SLOW KNOWLEDGE: ADVICE ON HOW TO BE A SMART NEWS CONSUMER
At long last we as a society, facing the so-called information age in which the quantity of data is no longer a problem, are asking ourselves questions about the quality of that data. The Trump election is a wake-up call for anyone who lives in the reality-based community. As a result, major media outlets, their legitimacy on the line, are engaging in a critical analysis of what they are calling “fake news.” This is the healthiest debate I’ve seen in a while.
I’m skeptical of postmodernist analysis of society, but when it comes to news media, I think the concept of atomization of narratives is valuable for understanding the new alignments in information institutions from the creative level to the consumption level.
I created the Mad Sociologist Blog just over eight years ago. My credentials for doing so? I signed up for a web domain and got a free blog template. That’s it. Nothing more. Any idiot can get a blog and spew their own versions of reality into the cyber universe where it lives forever and has the potential to travel around the world and even to the International Space Station at the speed of light. Pretty awesome when you think about it. Also pretty daunting. Anyone with internet access can become their own journalist and, theoretically at least, have access to a global market in much the same way as a professional journalist. They can do this without being bound by those pesky professional journalistic standards that are so inconvenient.
The Mad Sociologist Blog has a modest, but not insignificant following. This year has been especially fruitful for my work. I boast that the Sun Never Sets on the Mad Sociologist Blog because of this venue’s global reach. Granted, I don’t have quite the audience of more popular sources, but I am humbled by the extent of my reach.
As my readers know, I’m not unbiased. I have an agenda. Regardless, I endeavor to three standards: 1. Any claim I make will be supported with valid, reliable, verifiable data. 2. I clearly explain when I’m speculating. 3. When I get something wrong, I fix it. I do these things based on my own personal values and dedication to understanding the truth. I also do this because I’m representing what I consider to be an honorable academic discipline that does have clear ethical standards. That being said, there is no independent board keeping me honest. Unlike university professors, I do not have an Institutional Review Board scrutinizing my work. The Mad Sociologist is a personal endeavor. It’s the one area where I am the boss. The standards above are self imposed. I’d like to think I honor them.
But I don’t have to.
And there’s nothing you can do about. I get no remuneration from this project, so I’m not dependent on clicks and likes for income. And even if I did, fake news is so much more interesting than the real thing that I am almost certainly hurting my marketability by having such lofty standards (here, here, here). So, on the creative end, there’s not much that can be done to regulate the quality of information or to limit fake news.
Proposing a “Slow Knowledge” Movement
So, since you have little control over the creation of news, it is best to find strategies through which to control your consumption of news. That means learning how to critically analyze your sources and content. Fortunately, that’s the domain of sociology.
It’s the most profound irony of our times that we live in an age of almost infinite and instant sources of information and yet, this does not seem to be translating into more knowledge. At the very least, the ways we are using this bonanza of information are not translating into the kind of broad range knowledge base and critical thinking that we think it should.
When contemplating the vast stores of knowledge that the internet can bring to improving our lives, analysts and prognosticators of this new, wondrous age, neglected or shorted a theory about the speed and quality of that information. Like many other areas of a bureaucratic society, improvement in the efficiency of knowledge production has the mitigating effect of reducing the overall quality. Think McDonald’s hamburgers.
We can identify the overall efficiency of information transfer. This process has become so efficient that information imbues almost every waking minute of every day. Once upon a time access to most information was something that we had to seek out. We had to subscribe to publications; we had to go to libraries. Information that was brought to us was usually done inter-personally.
Today, however, information is beamed into our awareness in an almost constant stream. It’s there on the radio, the television in twenty-four-hour news cycles. If that wasn’t enough, information is a constant presence on social media streams, e-mails, and other sources. Our cars talk to us. Many of our homes talk to us. Our phones talk to us even when nobody is calling. We are awash in information, most of which we are not even seeking.
This kind of efficiency requires us to become more efficient users. We can’t possibly spend time on all of the information that we receive and make meaningful judgments. We must quickly sort and align the information that we accept and reject that which we do not accept. The content of that information is not immediately accessible in an efficient way, so we use shortcuts to help us. Instead of meaningful, reasoned analysis, we sort based on our immediate interaction with the information, how it makes us feel. Websites dedicate themselves to specific audiences and offer “click-bait” titles to get all important “views.”
The phenomenon of confirmation bias is a well established motivating factor in human interaction. This plays out on a grand scale in the modern information age. We simply do not have time nor energy to delve into the nuances of a claim and to examine the counter-proposals. We dedicate ourselves to the information that we like, namely from agencies that confirm our pre-conceived notions, reinforce our incorrigible propositions. Instead of a society benefiting from a wide knowledge base, we have one defined by what can be called knowledge collectives. These knowledge collectives constitute reference groups that accept a particular knowledge set, often to the exclusion of others that might contradict that of the reference group.¹
The speed by which information travels is also key, especially in the United States. Information designated as “news” is framed as a commodity in a competitive marketplace. The most prized position in this information market is “first” rather than “best.” Our knowledge agencies are dedicated to getting their particular knowledge product to the market before anyone else.
Exacerbating this unnerving situation is the fact that “news” and “information production” has been decentralized. At the click of a button, a “retweet” a “share” anyone can be a source of information. There are no controls on the clicks. We see something we like…click…it’s passed on to our “followers” or “friends”. At that point, standard rules for network dynamics apply. The audience may very easily expand exponentially.
This was elaborated in a short case study published in the New York Times, How Fake News Goes Viral. In this case, a man concluded that Austin anti-Trump protesters had been bused in based on the fact that he saw buses parked close to where the protests were taking place. He took pictures of the buses and offered his opinion without research, without fact-checking. Hey. He’s just a guy with a Twitter account. To his credit, when he discovered that his reasoning was flawed and the buses had nothing to do with the protests, he posted a retraction. But it was too late. The information became “news” and was even referenced by Trump himself.
Guess what, the retraction did not get nearly as many Retweets as the original. Imagine that.
Look, the speed by which information is transmitted is the key. With apologies to “Slow Food” activists, I would like to propose a Slow Knowledge movement. We as consumers and producers of news and information have to slow down. Don’t click! Set a goal that you will only click once you’ve confirmed the content of the message. Does this mean you will be sending out fewer retweets and shares? Yes. Yes it does. Hopefully the return will be in a more knowledgeable citizenry. At the very least, you will not be contributing to the information pollution that we are now experiencing.
Girding Yourself Against Absurdities
Choosing Your Sources
The first step in this Slow Knowledge movement is in choosing sources. When we factor in social media, we can often access hundreds of sources for information and news every day. We can read the posts and tweets, skim the headlines, maybe read a couple of paragraphs here and there, and get our fill of news…and end up knowing very little. It might be better to narrow down our access to a few good sources that cover what we need.
We should limit our selection to just enough sources as we are able to read and analyze in a given amount of time without an information pile-up. In other words, if you are getting your news from a website that updates every day, say the New York Times website, you should be able to read the new posts in a day. If you subscribe to a monthly magazine, you should be able to complete the magazine before your next issue comes in. And by “read,” I mean read thoroughly, not skim. No, this does not mean I read every word of the New York Times every day, but I do read the articles that are meaningful to me and peruse the rest.
As for the constant feeds on my social media, I’ve severely cut back on the number of pages I subscribe to. Regardless, I do not consider anything that comes through my feed as news. If I see something that catches my eye, I look it up and read the article in its entirety. I view my social media feed as ideas I may or may not look into.
But how do we know that the sources are any good? How do we distinguish between Fake News and Real News? This is the important part. I want sources I can rely on. I don’t have time to fact check everything that I read or see on television.
The first rule that I teach my students is, “watch entertainment, read news.” That’s not to say that television news shows have no value, but television is just not a good medium for this slow knowledge culture. I do watch news shows, but television is not my first or prime source of news–and I’m very picky in this regard.
The first thing you should look for when it comes to the sources of your information is credentials. When I’m teaching my students how to find valid and reliable information online I tell them to look for the credentials of the authors on the website. If the credentials are not listed, assume there are none. You may have read a great article on bubbablog.com², but unless Bubba has some credentials to demonstrate his qualifications to speak on these matters, you might not want to cite him as a source.
That’s not to say that only those with credentials have something valuable to say. I know some very talented historians who do not have degrees in history, and some sharp social analysts who are not sociologists. Nor does the existence of credentials mean you should take the author’s word for what he is saying. Plenty of experts get things wrong. But having credentials means that the person in question has specific training in the discipline she is writing about or otherwise sharing her expertise. Credentials are just a first step.
The above covers the importance of personal credentials. Another sign to look for is institutional credentials. Is your source supported by a larger, established, institution, especially one that has gone through a credentialing process? Look, the mainstream media gets a lot of guff from both the left and the right. Some of it is deserved. But an established source like the New York Times or the Washington Post does have a vested interest in professional reporting. First, they must appeal to a mass audience, which mitigates some (not all) of the bias. Secondly, they can be sued for crossing professional lines. Thirdly, they are invested in their own professionalism. Their reporters really are trained journalists. I know there are some segments that would have you believe that there’s some liberal conspiracy to brainwash the country to…I’m not sure what the end game is, but you know. It’s simply not true. If there’s a bias in the mainstream media, it’s in pandering to its marketing departments.
Other institutions are pretty reliable as well, universities, research centers, etc. Any institution in which the authors are answerable for their content increases the likelihood that the information is of decent quality. This is especially true for sources that are peer reviewed. Again, this is just another safety line, not an absolute. There are agenda based institutions that will publish anything that drives their cause. You have to look at their “about” page to examine the mission. The rest you will have to determine by experience by analyzing the content.
But what about bias? How do I know that the sources I’m choosing are unbiased?
That’s easy. The first rule that I teach my students is, every source, every author has a bias. Even the most scientific research agencies have biases if, for nothing else, they are biased in the subject matter they choose to research. The question is, how do your sources address this bias? There are a couple of legitimate ways to mitigate if not eliminate bias.
First, and probably best, is to apply professionally developed methods and techniques for mitigating bias. Research institutions are probably the best at this kind of technique. A quality research institution (again, be careful. I could very easily have set up the Mad Sociologist Research Center and few would know that it’s just me at my desk tapping away) should offer peer-reviewed studies, have detailed descriptions of their methods of research available to the reader and, optimally, offer access to their data sets so those who are interested can run the numbers themselves. You should be subscribed to at least a few research centers like the National Center for Education Statistics, which give you powerful interactive databases or the Tax Policy Center with its many timely reports. Other government agencies like the Department of Justice or the Bureau of Labor Statistics will give you great information (and no, the numbers are not being manipulated by the government to fool you). You certainly won’t read these sources every day, but they are invaluable when you want to fact check other news sources.
Another technique is used by professional investigative journalists. Investigative journalists are trained to source any information before setting it to print. They are also trained to get multiple perspectives and include those in their reporting. Many of your mainstream media outlets and even smaller, ideologically driven venues, have a history of fine investigative reporting. Other institutions, like ProPublica, specialize in investigative reporting.
The second way to handle bias is the method used by this blog. Just come right out and admit to the bias right from the start. Anyone who reads the Mad Sociologist Blog knows what my biases are because I list them clearly on my About page. If you read publications like The Nation or Mother Jones, or National Review, you are aware of the perspective that each publication admits to.
These are some rules of thumb for finding reliable sources, but as you can probably tell, they are flawed. You could follow all of these rules and end up with sources that are producing Fake News. Well, the truth is that you may have to spend a little time with your sources, being open-minded with the content, before you really know if these sources are reliable. When I first adopt a source for information I spend a lot of time fact-checking. Once I’ve established a pattern of reliability I feel reasonably comfortable backing off the fact-checking and taking their word for what they produce. Here are some things to look for in reliable sources.
- Is the information valid and reliable? To test this you can confirm the information that you are getting by visiting other sources, especially sources that offer a point of view you don’t agree with. This is reliability. Validity you can test by checking the research.
- Is your source fostering co-dependence? Reliable sources should encourage you to fact-check them. If you are relying on a source that spends any time at all trying to convince you that they are the only place to get the “real truth” and that all other agencies are lying to you, then that source is suspect. That’s especially true when the source tries to convince you that there is some grand conspiracy trying to brainwash you, and only they can save you from becoming just another one of the sheeple.
- Is the source reasonable? This is meant literally. Does the source appeal to reason, or does it pander to your emotions? Now many good sources will offer some emotional content as a hook to get you to read their stories, but the stories themselves should hinge on a reasoned claim supported by data and not rely on the emotion itself.
- How accurate are the predictions made by these sources? When making predictions, is your source more often right than wrong. If their track record is poor, maybe you need a new source.
- How does your source respond when it makes a mistake? Errors happen, analyses sometimes collapse. Sometimes we make snap judgments and say stupid things based on them. That’s unavoidable. When that happens, does your source come clean, apologize and then correct the record, or does your source point fingers everywhere to explain away the error.
- Is the content of your source consistently well done? See below.
How do you know when you are reading a valid news item? Well, to really analyze your news, you need to know a few things. You already know that what you are reading is going to be biased. Some articles will be more biased than others, but there is always going to be a bias. So you need to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion. Pretty easy. Facts can be proven or disproven. Opinions cannot.
You must also understand the difference between fact and speculation. Speculations are conclusions that are drawn based on associations between two or more things or predictions made without firm evidence. A great deal of Fake News that is generated is based on speculation. When it comes time to speculate, we often do so in ways that conform to our prejudices. That’s why this is an especially devious tool of the Fake News industry. This was especially true with regard to Hillary Clinton’s supposed corruption. The Clinton Foundation was involved in a questionable transaction, therefore Hillary Clinton is corrupt. Well. Maybe. But there may be other explanations. We might need to explore these first before we draw a conclusion. Trump was prescribed amphetamines in 1998 and then sniffed a lot during the debates. He must be an addict³. Um…that could be the explanation, or not. Speculations are easily identifiable by asking yourself if there are other explanations or conclusions that could be drawn using the same evidence. There’s nothing wrong with speculation, I do it myself, so long as the author clearly states that he or she is speculating.
You should also understand the difference between reliable and valid data. Reliable data is that which can be reproduced or confirmed through other sources. Valid data is that which accurately describes its focus. If you read something in which the author is claiming, “you will read this no place else but here,” or “I’m the only one with the guts to print this,” that writer is suspect based on an understanding of reliability.
If the writer is not using data to support his claims, that is a problem of validity. Data comes in two varieties. Quantitative data is the numbers, surveys, polls etc. Qualitative data is the narratives or stories that typify the subject of the piece. Optimally, you want a writer who is using both. Quantitative data is a must if the writer wants to make a claim as to the generalizability, or the broadly applicable impact of her work. Qualitative data is important if the author wants to show that the numbers translate to a real impact on the lived experience.
I’m afraid this means you will have to understand statistics, but this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll save that for another day. The point is, statistics don’t lie, but sometimes people lie using statistics. This is especially true with memes. Never get your news from memes. Memes are the contemporary equivalent of political cartoons. They are commentary, not news.
Which brings me to the distinction between commentary and news. The news should report on events. Commentary is an analysis of the news, cause, and effect, making connections between stories, etc. If you read the Mad Sociologist Blog (and if you are still reading at this point, kudos to you!), then you are reading commentary.
There are a couple of things you want to keep in mind as you are reading. First, what are the claims the author is making? Secondly, how is the author supporting her claims? Authors may simply be describing what is happening but should use multiple perspectives to draw a big picture of the event. That does not mean that the author should give equal weight to all of the perspectives and should, when possible, point out the flaws and limitations of each. Reporters are not neutral, but they should be inclusive. The author may be offering commentary or offering speculations. If so, then each claim should be supported with specific facts. If not, then the piece is suspect.
The supports should be clear and cited or attributed to their original sources. On-line works should, when possible, link their supports. If you have any questions as to the validity of what you are reading or watching, you should be able to follow the links or trace the sources. I recommend you do this often, especially when dealing with a new source.
An author may use unidentified sources in some reports. These should be rare, and the validity of the piece should not hinge on the unidentified source. All professional reporters know that they must confirm the allegations made by unidentified sources and include this information, and the limitations of their sources, in their work. Sources that rely heavily on unidentified sources with little confirmatory support are suspect.
The author may use anecdotal supports. This is a specific story that typifies what the author is trying to say. Anecdotes are great but may be limiting. The trouble with anecdotal evidence is that it may not typify a broad spectrum of experience. A story about a local person suffering from Cotard’s Syndrome, a rare condition in which the sufferer believes himself to be dead, may be a sad human interest story but it is not a prelude to the Zombie Apocalypse.
The lesson here is to follow the links, look at multiple sources of information to confirm the story’s legitimacy. If your chosen source consistently presents valid and reliable information, you probably have a good source. Yeah, there may be some questionable content here and there. We all drop the ball on occasion. We all respond emotionally sometimes. When that happens, there should be a clarifying response.
All of this seems daunting. It seems like an awful lot of work, and who has time for this. Well, perhaps it’s a lot of work to start. I would suggest choosing one or two sources at first and subject them to the analysis above. If your sources consistently pass scrutiny, you can back off of the analysis a bit. Over time, as you become more knowledgeable and conversant with the facts and positions, you will develop a bull shit sensor. You’ll be able to spot a bad story right off the bat. As the source earns your trust you can incorporate more sources into your library.
Diversifying our sources is the easiest facet of this slow knowledge movement. That we tend to live in information bubbles that reinforce our prejudices is not a shortcoming of the internet or social media. It is a shortcoming in ourselves. The technology actually offers us a first step for ameliorating this weakness. The internet allows us easy access to counterarguments that can challenge our perspectives and help us understand the points of view of the opposing sides.
This first step is nothing more than setting up apps and online tools to beam diverse sources directly into our awareness in the same way that we get confirmatory sources. I use Google Newsstand for a big part of my news. With this app, I can set up my library to access multiple sources of news, including sources from “the opposition.” First, I added mainstream sources to my library. I have a subscription to the New York Times and the Washington Post, but I’ve also added Bloomberg, Reuters, and local news sources. The mainstream media isn’t evil. It’s just commercial. It’s a good place to start for a broad spectrum understanding of what is going on.
Then I have those sources that conform to my worldview. Mother Jones, The Nation, Think Progress, In These Times, etc. These are invaluable. First, they are more likely to cover issues that you feel are important, but do not sell the advertising space, or may be considered a threat to the readership of mainstream media sources, so they don’t get the play. These sources are also a good way to reinforce your worldview and get an idea of how leaders in your reference group are analyzing the issues and the arguments that they are making. In which case, you can use the techniques described above to analyze and evaluate their work so as to help you form your own opinions.
Toward that end, I do have some wonkish apps. Vox.com, which tends to lean to the left, but is more data-oriented. I have the Pew Research Center, ProPublica, Scientific American, Gallup, among others.
Then look around for sources that offer a different perspective, that might serve to challenge my notions. I’ve subscribed to foreign sources like Al Jazeera, The Guardian, and the Independent. I get the feed from Forbes Magazine, Market Watch, Business Insider. I also have a notification set up for political conservatism.
I don’t go full on “alt-right”. I do not have a Breitbart feed, nor will I patronize FoxNoise because of its co-dependent message. One of the best sources, I’ve found, is my conservative friends on Facebook. I’ve never defriended someone on my feed because of their political views. When they share articles, I often read them. Sometimes this leads to some argument, which if done right, is enlightening.
Examining such sources, however, requires some discipline on your part. Some simple rules can guide you through the process of examining literature that is contrary to your beliefs.
- There is no conspiracy against you or your side of the debate. There are just differences of opinion. Those who disagree with you are not evil. Nor are they stupid. They may be wrong, but that is a different thing entirely.
- You may disagree with what they are saying, but you may agree with why they are saying it. Most people are coming from a good place when they adopt ideologies. They really think that their way is the best way for the good of all. In that regard, they are just like you. Embrace this as a way to find common ground.
- You might be wrong. I know. Hard to imagine, but it might be true. If your political opponent offers factual information to support their case, examine it using the same criteria offered above. If it turns out that what they are saying is valid, then you might want to re-evaluate your position. Don’t just assume that their data is made up or contrived. One question you can ask yourself to keep you honest is, “what should the data look like if I’m wrong?” If you then look at the data, and it looks like that, you are probably wrong. This keeps you from just mining for data that supports your position.
This seems like a lot of trouble. Who has time to read all of this information? Certainly, I don’t. I’m not saying I read all of these sources every day and then submit everything I read to this kind of speculation. I have about three sources beamed to me that I read every day. These sources are chosen because, over time, I’ve found that they are reliable and more often than not give valid information. Some, like Truthdig.org and The Intercept I’ll go to every few days. DemocracyNow I check on every weak or so. I’m also a member of the American Sociological Association so I will go to their journals as they come out. The wonk and data sources I turn to as I need them.
If you’ve gotten to this point in the post, kudos to you. You have read five thousand words. You are already primed for the kind of Slow Knowledge Movement that I’m advocating. I will work on a more condensed version of this later on (now I’m telling you!). In a culture awash in information, it is a tragedy that we have become such an uninformed people. In this regard, we have the best tools ever in the history of man to make informed decisions. What we are lacking is the value system to slow down and think. In my classroom, when I ask a question, I insist on my students taking about thirty seconds to think about their answers. It drives them crazy. But we have to slow down. We must replace a culture of “likes” and “shares” and “memes” and “soundbites” for one of slow knowledge. Otherwise, we are subject to those who would have us believe absurdities.
This isn’t an unusual nor historically unprecedented situation. Modern societies have always done this to an extent. The influences of the internet, cyber-based consumerism and even the existence of knowledge producers like News Corp who attack the validity of other news outlets as part of their business model have caused this phenomenon to become even more acute. Many of these knowledge collectives have become more exclusive and closed to outside influences.
Not to be confused with bubbablogs.com, which really is a site and does, in fact, include a description of his credentials.
This was from an actual post on a liberal news site. I will not post the link as the source is suspect. I in no way approve of or support this conclusion.