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Beware of Truth Sayers

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, June 2nd, 2019 - 21 comments
Categories: drugs, journalism, Media, the praiseworthy and the pitiful - Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Recently, before Budgetgate, I came across this piece with a promising title: Social media – bringing falsehoods to a screen near you. On the site’s front (landing) page, it was advertised as

“Blurring facts and fantasy video OPINION: Fake news is everywhere – do your research.”

At the top of the article, it even had a video showing the PM with this caption: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talks with Stuff Political Editor Tracy Watkins on foreign aid and fake news.”

I was poised to be pleased reading this. So I thought.

And how disappointed I was.

It starts off promising enough. Apparently, “most of the country’s leading magazines” employ (or contract?) “skilled and experienced reporters to develop their editorial content, and often equally skilled lawyers to ensure the accuracy of the article or feature”. Skilled reporters and equally skilled lawyers, no less. The reason touted is to be “respectful of it’s [sic] readers and advertisers”. It could also be that they don’t like to be sued, but likely it is a bit of both.

The reasoning assumes that the readers of those magazines want to be informed. I reckon most readers want to be confirmed rather than informed and, of course, entertained. Publishers want to sell magazines so they give the readers what they want, of course.

The piece then goes on to lament the lack of the same safeguards in social media.

Getting it right doesn’t seem to matter much any more [sic]. Much of what is published via social media and elsewhere today, is opinion presented as fact.

Worse than that is material which deliberately sets out to mislead, often to support a particular view or agenda.

I couldn’t agree more there. So far, so good.

By and large they are un-checked. Often their material is shared and re-circulated many times over. And people will believe what they say.

My observation of this ever more dangerous news cycle is that it ultimately extends into the traditional press.

And then the real kicker comes.

He had heard a politician speak on talk radio on drug law reform. The female politician had said “that there was no evidence anywhere in the world where legalisation of marijuana for recreational use had impacted road crash statistics”. Clearly, this didn’t confirm the author’s bias and he went online to quickly find ‘facts’ that supported and re-assured his views on this.

And yet, a quick Google search on the impact of legalisation in Colorado, United States, which legalised marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes in 2014, will show that deaths from motor vehicle accidents increased from 488 in 2014 to 648 in 2017 according to the state’s Department of Transportation statistics. An increase of 33 per cent in three years. Is there any other explanation?

The sad fact is that the more often people get away with publishing inaccurate information, the more it will happen. Ultimately the falsehoods will make it to the traditional press. [my bold]

I also went online and did a quick Google search, as you do when somebody challenges your bias. The top-ranked article I found was Traffic deaths rose, then fell, after three states legalized marijuana – But that’s not the entire story. Things obviously are not as clear-cut as one would like to think or believe. The irony is palpable.

The point is not whether legalising marijuana caused a spike in traffic deaths in Colorado. Nor is it whether this could or would happen here in New Zealand if drug laws were to be reformed and liberalised. The point is that with so much inaccurate information around, so muck fake shit spouted by people with hidden agendas, the best approach is not to search for the first confirmation of your own beliefs and then stop. The point is to engage your brain, tackle your own inevitable bias, and challenge your own beliefs.

We can’t all have a considered opinion on all things that is based on proper research, validated evidence, and sound critical thinking. I think it is perfectly ok to say that you don’t know, that you’re not sure – let your inner Socrates (or Rumsfeld) speak. It beats by far stating an unsubstantiated opinion and claiming it as the truth.

21 comments on “Beware of Truth Sayers ”

  1. JanM 1

    Lazy non sequitor argument by a B- brain. Tracy Watkins is another piece of flotsam we would be better off without.

  2. vto 2

    So if I claim that National Party voters hate beneficiaries is that opinion or fact?

    Maybe it depends if those getting the old age benefit are included

    • JanM 2.1

      It's opnion of course. Where's your evidence? And, by the way, all statement of opinion should be preceeded by "I think that …."

  3. vto 3

    But seriously.. we were discussing last night how it's impossible to have decent conversations today because of exactly this…

    Some ignoramus will wail "naaaaa" and that will be it.

    Is there a solution?

    • higherstandard 3.1

    • Bewildered 3.2

      Yes, take the lefts perception of morale high ground, class and intersectional politics out of hard lefts argument , view every policy on its objective merits Presently you can’t debate hard left as every argument begins with, do you agree with me, answer, no, then you are scum, neoliberal facist ;sexist, racist, this then ends any debate on the facts at hand Example the lovely first comment of the day by Jan

      • JanM 3.2.1

        My comment was about the laziness of the non sequitor argument which at times is used by both right and left. Marijuana is made legal; there are more road deaths. Therefore making marijuana legal caused more road deaths. A classic! There is no reliable evidence to show that one follows the other. All other possible factors are ignored to prop up an opinion which may be completely false.

  4. Andre 4

    An oldie but goodie from Fivethirtyeight on good and lousy science and the reporting on it. It's longish but worth reading all the way through.


  5. Jenny - How to Get there? 5

    The point is that with so much inaccurate information around, so muck fake shit spouted by people with hidden agendas, the best approach is not to search for the first confirmation of your own beliefs and then stop. The point is to engage your brain, tackle your own inevitable bias, and challenge your own beliefs…..

    Another way is to actually have your own experience on the ground and to be in touch with the people and events and the facts that are actually being reported on.

    • Rosemary McDonald 5.1

      Another way is to actually have your own experience on the ground and to be in touch with the people and events and the facts that are actually being reported on.

      Thank you, Jenny-How to Get there?

    • Incognito 5.2

      Another way is to actually have your own experience on the ground and to be in touch with the people and events and the facts that are actually being reported on.

      Yes, that’s a start, almost …

      Your experience will be coloured by knowledge and lack thereof and by your own beliefs. How do you deal with that?

      What do you mean by “be in touch”? Social media? Do you trust those people and, if so, why?

      How do you verify “facts”? Google or Wikipedia?

      How do you form your opinion on stuff that happens at the other side of the world and which you know nothing about?

      How do you form your opinion when something is really very complex? Do you use Occam’s Razor?

      How do you present your opinion? Do you qualify it?

      Many people use heuristics such as common sense, but these have limitations, as you know.

      • greywarshark 5.2.1

        As far as trustworthiness is concerned, if you are 'in touch' with the same people often and they regularly verify their statements with personal or other anecdotes, and you have formed an opinion as to whether they pass on reliable info, and the same with semi or full scientific opinion, and you have read or heard much from them, then you can trust them to form good opinions, with the knowledge that on certain topics their judgment is biased.

        No-one is right all the time, often people are right but about something not the point of the argument, some people have a personal or religious filter that is like a flash card in their mind, then you aren't ever going to get a truly reasoned opinion as it's right, wrong, or we could save you if you come to us.

    • Sacha 5.3

      have your own experience on the ground and to be in touch with the people and events and the facts that are actually being reported on

      That helps you know what happened (in a limited number of places) but not really why.

      • Poission 5.3.1

        The incompleteness of a proof ( Kleene 1952)

        . . . we can imagine an omniscient number-theorist. We should expect that this ability to see infinitely many facts at once would enable him to recognize as correct some principle of deduction which we could not discover ourselves. But any correct formal system which he could reveal to us, telling us how it works, without telling us why, would still be incomplete.

        • Incognito

          To explain the phenomena in the world of our experience, to answer the question "Why?" rather than only the question "What?", is one of the foremost objectives of all rational inquiry; and especially scientific research, in its various branches strives to go beyond a mere description of its subject matter by providing an explanation of the phenomena it investigates. (Hempel and Oppenheim 1948: p8) [my bolds]


  6. Chris T 6

    Maybe I am getting old, but I have never understood why people would even get their news from social media sites.

    They are being feed it by their friends and the media site themselves political leanings perspective.

    It is natural people tend to be drawn to people and groups that agree with their point of you.

    Go to the source of the news, not who picks what you need to see.

    Mind you if you are a yank and have places like Fox and CNN, I understand this might not actually help when it comes to biases

  7. SHG 7

    I think the OP misses the point. It's not that material on social media is often opinion presented as fact; it's that the material is literally UNTRUE because the untrue version is more profitable than the true version.

    • Incognito 7.1

      Not sure I missed the point or a point, but point taken. You have made the same excellent point under an earlier post of mine and I refer anyone to it there: https://thestandard.org.nz/hate-speech-is-an-evitable-evil/#comment-1619332

      The post was not so much about why weak information and opinion masquerade as fact or factual on and in (social) media) but more about how we, as recipients and consumers (and products) of these media, deal with and respond to it.

  8. Is there any other explanation?

    Wow! Using correlation=causation to support your confirmation bias. Those really are mad skills those "skilled and experienced reporters" employ to ensure that their editorial features are accurate.

    This explains a great deal about Tracy Watkins political reporting, so thanks for drawing our attention to it.

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