The Truth Is Out There
As part of the process of deciding what to write about this week, I was flicking through my notes from recent books and stories that have caught my attention when I came across a headline that I spotted on the BBC news website last summer: ‘Man Fleeing Wiltshire Crash Scene Attacked by Emus’. I do not think there is much to add to that really, so I will just leave it hanging there for you to draw your own conclusions about what might have happened.
The main focus this week is connected to that headline because the premise of Daniel Levitin’s book ‘A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics’ is that we should always challenge what we are told and not take other people’s word for what is going on around us. As he says early on in the book, recognising faulty arguments can help us to evaluate whether a chain of reasoning leads to a valid conclusion or not. Related to this is what he calls ‘infoliteracy’ – recognising that there are hierarchies in source quality, that pseudo-facts can easily masquerade as facts, and biases can distort the information we are being asked to consider, leading us to faulty conclusions.
This may become one of the key challenges in education in the next twenty years, as teachers try to find ways to offer guidance to pupils about how they can discern truth from falsehoods, facts from so-called alternative facts – or lies, as they ought to be called. Levitin seems to be right on the money when he says that each of us needs to think critically and carefully about the numbers and words we encounter if we want to be successful at work, at play and in making the most of our lives.
This means checking the numbers, the reasoning and the sources for plausibility and rigour. It means examining them as best we can before we repeat them or use them to form an opinion. We want to avoid the extremes of gullibility, accepting every claim we encounter or cynically rejecting every one of them. Critical thinking does not mean we disparage everything, it means that we try to distinguish between claims with evidence and those without.
We are told that we have created more human-made information in the last five years than in all of human history before them. Unfortunately, found alongside things that are true are an enormous number of things that are not – in websites, videos, books and on social media. This is not just a new problem. Misinformation has been a fixture of human life for thousands of years and was documented in biblical times and classical Greece.
The unique problem we face today, Levitin highlights, is that misinformation has proliferated. It is devilishly entwined on the internet with real information, making the two difficult to separate. And misinformation is promiscuous – it consorts with people of all social and educational classes, and turns up in places we do not expect it to. It propagates as one person passes it on to another and another – as Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and other social media grab hold of it and spread it around the world. The misinformation can take hold and become well known, and suddenly a whole lot of people are believing things that are not so.
It is hard enough to find a way through all this when we are dealing with words, with which most of us are generally comfortable, but it gets even more difficult when we bring numbers into the mix. The author makes the point well that statistics, because they are numbers, appear to us to be cold, hard facts. It seems that they represent truth given to us by nature and it is just a matter of finding them. But, he continues, it is important to remember that statistics are gathered by people and it is people who choose what to count, how to go about counting, which of the resulting numbers they will share with us, and which words they will use to describe and interpret those numbers. Statistics are not therefore facts. They are interpretations. And our interpretation may be just as good as, or better than, that of the person reporting them to us – if we are confident enough to believe it.
Levitin uses an example that is useful for anyone trying to deliver a history lesson, which I still do from time to time – the famous misunderstanding with averages that leads us to think that people tended not to live as long a hundred years ago as they do today. He points out that we have probably read that life expectancy has steadily increased in modern times. For those born in 1850, the average life expectancy for males and females was thirty-eight and forty years respectively, and for those born in 1990 it was seventy-two and seventy-nine.
There is a tendency to think, then, that in the 1800s there just were not that many fifty- and sixty-year-olds walking around because people did not live that long. But in fact, he explains, people did live that long – it is just that infant and childhood mortality was so high that it skewed the average. If you could make it past twenty, you could live a long life back then. Indeed, in 1850 a fifty-year-old white female could expect to live to be seventy-three and a sixty-year-old could expect to live to be seventy-seven.
Levitin tells us that critical thinking is not something we should do once with an issue and then drop it. It is an active and ongoing process. Time spent evaluating claims is not just time well spent, it should be considered part of an implicit bargain we have all made. Information gathering and research that used to take anywhere from hours to weeks now just take seconds. We have saved incalculable numbers of hours of trips to libraries and far-flung archives, of hunting through thick books for the one passage that will answer our questions. The implicit bargain that we all need to make explicit is that we will use just some of the time we saved in information acquisition to perform proper information verification.
Just as it is difficult to trust someone who has lied to you, it is difficult to trust your own knowledge if half of it turns out to be counter-knowledge. The fact is that counter-knowledge flourishes on TikTok and Twitter, on blogs (though not this one, of course!) and on all the semi-organised platforms. Levitin asserts that we are far better off knowing a moderate number of things with certainty than a large number of things that might not be so. Counter-knowledge and misinformation can be costly, in terms of lives and happiness, and in terms of time spent trying to undo things that did not go the way we thought they would. True knowledge simplifies our lives, helping us to make choices that increase our happiness and save time.
There is always something satisfying about understanding someone else’s intelligent joke, so I enjoyed the section where Levitin explains the need to be careful when examining the link between correlation and causation. This, he says, was cleverly rendered by Randall Munroe, who has featured in previous blogs with his works ‘What If?’ and ‘How To’. Two stick figures, apparently college students, are talking. One says that he used to think correlation implied causation. Then he took a statistics class, and now he doesn’t think that any more. The other student says, ‘Sounds like the class helped.’ The first student replies, ‘Well, maybe.’