3.c.7 – How to assess the reliability of information?

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April 8, 2010 — Riccardo Sabellotti - Giacinto Sabellotti

How to assess the reliability of information?

Considered the importance of information in the culture shaping and the importance of culture for survival, natural selection has provided us of innate biological mechanisms, then culturally reinforced, to assess the reliability of the information. Always remembering that we are social animals, we normally rely on two criteria:
– confidence in the hierarchy, which varies according to the complexity of community and to the role we cover in it; in the different cases we’ll consider reliable the information obtained by the head of the family, of the village, by the priest, the teacher, the elderly etc..
– confidence in widespread behavior, which tends to believe reliable any information received or confirmed by several people; it is clear that if these people are also authorities in various sectors, reliability reaches its maximum degree.
On the other hand, an old person is considered reliable for his experience, a chief for his ability, a teacher for his knowledge, why an authority should not be reliable? Is it possible that a multitude of people that confirm us the same information are all mistaken? Once again we must remember how for millions of years we have evolved in tribes made of a few dozens of members and it is in this context that such conduct would be valid for evaluating the reliability of information. Let’s have a look around us: the experience of the older person and the preparation of the teacher can be overcome by a world quickly changing; in a community of millions of people, it is difficult to know the rulers and often there is no guarantee on their ability; we do not know nor even frequent most of the other members of the community with whom maybe we share the condominium, the subway or the hairdresser.
But the instinct of respecting the authority and of the comparison with the other is still there; it is so strong to lead us to respect not only the authority, but also the representation of the same, and to follow the behavior of others even if perfectly unknown. A producer of decaffeinated beverages can boast the virtues of his own products compared to the cardiac consequences, having them advertised by an actor who for many years has interpreted the role of a doctor in a television series, and obtain good sales; the public will respect the authority of the doctor even being aware that the information is received by an actor. Similarly, after having met occasionally many unknown people in many bars and having heard praising the properties of sweeteners for coffee, we might decide to eliminate sugar.
Here then raises the question of fake reliability due to subconscious mechanisms of evaluation; the more the social structure becomes complex and quickly changes, the more psychological pollution due to unreliable information will increase; at the same time a population increasingly specialized needs a larger and larger number of data.
In this context:
– we tend to give confidence to everyone that speaks to us with authority, and who is more authoritative than someone who speaks to us on television?
– it is known that information repeated several times at the end is deemed to be genuine, and who incessantly repeats the same information more than television?
– we usually organize our days in such a repetitive way to give a real ritual value also to the simplest gestures, and which source of information gives us appointment at the same time more than the news?
Advertisers know this well and this is why they heavily use the TV means, but also politicians are aware of it, as they make the election propaganda in the salons of best conductors of the most influential televisions. When television declares to be public, but in fact is in the hands of the politicians, when politicians are influenced by the great entrepreneurs, when the great entrepreneurs have private TV stations, we can imagine the reliability of information from television. The circle closes when the big entrepreneurs control all the private TV stations and directly cover a political leading role; it should be clearer for everyone, the reliability of the information should be considered minimal, if any, instead exactly the opposite happens; who is most authoritative of a person with great economic power and great politics power that speaks to us from several large televisions we have at home? The information he provides are continually confirmed by authoritative journalists, conductors, opinion leaders and politicians, all strangers, but all validated by the authoritative and reliable television totem. How could not be reliable people we welcome every day in our homes and that perhaps we listen to during meals, when the family meets?
The reliability of information cannot leave aside the reliability of its sources, and to judge these sources we cannot avoid to be aware of our psychological fragility.

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