Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Navigating the sea of information isn't impossible

I did a survey on my facebook wall asking people about three issues that I felt were big issues, and which ones they felt were more important. Unanimously, all respondents thought that the following is one of the most severe problems in the modern world: understanding what information is valuable, and accessing that information. In fact, Mark (a friend of mine) made the comment that the other two problems I listed would be at least partially solved by coming up with a way to reliably navigate the sea of information that is available to us today. Below is my rough brain dump on that topic, fleshing it out a little, and I'd be very interested in your thoughts and input on this idea.
There is a ton of information available today. In the image above, you see just how much information is added to each of those media platforms. The question then becomes: how much of that information is valuable to a certain task (like looking up something, or trying to figure something out), and how far can we trust it?

If you try to rely on web sites, social media, or blogs, you might find things like, which claims that the earth is a disk, and all data saying otherwise is a conspiracy. They convince thousands each year of this "fact". You might stumble on conspiracy sites like the 9/11 Truthers or a site that appears authoritative, but isn't, like a diagnosis site that tells you just about every symptom tells you that you have cancer, or "news" articles that are actually paid advertisements, etc. You will also find flat-out falsehoods on social media (like Bill Gates giving $5K to everyone who shares a post or somebody speaking authoritatively, who actually don't know much about the subject.
Ok, but there are places that curate this data, right? Places like news outlets that tell us the facts, right? Wrong. In a study by Fairleigh Dickinson University, re-published by the Business Insider and others, they asked over 1000 people to explain some domestic and some international news, and looked at the news outlet they followed. It turns out that the major news outlets didn't help people better understand topics when compared to those who do not follow any news (in red; the bars plot the average number of questions right).

In fact, after the San Bernardino shooting, my family was at the doctor, waiting for some lab work, and CNN was playing in the background. They cut to President Obama, who said they are not ruling anything out from the investigation, including that it was an act of terror. The big banner on the bottom of the screen switched to "Obama not ruling out terrorism", and then they talked with several experts, saying, almost verbatim, "Since the president said we aren't ruling out terrorism, that means that it's pretty much definitely terrorism, right?" They spent the next 20 minutes basically trying to convince the viewer that it was definitely terrorism, even though none of the experts were comfortable with flat-out saying that.

Then you have this lovely piece of journalism, which covered the creation of the first fully synthetic strand of DNA that was capable of replicating itself. They spend the first few minutes mostly describing the innovation, but then they zoom in and in on a huge screen, showing just how small DNA is, and then they ask, "Why the hell would you spend $40 million and spend 15 years of research on such a tiny thing?! Here's a smart guy--listen to him." (that's about 2 minutes into the video). Even the title tries to demean the work, even though it is a huge milestone in biological engineering.

When looking at information, there are four main problems. Authority, access, vocabulary, and bias.

Authority refers to how well the person(s) presenting the information actually know the information. Generally, we want to hear from "experts", who are people that study/work with the subject material for a living, or who are very invested hobbiests in the subject. Basically, you want somebody who knows the good, bad, and ugly of a topic, so they understand many if not all facets of said topic, and who has spent a lot of time with it.

Access refers to how easily somebody can access the material. This includes basics like literacy, but mostly refers to the actual media used to present the information. Is it a research paper locked behind a paywall, or is it a video that needs a special codec (or like Netflix and needs Microsoft Silverlight)? Is it a book that has to be purchased, or is it freely available online?

Vocabulary refers to how easily the material can be understood. Many research papers bury their actual message in language so difficult to understand that it's pretty much worthless. Or others use words very particular to their field, so if you aren't an expert, you won't get much out of it.

Finally, bias seems to be the clearest problem. Like with the CNN stories above, they wanted you to think a certain way about the material, not really to understand all the details. They controlled everything from the title of the story (the first impression you get that colors the rest of your investigation), to what each fact means. We have have biases, but they can really cause some problems if we aren't careful.
One example of how to navigate the information comes from an anecdote by Markham Nolan about how his team verified war crimes that somebody posted a video of on youtube. They conducted some interviews, referencing the video, and then went to Google Maps, cross-referencing all possible locations until they found the one that likely matched the video. They then used weather reports, other freely-available data, and cross-referenced them with the interviews to come to the conclusion that the video was what it said it was. The authority of the video was confirmed, because it matched data from many other sources.

Now, this method of verifying authority is long, and requires a lot of work, which it seems most people aren't willing to go through. Historically, authority has come from religious affiliation (the Catholic church from 1000 or so on), from politics (CNN cut to the president and experts to add authority to their story), or from study (that's why we trust experts). So, my question to you all is: how can we verify the authority or authenticity of information? What things help you feel like the information is authoritative?

For brevity, I'll stop on authority for now. I am actively working on a solution to the problem of access which will simultaneously create an authoritative source of information for people, which will hopefully also be free of severe vocabulary and bias problems, but I'll discuss that in another post.

Right now, I'm very curious about your general thoughts about this problem. How do we know information is trustworthy? Where do we go for good information? How can we better spread reliable, accurate information, since mass media is doing such a poor job of it?

I look forward to your comments.

1 comment:

  1. Jordan, a very thought-provoking post. Just some thoughts:
    I think that biases are impossible to remove. If I commit a crime and someone sees me, they will tell the police how they thought I did it. I will tell them I'm innocent. The video camera will see another angle. Even if you remove human error (is this possible) and have a robotic or mechanical device view information, didn't a human with their own biases write the processes that the robot runs on? How can information have biases be removed, if ever? And if they can't be, can we ever know if anything we see or view is true?
    Descartes' idea of methodical skepticism claims we can only know something is true if we see it with our own eyes. This self-verification process would leave everyone motionless and powerless, because we need outside information to function.