Post No.: 0174
Direct evidence and primary information sources, which include videos, photographs and eyewitness statements – are the original sources of data. Indirect evidence and secondary information sources, which include newspaper reports, forums and blogs – provide opinions, versions of events and commentaries. In the middle of this spectrum are expert opinions, where even though the experts weren’t witnesses to a particular case, they may have been witnesses to similar cases and/or are more informed than regular laypeople on an issue. Secondary sources are more likely to present mere second-hand rumours and hearsay, but primary sources can also vary in reliability too (e.g. doctored images, unreliable eyewitness testimonies), and experts won’t always get it right even though they’re more informed than regular laypeople because some things by nature are harder to predict than others (e.g. long-range economic forecasts).
When trying to reconstruct a story, many pieces of information often come from inferences rather than deductive logic or direct evidence e.g. ‘he/she was late coming home and didn’t tell his/her spouse where he/she had been’ is often inferred to mean ‘he/she was cheating on his/her spouse’ but this is not for certain and there was no direct evidence provided here to support this hypothesis. We intuitively try to make ‘one and one equal two’ to construct a coherent story – a ‘likely’ or ‘plausible’ story – but the more coherent a story may seem, the less likely it could actually be due to the ‘conjunction fallacy’. This is when adding more inferred details to a story may make the story sound more plausible, but the more inferred details are added, the logically less likely that story actually happened that way e.g. ‘the dog was last seen going into the kitchen, the kitchen is in a mess’ is more logically probable than ‘the dog was last seen going into the kitchen, the dog must’ve been hungry, the dog must’ve therefore caused a mess after looking for some food, the kitchen is in a mess’ even though the latter may seem more plausible. (It honestly wasn’t my fault :(. Woof!)
So adding inferred details makes it less probable that an event happened in that exact way. This logic is exploited in the other way when predictions are made that are so incredibly vague and ambiguous that it’s more probable that something will happen in that way e.g. ‘someone familiar to you will have cause for unbridled elation someday around the ascent of bloom’ compared to ‘your cousin will celebrate winning a game of golf by 2 strokes next Saturday’. This is why supposed prophesies from supposedly accurate clairvoyants are so vague and ambiguous – they’re trying to increase the probability that ‘something’ will happen that fits their description fully. Sounding ‘mystical’ and like a puzzle is just a cover for ‘I don’t really know for sure!’
Even actual evidence can be ambiguous, outcomes can have multiple different possible causes, and inferences can easily break down in the light of new and more concrete evidence. One must also question where/from whom a piece of evidence came from? Was it from an impartial and independent source or from someone who had a grudge or ulterior motive? How did this statistic arise? For instance, how and where was this survey conducted? Numbers can sound more objective than words but numbers can still be questionable too (see Post No.: 0167 for more on this topic.) Is it an original copy rather than a photocopy or scan?
So one must question if it is reliable evidence. Not even all types of scientific studies or therefore scientific conclusions are equal in their reliability or statistical confidence. Frauds also occasionally occur in science too because they are ultimately conducted by humans, who might have other, self-interested, agendas. One must question whether the evidence is truly relevant to the case too (e.g. having committed ‘no previous offences’ doesn’t mean that this couldn’t be their first?)
Be aware that some sources of evidence or ‘evidence’ come from paid-for expert or ‘expert’ testimony, which may affect their opinions/statements – whenever money or a benefit-in-kind is involved, the truth can (not always but often) be skewed to serve interests that don’t align with the truth or at least the whole truth. People can even be exploited or threatened to give a certain response (e.g. if someone doesn’t say what a journalist or news outlet wants them to say, they can be left out of an article and/or not paid). This conflict of interest is not always made transparent to the audience too, but if it is then you must look at other independent pieces of evidence and make your own judgement as to whether the arrangement affected the testimony or not.
Someone who is an insider may logically likely have more information than an outsider, but of course their views will need to be cautioned with the fact that they might be strongly biased for precisely being an insider (i.e. not independent e.g. they might particularly like or hate their employer due to personal rather than widespread reasons). Sometimes there may be legitimate reasons for sources staying anonymous (e.g. humiliation or retribution against whistleblowers) so in the end it’s again down to cross-referencing with other pieces of evidence (if possible) and your own judgement call to trust them or not. For named sources, one can try to find their biographies on the Internet to check for any conflicts of interest, their political affiliations or background histories, for instance.
Whenever we hear that an anonymous source has claimed something though, especially only verbally, we must somewhat take that information with a pinch of fluffy salt because we cannot say one way or the other whether it can be relied upon or not. If sources are protected then how can anybody independently verify anything they say? A journalist may claim to have verified his/her sources but no one else can go double-check it. Whether it came from a source within a government, a corporation or the general public, we cannot just take it at face value if they don’t want to be accountable for their own words. It could be a pretender (e.g. someone spreading lies whilst pretending to be from an organisation in order to make that organisation seem bad) or it could be genuine? One should not be biased to jump to a conclusion (e.g. automatically assuming that anything said by a foreign source that seems to taint the integrity of one’s own government must be false). So in itself we cannot presume its veracity, or lack of, if we are to be critical thinkers.
There are some legitimately fair reasons why some sources want to be kept anonymous, but it doesn’t help the verification and accountability of the information they present. But it becomes more credible if they can provide something more concrete, and when at least some of this evidence can be cross-checked with separate independent and verified sources.
There can be some value in getting the opinions of ordinary people on the street (if they’re genuinely randomly picked and no one gets edited out – but that’s a big if), and getting the voice and opinions of members of the public is a thing that reporters frequently do (it can be considered ‘lazy journalism’ though to ask the public ‘what do you think?’ for their opinions rather than seeking hard facts elsewhere!) However, one needs to ask ‘where they actually there or just ‘around that area’ when the incident happened?’ and ‘what do they actually know about the subject being asked?’ because these people likely aren’t any more expert or informed than the rest of us! Often what tends to happen too is that people will get selected or edited out in order to present a more 50:50 balanced cross-section of opinions, but 50:50 might not be a fair representation of the true balance of the opinions gathered. The news outlet might do this in order to not be accused of being biased one way or another – but in trying to contrive a more 50:50 balance of opinions, it can be misrepresenting the public. In the end, this contrivance could even reshape public opinions to be more divisive and split down the middle when it wasn’t before.
And just because some opinions are more popular or endorsed by other people, or some sources are more seemingly believable than others on the surface, it doesn’t always mean that side is going to be the correct one – it could just mean that one side’s arguments have been better communicated than the other and/or the misinformed have guided the uninformed. The truth is not a democratic matter – something is true based on the evidence, not on its popularity. One should rationally provisionally favour the side that is more supported by hard evidence – yet one should always be open-minded in case new pieces of evidence push the overall weight of evidence over to favour the other side.
So not all evidence is equal, including from scientific research. We must critically evaluate ‘facts’ presented in the news and not just instantly take them at face value. The date of evidence is crucial to bear in mind too when something is time sensitive (i.e. not too old and therefore likely no longer relevant to the present case). So check the dates of sources and be cautious about trusting sources that have no date information at all.
This blog is a secondary source of information for most of the things presented but there are no undisclosed conflicts of interest. Whatever the case, you are unequivocally encouraged to do further research on anything that is written, not just from here but from any source of information you rely upon. Cross-referencing multiple independent sources of information should be an ingrained habit before anyone wishes to form, side with or vociferously spread vehement views about anything. Until then, it’s best to keep your views on a particular issue soft rather than strong. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” when you don’t know because many people who claim they do know have relied upon questionable sources of information and so are talking out of their heinies.