The first rule of the internet — the very first one — is, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” That seems simple enough, doesn’t it?. After all, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that something you receive in an email, see on a message board, or read on a web page with pictures of Elvis driving a flying saucer on the front page, probably isn’t something you’re going to want to bet the farm on. Only the ignorant, the gullible, or conspiracy theorists are going to be snookered by sources that dubious.
Then there are the biased sources, like Newsmax, The Village Voice, or evenRight Wing News ;). Since these sorts of websites don’t try to hide their partisan leanings, the reader can consider himself forewarned that people of a different ideological stripe might have a different take on the same issues. For example, if you went to Eschaton, a left-wing blog, and saw a headline that stated “George W. Bush wants to grind up fluffy kittens to help Haliburton profit margin,” your antennae would go up — because you know this is a left-wing blog — and you’d naturally take what you read with a grain of salt.
But, what gets people into trouble are the sources and articles that seem reliable, yet actually are about as trustworthy as the political info you get from your friend’s cousin’s mother’s brother after he finishes off his second pitcher of beer at Pizza Hut. And that’s where I come in.
Yes, I, your humble neighborhood blogger, am an information junkie’s information junky. For years now, I’ve been reading, analyzing, questioning, perusing, and skimming news from across the world in an effort to inform and entertain my readers. During that process, I’ve run across more than a few potholes on the information superhighway that can keep you from reaching your destination. Luckily for you, I’m going to clue you in on when you should get your antennae up so you can steer around those potholes instead of plowing over them like I’ve done far too often in the past. Keep an eye out for…
Anonymous Sources: Believe it or not, people often treat quotes from anonymous sources, even controversial quotes, as MORE CREDIBLE than quotes from people who go on the record because they believe they’re getting a scoop from an inside source. But in reality, there are a bevy of reasons to be concerned with the veracity of anonymous sources.
First and foremost among them is, of course, “Why are they coming forward without revealing their names?” Are they bitter for some reason and trying to get revenge? Do they want to make an outrageous assertion that they don’t want their names attached to when it’s proven to be untrue? Could they be partisan holdovers from another administration who’d be revealed as biased if they went on the record? Heck, in these days and times when we have reporters like Jayson Blair sitting in New York bars writing “on site” stories that put them in the Mid-West, you even have to question whether the reporter exaggerated or made up the quote from the source. For the most part, anonymous sources are much more appropriate for smut rags like the Enquirer than mainstream papers.
Anecdotal Stories: It doesn’t matter if you assert that the CIA was actually behind 9/11 or that there are 100,000 Chinese troops poised on the Mexican border to invade Texas, you’re going to find at least a handful of people who’ll believe it. That’s why anecdotal stories that feature a few quotes that are supposed to be representative of a larger group are generally worthless. Actually, make that worse than worthless, because anecdotal stories are more often than not misleading.
Judging by how most of the anecdotal stories in the mainstream press seem to play out these days, here’s how you have to figure they’re put together. A reporter comes up with a theme for a story, interviews people until he gets several juicy quotes that support the point he wants to make while discarding contrary opinions, and then he writes a story implying that the people they talked to represent a majority. The mainstream media runs these sort of stories about Iraqis, soldiers, military families, 9/11 victims among others and usually the only common theme you’ll see are that the people quoted don’t accurately reflect the feelings of the group they’re supposed to represent and the articles almost always reflect poorly on the Bush administration. What liberal media, right?
Enemy & Civilian Casualties: When our troops are fighting in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to get an accurate estimate of how many civilian or enemy fighters are killed is nearly impossible. Combatants dressed in civilian clothes fire at our troops from areas inhabited by civilians. Wounded fighters may crawl away after being hit or be dragged away by their compatriots. Women and children are used as human shields — sometimes involuntarily making them civilians — sometimes voluntarily making them members of the enemy force.
On top of that, opposing forces and even the Arab press commonly downplay the number of losses taken by enemy fighters and dramatically inflate the number of civilians killed. Last but not least, in the heat of combat, it’s very difficult for the members of our military to give an accurate count of how many people they’ve killed when they have bullets whizzing around their head and massive explosions going off all around them. So it’s fair to say that any enemy or civilian casualty numbers you hear from the front may be less accurate than Bill Clinton’s explanation to Hillary of why a woman answered his phone at 4 AM.
Foreign Papers: Don’t get me wrong, there are some really superb foreign newspapers out there like the Jerusalem Post or the Online Sun (Stop sneering, you elitist ;). However, there are also legions of unreliable foreign papers that play so fast and loose with the facts that you can’t trust anything you’re reading. That includes all of the government controlled press in the Middle-East, Al-Jazeera, & Russia’s Pravda.
Furthermore, it’s also worth remembering that some of the European newspapers like The Guardian & The Independent slant so far to the left that they have more in common with openly left-wing US websites like The Nationthan they do left-leaning papers masquerading as unbiased sources like theWashington Post.
Internet Polls: Few things are easier than influencing the results of an internet poll. All it would take to send tens of thousands of people to a local church website to write in Satan as a choice for a new pastor would be posts on a handful of large message boards and websites. In fact, this has been done so often by the folks over at Free Republic that the word “freep” has come to mean deliberately skewing a poll. Not to say that online polls aren’t entertaining, they can be, as long as you don’t confuse them with some sort of accurate reflection of the public’s feelings on a subject.
Scientists: Understandably, most people tend to pay quite a bit of attention to articles featuring scientists talking about their fields of expertise. However, you must keep in mind that whole image that has been built up of scientists as impartial fellows only interested in the facts and whatever can be proven in the laboratory is pure bunk.
Not only do scientists have political biases that affect their opinions just like the rest of us, they may have large amounts of grant money and years’ worth of papers and research that can all be riding on coming down a certain way on an issue. For example, if a liberal scientist who has written a book on the existence of global warming, given countless lectures on its existence, & lives off a $250,000 grant to study the subject by an environmentalist group comes to the conclusion that global warming is incredibly overblown or doesn’t exist, is he really going to say so? Human nature says that under those circumstances some people will come forward, but most people won’t.
Perhaps more importantly, we must remember that there’s often just as much disagreement in the fields that these scientists come from as you’ll see on a typical edition of “Crossfire.” So if you’re not hearing a scientist with a dissenting opinion, do you really know if you’re getting the whole story?
Washington Budget Numbers: Let me tell you a little story that’ll give you an idea of how dishonest the figures tossed around by Washington politicians are. Let us say that there is a proposal to raise the funding for “educating the orphaned children of patriotic Americans who also love fluffy puppies” by a billion dollars a year. But, Senator Phineas J. Taxemall votes for an Amendment to that bill that would only raise spending by 800 million a year. So the good Senator just voted to raise spending for the orphans by 800 million a year, right?
WRONG…well, at least according to the campaign ads the Senator will see the next time he’s up for the election. Those ads will say “Senator Phineas J. Taxemall voted to CUT funding for educating the orphaned children of patriotic Americans who also love fluffy puppies by 2 BILLION dollars! How can any man be so cruel”? So how would his opponent come up with those numbers? Easy. In Washingtonspeak, increasing spending “only” 800 million when you could have spent a billion is a CUT, not an increase. Then you run those numbers over say a 10 year period and sabim, sabam, there’s your 2 billion dollar cut. The same sort of hinky number crunching is done with tax raises, the deficit, & Social Security (The “trust fund” is actually an IOU), so you can’t trust those numbers either.