.1 For me, 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, 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 (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 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, 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

1 "Digital Truth." Tracking Truth, Posted 3 April 2017, Revised 4 Apr 2017.
2 "False Authority.",, 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 (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 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, 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
1 “Half Measures.”, . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
2 “Horse of a Different Color.”, . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
3 “Suicide Squad.”, . Accessed 02 Feb 2017.
4 "False Authority." Snopes.com, Accessed 4 Apr 2017.

Monday, 27 March 2017

What is a Belief?

"Alternative facts" became a controversial phrase on 22 January 2017 (just yesterday, as I’m writing the first draft of this) when it was uttered by a White House representative talking about inauguration crowd sizes.1 It provides an interesting backdrop for writing about another important concept.

Two robots are discussing the truth of two conflicting arithmetical statements.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of establishing some basic terminology and started by providing a definition of truth.2 I’ll consider a statement to be true if it refers to something in the present or in the past (i.e. not the future), and the statement is consistent with reality (i.e. what actually happens, happened, exists or existed). “It rained yesterday” can be true if it actually happened. “It will rain tomorrow” cannot be true because it’s about the future. “The pizza tasted great” cannot be declared as true because it’s an opinion and not an assertion about objective (i.e. opinion-free) reality. On the other hand, “I think that the pizza tasted great” can certainly be true because it can be a real reflection of the current state of one’s thoughts.

There’s a related concept that deserves attention as well: belief. Here are a couple of definitions:

  • “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing”3
  • “An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof”4

You might see from these that belief can be a broader, less stringent concept than truth. Belief can include opinions:

  • It will rain tomorrow.
  • The pizza was great. 

are expressions of someone’s opinion. They’re examples of beliefs, but they’re not eligible to be true statements.

  • Our team won yesterday.
  • Gravity keeps objects on the ground.

are beliefs as well. However, these ones are also potentially true statements.

My intention is to use the terms that way. Belief and believe will be used as broader terms to capture the notion of something being held as an opinion, however strongly. You can hold and declare any beliefs that you like:

  • Trees have leaves.
  • Dragons have wings.
  • Dogs talk with a British accent.
  • Lizards like modern art.

These are statements that are all eligible to be true, if they can be shown to align with reality (good luck with that). All of them can also be beliefs, in this case regardless of reality. Beliefs don’t have to be true—they just have to be believed. Truth and true will be held to a much higher standard. They’re not intended to be used to describe statements about things that cannot be (or could never have been) objectively verified as existing (or having existed) or happening (or having happened).

“Fascinating, Cal, but so what?”

Yes, I heard you thinking that. Well, I might not have heard the “fascinating” part but, nonetheless, so what?

Here’s the challenge: As we head further into discussions about finding the truth, it’s important to understand the distinction so we can make meaningful statements without confusing each other. For example, it’s easy to find beliefs—just ask anyone what they thought of the game last night or what the weather forecast is for tomorrow. Done. Finding the truth can be much harder. You could say “The deepest part of all the oceans is the Mariana Trench” and I could accept that both as your belief and as a potentially true statement. Whether it’s actually true could be a much tougher assignment, but at least I know that it’s the type of statement that could be. You could say “The sky is blue and gorgeous today,” and we could legitimately discuss whether “the sky is blue” is a true statement, but we could quickly dispense with “the sky is gorgeous” as your belief—a mere expression of your opinion. (Upon re-reading this, that sounds harsh—that your opinions aren’t important. Oh well, if you think that’s what I believe, that’s merely your opinion.)

And with that, we can avoid debating statements that simply express beliefs, and thereby agree on what we’re actually chasing as we continue exploring how to find the truth.

Back to "alternative facts." The idea of a fact, as it will be used throughout this blog, is that it’s a true statement. “Fire produces heat” is a fact and a true statement. “The moon revolves around Earth” is another. "Alternative facts" seems to have been used to mean a kind of alternate truth about the inauguration crowd sizes. This starts to feel like the notion that there’s no single, objective truth about a situation and, instead, that we can pick our own. That opens an interesting philosophical debate, but not one that helps the discussion right now. Maybe we’ll try that can of worms sometime in the future. The notion of alternative or competing facts about a situation makes no logical sense. It could be acceptable if two facts were asserted but didn’t compete with each other. For example, someone could say “the sky is orange” and someone else could say “the sky is blue”. Both could be factual if the speakers are looking at the sky in different circumstances. Otherwise, alternative or competing facts only makes sense if they were never both facts (i.e. true statements) to begin with. Rather, they were different beliefs. Multiple beliefs (i.e. opinions) can probably be held about any situation.

For our purposes, truth (and facts) will be deemed to be absolute and objective, albeit often hard to pin down.

A better phrase for the U.S. President’s representative to use would have been "alternative beliefs."
© Calvin J. Brown 2017
1 “Conway: Trump White House offered 'alternative facts' on crowd size.” CNN, . Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
2 “Defining Truth.” Tracking Truth, Published 12 Mar 2017.
3 “Definition of BELIEF.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
4 “Definition of belief in English.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Truth about Post-Truth

Last week, I provided a definition for truth. I had intended that this week’s contribution would extend that discussion to include the concept of belief, but I decided a slight diversion might be useful…

A friend pointed me toward a podcast recently, just prior to my driving to meet him for lunch. In case it proved to be good fodder for conversation, I listened to it while driving into the city. That was a mistake: Not the choice of podcast but rather my listening to it while driving.
Two robots discuss whether tiny people make better rulers.

The podcast was produced by Canada’s CBC Radio folks as part of their Ideas program. It was entitled “The Truth about ‘Post-Truth.’”1 Clearly a catchy title if you’re someone blogging about truth. I confess I was expecting to hear variations of ideas that I’d already considered but was expecting nonetheless to enjoy hearing someone else’s version. I got some of that, but I also got a fascinating dose of other ideas that I’d never contemplated. The mistake part of this was that, as I was driving, I had no way to write down the new ideas I was hearing. At the end of my drive, I quickly settled myself with a cup of coffee in a restaurant and, since I was early, tried to capture some of what I’d heard. That my memory isn’t as flawless as it used to be (but, of course, I can clearly remember it once being flawless) certainly hindered my ability simply to transcribe the podcast’s words, but the ideas remained. I’ve since re-listened to it to ensure I wasn’t far off base. Here are some ideas sparked by the podcast, but filtered through my own memory and re-packaged by my interpretation.

The podcast generally is about how it seems that we have entered a time where “facts have become malleable, subordinate to feeling and opinion… and, more and more, truth is what you make it.”

The most startling idea I heard was a convincing argument of the importance of truth in a democratic society. Not completely new for me. However, the notion was that a democracy, as we’ve come to know it in modern western societies, “cannot exist without an informed citizenship” that comes from us collectively caring about the truth. Cannot exist? That caught my attention. The point was that styles of government can be viewed as being of two types. Democracies rely on their citizens' caring about the truth (e.g. about events and history and people and statements). Autocracies (i.e. dictatorships) rely on their leaders' telling the citizens what to consider as true and on citizens accepting it unquestioningly. In autocracies, leaders tell people what to believe about historical events, guilt in a trial, or where the nation’s money is being spent, and people accept that as the truth because of the power that their leaders wield. The proposition is that caring about the truth and deferring to power are in opposition to each other. If you defer to the powerful and simply accept what they say, you are in or are drifting into a dictatorship. For a democratic society to exist, people have to care about collectively debating and discussing what is and what isn’t and, beyond that, what should and what shouldn’t be. It’s society’s interest in discussing and knowing the truth that keeps leaders reined in. If too many people stop caring about the truth of what they’re told, then they’ll eventually be fed a steady diet of nonsense. If you lose interest in knowing the truth and become content with accepting invented facts from political leaders, then you should expect that your ability to usefully analyze what you hear and to cast a meaningful vote will ultimately drift away.

It’s hard not to think about the relevance of this idea as we watch the competition for truth playing out in the United States. Are we witnessing an extraordinary difference of opinions and style between political factions, or are we seeing the beginning of the end of one of the world’s oldest democracies?

Another podcast topic involved speculating about causes of the current apparent disinterest in truth—our so-called post-truth era. One idea was that it’s a by-product of the Internet making massive volumes of information immediately accessible to us. I believe the problem raised is that this discourages people from ever personally trying to master topics. Why analyze anything to form an independent opinion when there’s so much information to absorb, or when someone else’s opinion is just a Google search away? Information can be uncovered as easily as a quick search of Wikipedia or IMDB. Brief quips about anything from news to nonsense can be found by the thousands by scrolling through Twitter.

Another suggested cause of our disinterest in truth included society’s expectation that everything needs to be entertaining. If it isn’t coming from a celebrity, if it’s not humorous, if it’s not a game, if it’s not being presented in a witty or action-packed fashion, then it’s not worthy of our attention or our time.

In general, the suggestion was that society is losing its patience for spending the time necessary to understand and absorb anything other than simplistic information and for spending the time to analyze anything to discern its truthfulness. I’m not sure the argument is completely sound, but it certainly provides food for thought.

That and more was a lot to ask me to absorb and consider while trying to drive safely through city traffic. Amazingly, I arrived without incident. Since I couldn’t recall much of the drive (a phenomenon I think is fairly common), I attribute my safe arrival to the amazing and mysterious capabilities of my subconscious mind to handle driving details, while the conscious part focuses on other matters. Following the correct route. Handling traffic lights. Avoiding other vehicles. Everything seemed to have to have worked well, but then would I know if it hadn’t? How does that work? A great question for which I don’t yet have a great answer. Nonetheless, just in case my subconscious doesn’t always hold up its end of the arrangement, I can’t help but wonder if podcasts should come with a warning: CAL, THIS ONE’S INTERESTING. TURN IT OFF OR PULL OVER. NEVER TRY TO THINK AND DRIVE.

The idea of belief is queued up for next week. I hope you’ll be back to join me.
© Calvin J. Brown 2017

1 “The Truth about ‘Post-Truth’”, CBC Radio,  Broadcast 19 Jan 2017. Accessed 17 Mar 2017.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Defining Truth

Before going much further, it’s important to nail down some terminology. A good place to start would be establishing the meaning of the word truth. There seems to be little point in talking about something if we don’t agree on what that something is.
Two robots look in a mirror but only one is reflected.

In common speech, truth and its kin are used quite liberally:

  • Do you truly believe that?
  • Is it true that inflation will go up next year?
  • Did she tell the truth when she was testifying?
  • Is Einstein’s Theory of Relativity true?
  • At the seminar, the speaker explained that we each have our own truths.
  • If you want to hear the truth about how good the restaurant is, ask Frank.

To have a focused and useful discussion about truth, we’ll need to find a more precise meaning to work with than these examples provide.

Here in my office at home, I have a small collection of dictionaries—over a dozen general purpose ones. I didn’t ever intend to collect them, they just seemed to increase in number over the years. As long as there was shelf space, there was never any reason to throw any out. It probably didn’t help that we erected more shelves a few years ago.

I even have a couple of favourites. One is a family dictionary I grew up with: The Consolidated Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary: A Library of Essential Knowledge.1 It was published in 1953 and comes from an era when printed volumes could seek to be somewhat comprehensive references. The book is about 4 inches (10 cm.) thick and, beyond being a general dictionary, includes sections on business and finance concepts, business law terminology, medical terms, biographies of famous people, maps and descriptions of countries of the world, as well as several pages of meticulous, colour drawings of North American plants and animals. It seems to have tried to be an all-purpose reference for your home. When it was published, countries such as the U.S.S.R. existed, and others such as Ukraine and Estonia were simply republics within it. It’s also from a time when Las Vegas (now with almost 600,000 residents) wasn’t even listed in a table showing U.S. cities with a population over 100,000.

Another favourite (Warning: shameless self-aggrandizement ahead) is the 1997 edition of the Gage Canadian Dictionary.2 The explanation for this one: I had a small role in its creation. Back in the early 90’s, a friend and I had the opportunity to update and expand all the computer terms found in its predecessor. Unfortunately, it’s rapidly becoming as dated as my 1953 Webster. And don’t worry, I’ve stopped showing it to everyone who visits.

As fate would have it, I now rarely use any of my hardcopy dictionaries. That’s certainly not because my brain has absorbed all they have to offer. Rather, technology has quietly shuffled them off into near-obsolescence. Now, I almost always use online dictionaries. Oh well, the ones on the shelves make great decorations and, still occasionally, conversation pieces.

Enough meandering. It’s time to get to work. I’m hoping you’re awake and alert, this might be a wee bit picky and precise. If you’d rather skip the details, scroll down to the bottom for the final result.

Here’s a sampling of definitions for truth from a few online sources:

  • “the state of being the case” or “the body of real things, events, and facts”3
  • “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”4
  • “the real facts about a situation, event, or person”5

And since these definitions seem to hinge on the notions of fact, here are some of its definitions:

  • “something that has actual existence” or “an actual occurrence” or “a piece of information presented as having objective reality”6
  • “a thing that is known or proved to be true”7

And then there’s reality and being real. Here are some definitions of real:

  • “not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory” or “occurring or existing in actuality” or “having objective independent existence”8
  • “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed” or “not imitation or artificial; genuine”9

Of course, there are other subtlely different definitions presented at each of these sites, but these will suffice. For purposes of this blog, the meaning of truth is going to be that suggested by these definitions. Truth refers to things or events that actually exist now or existed in the past. A statement about a situation, an event, an object, or a person represents the truth if it is occurring or exists now, or occurred or existed in the past, exactly in the way that the statement asserts. So, as long as they represent factual statements about reality, these statements can be true:

  • She wore a green sweater yesterday.
  • The sun rose in the east five years ago.
  • He was eighteen when he graduated.
  • Widgets were made by hand in the eighteenth century.
  • The dog is eating an apple.

Note that this definition of truth doesn’t include potential future occurrences or circumstances. For example, one cannot correctly speak of the following statements as being true, because they haven’t yet occurred:

  • He will be very angry when he hears about it.
  • It will be cold tomorrow.
  • She will be going home next week.

These won’t be considered as true because they haven’t yet occurred. They might be good predictions, they might in the future become true, but they aren’t yet true. However, there are often variations of such statements that would qualify. Consider:

  • I believe that he will be very angry when he hears about it.

In this case, because the belief exists today, the statement can be true, even though the prediction about the anger cannot yet be.

Or consider:

  • The forecast says that it will be cold tomorrow.

Since the forecast exists today, you can talk about what the forecast truly says, but you can’t yet declare whether its prediction is true.

Or also:

  • Ruth said that she ate the cookies.

This can be true since what Ruth said has already occurred.

This notion of truth also excludes opinions about the past, present, or future. For example:

  • The best food comes from Italy.
  • The Greek architecture produced was magnificent.
  • Japanese art is exquisite.
  • Unemployment will be high next year.

These aren’t statements that can be said to be true, because they express opinions and are not statements of objective fact. That these reflect someone's opinion can be true, but the statements themselves would fall within the notion of a belief. More on this idea later.

So, to recap, for our ongoing discussions in this blog…
A statement declares the truth if:

  • it makes an assertion about something in the present or in the past, and 
  • its declaration is in accordance with reality (i.e. what actually happened, is happening, existed, or exists). 

If a statement is about something in the present or the past, it could be asserting the truth (i.e. it’s the type of statement that’s eligible for consideration). Whether the statement represents reality accurately is what will then decide if it’s actually asserting the truth, and that’s where the challenge usually exists.
OK, all done. I’m hoping that helps establish a better foundation for some future discussions.
© Calvin J. Brown 2017
1 Meine, Franklin J. et al. (eds.). The Consolidated Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary: A Library of Essential Knowledge, Consolidated Book Publishers, 1953
2 Gage Canadian Dictionary, Gage Educational Publishing Company, 1997
3 “Definition of TRUTH.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
4 “Definition of truth in English.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
5 “’truth’ in British English.” Cambridge Dictionary, Accessed 29 Jan 2017.
6 “Definition of FACT.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
7 “Definition of fact in English.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
8 “Definition of REAL.” Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.
9 “Main definitions of real in English.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Accessed 23 Jan 2017.