Trust and Evidence / Consensus Vs. Truth

“I consider myself an educated person; in fact, this is my professional, full-time job. I’m very lucky that this is all I do. I get to think about this stuff every day and read peer-reviewed studies and stuff like that. But if I am honest with myself, I am still at a fundamental level relying on trust to a certain degree. There’s no way of getting around that. And to pretend that what ‘we the enlightened cognoscente’ do is so different from what they are doing who just trust authority is just self-delusional.” -Chris Hayes, March 25, 2012

How often have you read an article online or a newspaper and every other line citing the events of the story reads: “According to authorities…, officials said…, according to U.S officials…, Local authorities said…” I’ll bet you read something today with one or more references to these mysterious authority figures. But mysterious is seldom how we would interpret these individuals and organizations if they have a name associated with them at some point during the article. “According to the FDA…, officials at the Orange County Police Department report…, the Chief Medical Examiner spoke with us today and said…, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said…” Once we recognize that the cited authority is one we view as potentially trustworthy or, in the very least, identify as a respectable party generally associated with the events of the story, then we’ve already granted the source some legitimacy by making no other inquiry whatsoever. If the Chief Medical Examiner said it then it must be true, yet when you shine the political light on the situation, it changes. If President Obama said it then it’s completely disputable.

Now obviously it’s completely encouraged to question the motives of politicians—and rightly so—but why are we so frequently willing to give up our “need to be persuaded” in the case of the bombardment of other news items that we view regularly—some political and others not? In the case of every “real” thing (necessarily broad) that happens in this world, unless we are actually physically—and in the right mind—present witnessing it, then it will inevitably end up siphoning through a chain of interpretations. Haven’t you ever played telephone?

So we end up systemically disadvantaged when trying to discover and understand what happens in the world at the most basic level. Unless something happens in your backyard, or to you personally, you will forever trust someone else to deliver truth for you. This is one of the most unfortunate facts known about the world today, we honestly can’t purport to know the truth about what really goes on in the world as the knowledge and understanding we gain is itself obtained through a manufactured perspective. Supposed “prominent authorities” are cited not to offer the story the justice it deserves; but to make the interpretation(s) sound legitimate. I think it is common knowledge to those with a slightly more engaged interest in the issues of our day that the mainstream media is a highly corrupted enterprise, both with a red-hand in government and financial gaming. They have the advantage of deciding what they want us to know, and one that they so unashamedly and irresponsibly abuse. This is nothing new, I mean, this is why we study history and teach reasoning and logic. Thankfully we live in the golden age of the Internet, the very place where information and perspective is freely and abundantly available. But even so, we’re still on the receiving end of interpretation bias in pursuit of truth. How are we supposed to go about deciding for ourselves what is honest and well-intentioned as it relates to the decipherability of news? Well, that’s precisely the challenge.

Information that’s given to us that appears factual in nature obviously needs verifying. Statistics, graphs, charts, polls—while they represent factual data, whether that data is factually relevant to the case we’re examining is a completely different question. Statistics of the kind I just mentioned work in the same way as citing authority does, to manipulate the reader into thinking about the source as legitimate. But numbers and graphs don’t mean anything unless it is rightly understood why they exist and why they are documented for public viewing. It is upon this discovery that turns data into evidence. We have to be careful though—we know that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But it’s become our responsibility as people desiring truth to try to understand the motives behind the evidence presented. We want to seek out organizations whose job it is to present data to the public. Over time, this is generally how trust forms. We trust the Food and Drug Administration to report findings of unsafe pharmaceuticals, food products, and various other health-linked consumables. We trust the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics to provide us with measured facts regarding unemployment, consumption, import prices, ect. References from measured statistical data of this kind can be used as evidence for the types of claims made by the media that we read about every day. But in order for the evidence to be accepted, it must be deemed trustworthy. Consensus is the methodology human beings have come to understand that builds this kind of trust.

Despite my thoughts on this topic, I still find myself at a crossroad here. Going back to the quote at the beginning of this article by Chris Hayes—despite the amount of apparent verifiable evidence and consensus we’re faced with, we’re still relying on our mere trust of the information that we’re presented; bearing in mind that desirability isn’t a prerequisite of truth. Truth exists separate of whether we believe it or not. You look at some of the biggest issues of our day—anthropogenic climate change, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Movement—and what you find is evidence of widespread consensus. In the case of climate change, all we can do is trust consensus. In the cases of both the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, all we can do is trust consensus on institutional failure.

This is the limit of human experience. It is important that we both acknowledge consensus-supported facts and evidence while rejecting unsubstantiated interpretation. In the case of both, personal inquiry is absolutely necessary. Dig a little deeper.

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