Tag Archives: source credibility

two color line

Regaining a Consciousness of Character

                        My Dinner with Andre

Sometimes even a friend needs to hear that they need to have higher standards for judging the character of others.

Aristotle famously pointed out that who a person is can speak louder than what they say. He and other wide-ranging thinkers argued that one’s own personal credibility was precious: a character trait necessary to be a force for good in public discussion.  They used a phrase we barely hear today: the idea of the “virtuous person.”

We can’t say the impulse is dead. Novels, documentaries and films regularly put shallow and temporizing characters on display as negative models. Drama lets us see human frailty, keeping the idea of flawed, biased and unreliable sources visible. But the information overload that is now the norm often means that the character of a source is assessed last, if at all. To cite one instance, research shows that users of the internet for medical information are less likely to weigh the source than the “helpful” information, leaving many to bogus remedies promoted by companies whose interests are more marketing than medical.

The maw of fractured conversations we now witness across media platforms distracts us from considering the quality of sources. Narratives of dramatic events can easily draw us in to fascinating details before we have fully considered whether the core values of basic honesty and moral action have been met. Right now, for example, YouTube is full of stories about the Russian invasion of Ukraine that come from individual and private sources. These are usually hopeful but somewhat dubious assessments about Ukraine from individuals, rather than straight reporting from the field. We need to be alert to the likelihood that not every assertion is accurate, even if we want it to be.  People often get a free pass from us if their views and values align with our own.

In the Age of the Con, Who Can be Trusted?

As a culture, we seem increasingly slow to come to an awareness of another’s shortcuts around more rigorous investigation and fact-checking. Think of the claims that Elizabeth Theranos made for her rapid-result, all-in-one blood testing machines. We owe the initial awareness of her invention’s weaknesses to John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal. He was skeptical of the claims to investors made for the machine, and grew even more doubtful when some working at Theranos privately noted that the untested technology was capable of far less than advertised. Usually those working at a startup are as enthusiastic as the founders, hence, not very reliable if problems arise. Too much is at stake to communicate doubts. But the rare doubter within an organization who will talk may be more credible because they have placed truth higher than their own career. Like all of us, journalists must weigh the motives of a source when trying to sort out hopes from hard truths.

Personal credibility has recently received more attention in light of the leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion for overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark court decision guaranteeing Americans a choice in whether to proceed with a pregnancy.  An apparent majority now seems intent on overturning the landmark 1973 ruling. Politico released the draft copy indicating that Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett had voted with Samuel Alito to toss out the precedent. This was in spite of the fact that Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett had given public testimony at their confirmation hearings declaring Roe to be “settled law.” Critics were angry that these justices had not honored their earlier views to leave this key precedent in place.  Can future court nominees be trusted to act on their stated beliefs?

We need to consider the veracity of those whose who want to shape our attitudes and actions. Sometimes a friend needs to be reminded that they are putting their trust in the hands of someone unworthy of it. Several simple questions about sources are a good place to start:

  • Is the source in a position to know the truth or make a reasonable judgment?
  • Have other serious people supported the source’s reliability?
  • Is a person’s enthusiasm for an idea unreasonably coloring their judgment?
  • Can a source coherently explain their reasoning and evidence for an assertion?

And there’s one more question I find reassuring when answered in the affirmative.

  • Does a source have enough honesty to acknowledge not knowing enough to answer?

red concave bar

Putting Only 45 Cards on the Table

                              Source: Annalect

This is what the erosion of personal choice can look like.  We may not act on the best options available, because others are choosing them.

In the West we cherish the idea of individual freedom.  We act on the belief that we have ‘agency.’ That’s to say, the choices that matter are ours alone to make.  It’s a basic tenet of American life. Within the broad boundaries set by a civil society, no one has the right to deny or ignore them. But we are beginning to hear more for mathematician’s and others about “decisions” that are not as informed or self-generated as we may think.

Hannah Fry, a mathematician at University College, London has written about “tiny decisions on our behalf” that can be made without our blessing or our awareness. In an interview in reproduced in Vox, she notes that algorithms now effect many functions within our lives: “From what we choose to read and watch to who we choose to date, algorithms are increasingly playing a huge role. And it’s not just the obvious cases, like Google search algorithms or Amazon recommendation algorithms.”(Vox, October 1, 2018).

The broad palette of options presented to us from internet-based material have obviously been preselected, first and most obviously by advertisers who pay for high search placement, but also by algorithms used by internet providers to ostensibly match our interests.  If you have puzzled over why certain Facebook feeds go to some and not to others, you may have a growing sense that someone else is dealing the cards from a stacked deck. What someone sees at a given site is always a mystery: partly a function of the digital footprints we leave every time we double-click, but also because of unknowable algorithms.  We already know this, but its easy to forget about choices we never see.

By shifting decisions to mathematical formulas composed of triggering conditions we do not know we have essentially given up some of our autonomy.

At its most basic, an algorithm is just a formula for content selection that seems appropriate for a given consumer or class of consumers. It’s an efficient gatekeeping tool. And, to be sure, we have always had gatekeepers channeling some content in our direction and filtering out other items. But most of those decision-makers, especially in the news business, presumably use journalistic or source credibility standards for winnowing content.  Yet based on what I’ve seen from various feeds, its clear that those standards have been replaced by various triggers that have little to do with the quality of a given story.  For example, I see lots of stories of celebrity gossip from unknown “publications” on my Google Play, even though my interests lie elsewhere.

By shifting decisions to mathematical formulas composed of triggering conditions, we do not know what we have essentially given up.  Even a system truly based on probabilities and past practices is bound to yield results that are less than they should be. So when we are given “choices”—ranging from the best Asian restaurant “nearby,” to the most qualified news source for a specialized story—the recommendations are based on criteria we generally do not know.

All of this suggests that we have less to fear from robots than from programmed servers that only appear to be offering targeted information. In the 21st Century this is what the erosion of agency can mean.  Too often we are acting on options that have been set by others.