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Who wants you to believe it?


We say that we live in the information age. The available quantity of information is immense. The reliability of that flood of information is uncertain. That situation is not entitely new; there have always been rumors. But electronic communication gives us access to more rumors and false information than we can easily process. We need reliable information to conduct our daily lives and exercise our responsibilities. How do we distinguish between accurate information and false information? It is not easy.

Traditionally, we have relied on editors to assure the quality of information in the journals we read. But now electronic technology allows anyone to bypass the editorial review. Anyone can deliberately or inadvertently deliver inaccurate or false information to a large number of people. The recipients of those messages can pass them on to many more people. However, some of the information passed by individuals or organizations is accurate and useful. How do we distinguish the good from the bad?

Illegal immigration can be used to illustrate the problem. We can learn the number of people who were apprehended trying to enter the United States illegally by checking government reports. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that 337,117 people were caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally during FY 2015. But no one knows how many people successfully evaded detection and entered the U.S. illegally during FY 2015. If a writer wants us to believe that those undetected entries are a serious problem, the writer will likely try to convince us that it was a large number of people who were not caught. But, if a writer wants us to believe that the problem is insignificant, the writer will probably tell us that only a very small number escaped capture. When we read that kind of message, we can either be skeptical because of lack of evidence, or we can believe what we want to believe.

We are advised to seek a second opinion if a serious medical procedure is recommended. That seems reasonable; it offers some assurance that we are getting reliable information.

One key to understanding the information we receive is to learn who is financing the distribution. “Think tanks,” non-profit organizations, some academics and others may reflect the interests of their financial sponsors. The tobacco industry made extensive efforts to convey the notion that smoking was not harmful. The pharmacutical company that manufactures oxycodone, an opioid used for relief of pain, contended that it was not addictive. We now know that it is addictive. Some oil companies have sponsored writers who cast doubt about climate science.

During the past year, writers have assured us that the “greatest problem” we face in the 21st century is ________. The list of “greatest problems” is long. No one can predict the future when that future can be influenced by millions of people and random events.

Some issues are complex. Pundits and historians like to tell us why the ancient Roman Empire collapsed. One scholar counted the theories advanced by various historians. He counted 210 different theories given as the reason that the Roman Empire declined. In this case, believe whatever you choose because proof isn’t possible.

The constitutional right of free speech is vital, but it can be misused. Be a little skeptical and ask: Who wants me to believe this? Verify by checking other sources if you can.

Jack Stevenson is retired from military and civil service and now reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.

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