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Being a responsible information consumer in the Information Age

While this isn’t specifically a drug policy post, it’s something I wrote for my friends on Facebook that I wanted to share…

How’s your bullshit detector?  In today’s world, you really need a working one, and you need to keep it well-honed.

Before the Information Age, there were editors and curators to manage the flow of information, cull out the obviously false or crackpot, and present the consumer with somewhat carefully vetted digests in the form of the nightly news, the daily newspaper, or the museum. While certainly not perfect, these systems at least provided a filter.

All that changed when the internet made all information, regardless of validity, available equally to consumers. Individuals were then required to become their own editors — something we absolutely failed to teach — and some succeeded, while many have failed miserably. Every crackpot idea, conspiracy theory, and false story can now find an audience ready to believe, simply because they’ve seen it ‘on the internet.’

First it was the viral emails that were circulated by your grandfather, and organizations like Snopes had to come forward to provide a repository for debunking them. Even then, it was amazing how few people seemed to have the capability of taking a phrase and typing it into Google to see if it had already been determined to be a hoax. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now a wider range of organizations and businesses are actually finding it advantageous to prey on the gullibility of the internet audience and purposely disseminate misinformation for political or financial profit.  

A primary tool these organizations is taking advantage of is “confirmation bias.” Everybody has it, although they may not be aware.  Confirmation bias makes you believe information that supports the opinion you already hold (despite contrary evidence) and to disbelieve even verified information that opposes your opinion. Someone who believes President Obama is unfit to be President is likely to believe any stories that he’s a Muslim, or not a citizen, or has some other defect, regardless of the lack of evidence. Similarly, someone who honestly (and correctly) believes that a group is being treated unfairly, for example, is likely to believe (and share on Facebook) any stories that support that belief, regardless of how far-fetched or untrue.

I had a very bad moment personally with confirmation bias. Years ago, there was a politician I didn’t like, and I heard online that this politician was hosting a horribly racist event. I was outraged (almost gleefully so) and wrote about it everywhere I could on the web, and even contacted local media to tell them about it so they would report the outrage. But I never verified the story. It was fake – a plant by someone to discredit this Congressman. I believed it without checking… because I wanted to.

That experience made me feel horrible, and I vowed never to let it happen to me again. Sure, I still despised that Congressman, but I was determined to use the truth and not be used by lies.

These days, confirmation bias is used in a variety of ways. A simple example is The Daily Current. While The Onion has established itself as a funny parody news site, the Daily Current instead prefers stealth — writing outrageous things that people would like to believe are true while subtly disguising the parody status, thereby getting people to share it and increasing revenue from links.

However, there are much more insidious approaches to misinformation. Advocacy groups of all kinds have discovered that they get more Facebook shares, more followers, and better fundraising the more that they are able to outrage their supporters. So, many of these groups exaggerate, manipulate the data, leave out key information, or repeat debunked points in order to motivate us. While probably the prime example of this technique is a lot of what you see on Fox News, it is also heavily used by mainstream advocacy organizations and websites across the entire political and social spectrum.

Some of this is going to get even worse as we approach the election cycle. Both parties know full well that the best way to motivate their base and stimulate fundraising is to find ways to get people outraged at the extremes on the other side. There’s nothing better than the boogie-man in the opposition — “If you don’t vote for us, people like THIS will be controlling your life.” Fear motivates, and it also keeps the party from having to actually defend or explain what it has done.  Irrelevancy and misinformation is part of the bullshit coming from both parties.

Now, I write about drug policy. Because I care about writing accurately, when a new study comes out, I don’t just read the reporting about the study, I track down and read the study itself, which means I had to learn how to understand science writing. That’s all very time consuming and a lot of work, but it’s important to me to be accurate with what I share.  I’m very careful not to share positions when I don’t have good information. That doesn’t prevent me from having a strong position.

I know, you can’t do that kind of work all the time on every subject yourself. But you can try to find the sources who do.

There’s no perfect source – you might think that a professional reporter would get it right, and yet I’m in the position of contacting reporters weekly to correct false information that they’re printing related to drug policy issues. And you certainly can’t necessarily trust the government – the drug czar, for example, is required by law to lie (true, check it out).  There are false data points that have been repeated so many times in the media that they have developed a life of their own (human trafficking figures are a prime example).

So how can you detect the bullshit?  It’s not easy. The first step is to be aware of your own confirmation bias — be suspicious of any information that automatically outrages you and makes you think “Yep, I knew it.” Before sharing it, try to find out some more – see if more than one site is reporting it, and find a source that you trust.  

If a political or social “fact” has been photoshopped into a picture for easy sharing without links to verify it, it’s probably an exaggeration, out of context, or outright false.

If you’re getting nutritional science information from someone who calls herself The Food Babe, or an anchor on a television morning show, rethink it.

When a source of information you normally trust fails you even slightly, call them on it; if they fail to provide links, ask them for it.

Finally, if you care enough about a topic to share it with people, have the integrity to actually find out what the arguments are on the other side, and I don’t mean how your side characterizes the other side’s arguments, but what the other side truly believes and why. Actually try to step in their shoes. If your position is right, you shouldn’t fear this due diligence.

Be a good and responsible editor of your own information. Use your bullshit detector liberally.

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27 comments to Being a responsible information consumer in the Information Age

  • Nunavut Tripper

    Great points made Pete. I’m getting better at spotting BS
    and learning to back up my opinions with links to peer reviewed studies which can sometimes be biased themselves.

    I’ve seen several local activists fooled by articles in the Onion and Daily Currant including myself but we’re all progressing aren’t we ?

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  • Randy

    Everyone has an agenda. Unfortunately, the truth isn’t always at the top of the agenda.

    Well-liked Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  • Dante

    I use you, Pete, as my proxy BS detector.

    Works for me.

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  • divadab

    Yup, and the dissemination of BS goes hand-in-hand with the suppression of the truth. WHat kind of organization suppresses the truth and disseminates BS? The ONDCP; the DEA; and all the other Prohibition war Profiteers, who profit from oppressing non-criminals.

    I’d also add all the organizations involved in suppressing info on the GMO content of foods, including Monsanto, and The Grocery Manufacturers Association! You know, the people who sell us our food and who don’t want us to know what’s in it. IMHO the AG & Food INdustrial complex is, at least in this, as evil as the military-industrial complex.

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  • thelbert

    i wish i had my bs detection working when i believed that obama was a dangerous doper radical and voted for him. just because he smoked dope in his elite high school didn’t make him a man of the people, i learned.

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  • NorCalNative

    Possibly due to rereading Orwell’s “1984” so many times over the years, I’ve developed a kind of second-sense for misinformation, misdirection and omission.

    I went on a hundreds-of-hours research BINGE following viewing Rick Simpson’s “Run from the Cure.” I needed to KNOW for myself whether his claims were true or not.

    I found that using PogoFrog.com a medical research search engine for physician’s that I rarely came across NIDA bullshit. If you use “conventional” search engines like google NIDA is EVERYWHERE.

    Foreign reporting from parties without a dog in any particular fight are a good way to see the big picture without the normal “local” or “domestic” bias if and when the reporting can be found.

    And, once you find good folks like Pete and Glenn Greenwald that you can trust it makes it a lot easier to cut through the crap of bias.

    Does a LINK NEED to be something folks can actually click on, or is listing or noting where the actual points and/or research came from enough?

    I used research abstracts as vocabulary lists and then Bing Images in order to really get a good understanding of the very complex scientific jargon. If you keep at it, eventually you’ll be reading real science and be able to form your own educated opinions.

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    • Nunavut Tripper

      What personal conclusion did you come to after researching
      Rick Simpson Oil ?

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  • claygooding

    The ballot initiative for legalizing weed in DC made the ballot,,,,for growing.useing and possession of small quantities,,,and ♫ the beat goes on ♫

    http://tinyurl.com/phxlkov

    “”Earlier today, the District of Columbia Board of Elections unanimously voted Initiative 71 into the Nov. 4 ballot. Under the initiative, DC residents over the age of 21 would be legally allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana as well as up to six plants for home cultivation. Currently DC law prohibits the ballot initiative to address the sale of marijuana, although the DC Council is also considering a separate bill that would allow the district to regulate and tax marijuana.”” ‘snip’

    Let’s see kev spin this.

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    • Duncan20903

      .
      .

      Without doubt it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye but I think that we need to remember that in DC what they call a citizen generated ballot initiative is more accurately called a citizen generated suggestion. The DC Council can rewrite the suggested law and both the DC Council and Congress can say forget about it, it ain’t happening. On the plus side the vote is expected to be 70% or more in favor. What kind of message does that send to the children nationwide?

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  • allan

    OT… [a true tale] I was talking to a friend the other day and I was reminded during our conversation about an incident in basic training in 1970. I thought some here might appreciate it.

    When I was inducted into the air force we left L.A. late at night and got into San Antonio early a.m. By the time we were fed and issued bunks it must’ve been 0300.

    And that was a tired 0300… we were glad to hit those sheets. We were taught a lot of things military during basic. But we also learned a few things they didn’t teach…

    When we were leaving our barracks heading off to our course trainings, we had one last inspection. They want those new recruits to have everything ready to go upon arrival. We did, indeed.

    I’ve always been curious how a whole squad (if memory serves we had 60 to a barracks) of fresh off the farm basic trainees felt crawling into their beds at 3 a.m. only to find their feet could only go halfway down the bed. After that last inspection we had about 2 minutes to short sheet every bed there… and did it in 1.

    Just one of those accomplishments where I’ve never been able to enjoy watching the discomfort of others I helped create. Hopefully the drill instructors enjoyed it…

    I’m also to the point where watching the prohibs squirm these days is making up for the loss of that never witnessed basic training punking. I mean I hope they’re really feeling uncomfortable. And if not, we’ll try harder, we always do.

    Speaking of prohibs, would it libel, truth or slander if I called Robt Dupont a drug war profiteer with a corporate, industrial level piss fetish?

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  • Despite Marijuana Legalization, Traffic Fatalities in Colorado Continue to Fall http://tinyurl.com/pkxcz9m

    “25 percent of all drug-related fatal vehicle accidents in the U.S. involve marijuana.”
    http://tinyurl.com/p22a3wx

    My BS meter went off the chart on this one. Would it clarify the matter for you to say “well, its half true”?

    “25 percent of all drug-related fatal vehicle accidents in the U.S. involve marijuana.” is complete BS for stating a puposely impertinent fact to confuse the issue.

    My meter reads 100% complete BS on this one. The Tampa Bay Times Miami Herald gets rated 0% impartial for their meter read.

    Well-liked Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

    • claygooding

      If 25% of the people involved in fatal accidents have marijuana metabolites in their system it confirms mine and other’s hypothesis that the drug warriors are lying about the actual number of marijuana users,,they grudgingly admit to 12% of the population use marijuana but traffic accidents say it is twice as many and possibly more,,since we know marijuana drivers probably avoid more accidents it could go as high as half.

      Spin that one at Dupont.

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      • Duncan20903

        .
        .

        The gross revenue of medicinal cannabis vendors in Colorado convinced me. I doubt very highly that more than 5% of gross revenue would volunteer to be taxed. Even if I double that to 10% $1.5 billion in gross reported revenue makes me fishmouth at the actual size of the market.

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        • darkcycle

          My take as well. It staggers me that lil’ bitty Bellingham is able to support no fewer than five brick and mortar dispensaries. And god only knows how many delivery only operations. Yet, when two State stores opened, they were STILL picked clean in hours.
          Shall we even TRY to guess at the actual BLACK MARKET? I’m not willing to do that, and the idea that BOTEC came anywhere near the actual nubers is laughable.
          We got too good at hiding, all these years. There’s more than even we imagined.

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  • Servetus

    Information dispensing also requires people get their act together. Bad information dispenser: Florida cop is busted lobbying against medical marijuana — http://tinyurl.com/l3uw3xh.

    Well-liked Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    • kaptinemo

      The law that they never seem to mention in either of the 2 articles is the State version of Federal Hatch Act, which prohibs have been violating with impunity for DECADES.

      The worst national example of this was when Ol’ Johnny Pee was told by Karl Rove to use ONDCP resources to stump for Republicans in the 2007-08 Election campaign.

      That a prohib may finally be held to account for this indiscretion regarding this issue is another indicator of our further success.

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      • darkcycle

        Fife is a small, mixed industrial/residential city just North of Tacoma. It sits smack in the middle of the “stink corridor” wafting from the cities paper pulp mills.
        It stinks there. Literally as well as figuratively. I wrote a poem once about Tacoma, and I will share it here, for your couchy enjoyment:
        I’d rather be in a deep, dark pit,
        With mould and fungus,
        In which to sit…
        Than be in Tacoma,
        With that peculiar aroma,
        That reminds me of fresh laid sh*t.

        Thank you. Please throw money.

        On edit, I realized this went to the wrong comment….supposed to go with your Fife comment below, Kap.

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  • thelbert

    looks like there may be a bonehead or two running
    Fife, WA: http://tinyurl.com/lmyj58u

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    • kaptinemo

      ‘Fife’, huh? Barney’s home town, I suppose. Probably fitting, given what they’re attempting.

      I don’t see much of a future for the City Council there; they should have enough sense not to urinate into a (social and political) wind rising to hurricane force. The voters may find they’re too expensive to keep, given the cost of the inevitable lawsuits they’ll generate.

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      • thelbert

        actually fife is smaller than mayberry. i once worked for a cheap bastard named barney koski in fife. i cut fire wood for two weeks for him and all i got out of the deal was a dog named pedro.

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  • Irie

    LOL, so now numnuts Leonhart has got to be kidding, shes now trying to say, the idea that because of the dangers of dogs eating edibles, thats why we need to keep ganga illegal?? Hey, don’t get me wrong, I am a passionate dog lover, and for no reason do I want to see my animal put in harm’s way because of my neglect, period. With that being said, this is the best this twit can do now, she has been reduced to this kind of statement?? Sorry, I find it a bit humorous……just like my dad use to say years ago when he was alive regarding higher ups in law enforcement, “nothing more than just a high paid dog catcher”.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/02/dogs-marijuana-pets_n_5078556.html

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    • Viggo Piggsko Flatmark

      ha ha, she is two sandwiches short of a picnic.
      Btw, I think dogs can get sick from hops too.

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    • War Vet

      I think dogs are safer under legalization. Just look at what happened in Missouri or Afghanistan. I would rather give my dog a 500mg edible (non-chocolate/raisin/macadamia) than to have my dog roaming Afghanistan sniffing for Bombs bought with illegal marijuana/dope money . . . I think my dog will survive pot better than an IED (maybe bombs are safer than an edible–I could be just biased though).

      And using dogs to sniff dope is nothing less than animal cruelty. Drugs cannot harm, unlike bombs.

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  • I thought this was very enlightening:

    One Look at Who’s Funding the War on Drugs Reveals How Much You Can Trust Anti-Marijuana Ads
    http://tinyurl.com/on5dd3p

    “A medical director for pharmaceutical company Orexo sits on the board of Project SAM …”
    http://www.orexo.com/en/Products/

    Well-liked Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  • Duncan20903

    .
    .

    At first glance I thought, “I’d keep my mouth shut if I was unable to differentiate between a tyrant and a transsexual person,” but then I realized that if I were that stupid, that I probably wouldn’t have a clue how stupid that would sound.
    Libety or Tranny?

    Now that’s one difficult choice. I hope I’m never in the position of having to decide. But I would like to know, who introduced the illiterate to politics? Sometimes I wonder if these people actually know what an Obama is.

    Well-liked Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

    • darkcycle

      That’s a really hard choice…
      Bwah-hahahahahahahahaha!

      Well-liked Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    • War Vet

      Those poor people really need their jobs. NO jobs creates stress and stress harms IQ and a lowered IQ is no friend of spelling.

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