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The Lounge: Chat. Relax. Unwind. > How do we assess information?

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message 1: by Graeme (last edited Aug 18, 2018 07:02PM) (new)

Graeme Rodaughan Hi all, setting out to provide a thread to discuss how we evaluate information, a topic which I think is central to the demonstrated fact that otherwise intelligent, rational human beings can come to opposing conclusions. (I.e. we differ on our methods).

This is perhaps a very timely topic in a world in which there seem to be growing divisions between different ideological camps, all of which ardently believe that they have the Facts and the Truth. (Capitalized on purpose).

What I would like to do is set out some clear ground rules for this discussion.

[1] This is a discussion of methods of assessing information.

[2] We can use events in the media as content for demonstration of methods of assessment, but please note - the point of this conversation is to look deeply and rigorously at the methods for assessing the validity of the content, not the content itself.

[3] I'm inviting everyone (myself included) to take a step back from what you or I believe, to ask yourself why do we believe it?

[4] From personal experience, asking this specific question can bring cherished beliefs into doubt - which is an emotionally and spiritually painful process. If you engage in this topic, you should expect to feel emotional at times, and even strongly emotional about what is being written here. I invite anyone who participates in this thread to bear this in mind.

[5] Expect to spend some time on definitions of words. A lack of a common vocabulary is a common stumbling block for mutual understanding.

Apart from the above - let's have at it.


message 2: by Graeme (last edited Aug 18, 2018 07:16PM) (new)

Graeme Rodaughan Some Working Assumptions and a Problem Statement.

Working Assumptions (subject to error and possibly worthy of being overthrown - this is where I'm coming from in this discussion).

[1] We are free agents capable of making decisions that impact ourselves and the rest of the world.

[2] We have a limited capacity for reason, comprehension, and capacity to absorb and process information.

[3] We live in a world with increasing availability and quantity of information.

[4] The information we have access to is of varying quality ranging from well established such as E = MC2, or the 2nd law of thermodynamics, ranging through claims of [Insert fav celeb's] latest partner to claims of aliens fighting Nazis in WW2.

[5] We do not have access to all the information, and if we did, we couldn't process it in useful ways.

[6] The quality of decisions we make will be determined by three key things, [a] the quality of our information, [b] our capacity to reason about it [c] our capacity to decide in the face of incomplete information.

The core challenge we all face as free agents is how do we determine what information to focus on, how do we assess its validity, how do we make a decision about it, and how do we do that in a timely fashion to ensure we have enough time left to effectively pursue life through action and avoid analysis paralysis.


message 3: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments For me, the first questions revolve around information:

(a) How do we get it? i.e., in the absence of curation, there is just too much. If you do a Google search, you get hundreds of thousands of hits. I for one do not have the time to go through them all, particularly as very few of them seem too be relevant.

(b) There are a lot of lies out there. How do we assess the likely truthfulness?

(c) How to separate fact from opinion?

(d) How do we check the reliability of the information? For example, I have seen records of criminal trials where the "guilty" party is clearly identified as such, only later to find that the identification was wrong, and it was someone else that bore some resemblance.

The next part is analysis, but I want to go and write, so I shall leave opinions on that until later.


message 4: by Michel (new)

Michel Poulin As an ex-intelligence analyst, this question was at the core of my old military job, as a balanced and thoughtful assessment of information received was key to a good analysis. Factors and rules that helps do it are legion, but here are the ones I believe are the most important for a good analysis:
- First, from the start, get rid of any personal bias or political preference. Don't start your analysis with tainted glasses! The counter rule to that is when assessing information from a source with known strong bias. Example: A KKK member is a witness in a trial against a black person. As a juror, what credibility will you give to that witness?
- Second, assess the reliability and accuracy of the source of information/comment. If a source has a history of lying, exagerating, inventing or deforming facts and information, then use a bigger grain of salt for your analysis/assessment. If someone tells me something and adds 'Trump said it!', well... (just a joke to lighten up things). On the other hand, if a source has an excellent history of providing accurate information, then you certainly can take that into account.
- Make sure that you understood correctly what was said or written, and in what circumstances. As an example, the info obtained from a witness that is calm and had time to observe things from a safe but close location will most probably be more reliable than that collected from a survivor who just got out of a burning building. Fear and excitement can make people express themselves less clearly, or make them forget important details.
- Could someone's info or comment be motivated by financial factors (attempts to sell you something or to involve you in some scheme)?
- Some people can be fine actors and accomplished liars. Don't rely solely on appearances and don't take unverified statements at face value. A good example of not following that rule are the cases in India where angry crowds lynched innocent persons based solely on a fake video on the Internet warning about strangers kidnapping and raping children in small villages.
- Don't be afraid to look at other sources, consult other experts and ask other people in order to compare what is said and to assess the reliability of your first source.

Those are only a few of the rules that you could follow to assess some information or comment, but they should start you on the right foot.


message 5: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6184 comments All remarkably cogent rules for analysis. All of our discussions should follow these guidelines.


message 6: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments My first go at assessing information. While doing this, you tend to form a hypothesis. Now

(a) for any given observation there will be more than one possible explanation. The more different types of observation/fact you have in accord with your hypothesis, the more likely you will be right. Here it is important that you rely on primary data. The fact that twenty people all say the same thing, but they weren't there (so to speak) is irrelevant. The primary observation is one piece of data, irrespective of how many people hang onto it.

(b) A given explanation will usually have obvious expected consequences. If A did that, you might expect him to do a number of further things. Dis they happen? This is not icon tight because maybe A picked what people would think and didn't oblige.

(c) There is invariably a cause for any given act. In crime stories, this is motive. Why did A do that? If you cannot provide an answer that outside your prejudices, then you should seriously question whether A did it.

(d) Was it physically plausible that A did it? There was a criminal case here where someone was convicted despite the fact that he had to do quite a remarkable lot of things which were strictly speaking possible, but only just.

(e) If the hypothesis is correct, and A did it, should there have been effects that someone else should have seen. In the case mentioned in (d), it involved some extremely high speed driving in a particular sort of car. Why did nobody else see such a car driving like that?

(f) As Michel notes, has someone skin in the game, and benefits if you reach a certain conclusion. If so, you could doubt whatever he says.

(g) A corollary of (a) - It is important that when supporting auxiliary "facts" they are carefully checked with independent support if these facts come from people with skin in the game.

There is a lot more, but this is something to think about/debate.


message 7: by J.J. (new)

J.J. Mainor | 2331 comments Michel wrote: "A KKK member is a witness in a trial against a black person. As a juror, what credibility will you give to that witness?..."

This similar question is raised in the Paul Manafort trial, so, using the Manafort trial, the answer depends on the corroborating evidence. If the sole evidence is the witness, then the prosecution's case shouldn't stand a chance, but if they have physical evidence to support the charge, then you give the witness some credence, weighing his testimony against everything else.


message 8: by Ian (last edited Aug 19, 2018 11:47PM) (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments Another one that I found interesting (and I am going to put up a blog post on it on Thursday) is the submission to Congress that effectively asks Congress to fund the "Space Force" because the US military is needed in space (despite the fact that the US has signed up to no militarisation of space). The problem: according to Yleem Poblete the Russians (i.e. the usual suspects) deployed a satellite in October 2017 that was "behaving unexpectedly" and even suspiciously. That is effectively it. The satellite was not identified, and Russia did not launch anything on October 2017 that would qualify, but there is a satellite that undertook unexpected controlled changes in orbit, and seemed too have been carrying out controlled manoeuvres that may have included docking with another satellite. That, by the way, is not at all illegal, and is an obvious move to learn to control if you want to explore space with multiple vehicles.

The point is, the reason for discarding an international convention is "I don't understand it". The point I am making here is that evidence has to be positive. Someone did something; there was an interaction between A and B. Saying that something might have happened is not evidence, because equally it might not. How you say it cannot be the decider.


message 9: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16089 comments To demonstrate how I asses information, I can take a Bill - Monica reality show -:) It started with allegations about an affair (as I understand not something illegal), firm denial by Bill, partial confession when confronted with the stained dress evidence, resulting in legal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, both defeated in an impeachment process.
That's the entire process from allegations to legal resolution.
Do I believe that there was more than 'oral' during the 2 something years of relationship? Yes, I do, because I add to the game common sense and some modest life experience, but the established fact is 'oral', no perjury and no obstruction. The guy was confronted with the evidence, his testimony evaluated and that's what it resulted in. So, I may remain unconvinced, but the legal process went the entire way and exhausted itself.
In Trump's case - we are just at the 'allegations' stage, which may or may not lead to further proceedings..


message 10: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments Nik wrote: "To demonstrate how I asses information, I can take a Bill - Monica reality show -:) It started with allegations about an affair (as I understand not something illegal), firm denial by Bill, partial..."

Nik, the key here is the separation of issues. Whether there was more than oral was only peripheral to the issue, which was perjury and obstruction of justice. The evidence, therefore, had to relate to those. It should need a specific example of where justice was obstructed for that charge, and if whatever was done was not illegal, irrespective of what it was, it is irrelevant. For perjury, you have to prove they lie that was made under oath (as I understand it - I am not fully aware of US legal intricacies) and that would need evidence that the lie was made, which would mean evidence of what else happened.

The point I am trying to make is that for something with such consequences as throwing out a president, the evidence has to specifically relate to the charges, and it has to be firm (benefit of the doubt must go to the defence). It may well be that your feelings are correct, but you cannot run a system based on everyones' experience in life and general feelings. The facts must be established clearly or chaos can follow.


message 11: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16089 comments My belief relates to an affair that wasn't part of the formal charges -:)
Don't know how I would've perceived the testimony, although interpretation of the word 'is' seemed a little preposterous.
The vote on obstruction of justice ended 50-50 - not very convincing, but not a 'guilty' either .

In Trump's case, unless we have a confession or something ultimately convincing either for or against, I'm afraid people's beliefs (either way) are shaped enough to withstand a lot of evidence and testimonies to the contrary


message 12: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments Nik, I wasn't trying to say anything about Clinton - it was about analysis of evidence :-) Maybe not very well put :-( Because when you wrote "interpretation of the word 'is' seemed a little preposterous." The verb "to be" and its forms are critical to analysis of evidence. Unfortunately, without lurching into discrete mathematics, it is only too easy to be unclear - as the following may well be.

As Aristotle put it, if A is a B, and if B is a C, then A is a C. More specifically, we can write that, if A is an element of the set B, and if B is a subset of the set C, then A must be an element of C . To better explain a set, a set is a collection of elements (in our discussion, "facts" or "assertions") together with the rule that conveys set membership. The object of analysis here is to work out whether each datum complies or does not comply with the specific rule that defines whatever we are discussing.

What I was trying to say above was that obstruction of justice is a set of things that may be done that are specifically forbidden by law during an investigation. (That is my definition - there will be a better legal one, but since I do not know US law, I am in no position to state it.) (I tried a web search for the definition - no real luck). So with my definition, the required evidence is that something that was done to divert the route that the investigation was taking. The fact that Bill lied in a public statement to conceal what happened from Hillary would not, in my opinion, qualify.

So, the point. You have to clearly define the rule on which the evidence must show light, and then show that the datum is or is not an element of the set that follows from the rule.

As another contentious example :-) the fact that Trump had business dealings with Russians is irrelevant to the accusation that Trump colluded with Russians to subvert the election. The set of elements required to prove that is the set in which the elements must involve "subverting the election". If they are not an element of that set then they are not relevant to the question "Did Trump collude with Russians to subvert the election" because they lie outside the required set.


message 13: by J.J. (new)

J.J. Mainor | 2331 comments I think when it comes to impeaching a President, the standard isn't simply "was a crime committed?" but "was it bad enough to justify removing a President from office."

I think in Clinton's case, a lot of Senators were asking themselves if a single lie-under-oath was really bad enough to warrant removal. And to link it to the topic, clearly there wasn't enough information given to make that assessment.


message 14: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments J.J. wrote: "I think when it comes to impeaching a President, the standard isn't simply "was a crime committed?" but "was it bad enough to justify removing a President from office."

I think in Clinton's case, ..."


Given today's guilty pleas/verdicts, that could be a useful thing to remember in future.

Suppose another question is, if someone offers statements that are what one side wants, and there is a promise of reduced jail time if he says it, is that convincing evidence?


message 15: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16089 comments Ian wrote: "...if someone offers statements that are what one side wants, and there is a promise of reduced jail time if he says it, is that convincing evidence?"

As far as I'm aware that's what prosecution tries to achieve as a common practice in some countries to substantiate a case versus prime suspects. Sure, such testimony should be assumed to have an inherent bias and cross-examination and rebuttal attempts of the defense are an equally important input to evaluate its overall credence.


message 16: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments Let me try my hand at some historical fiction and modernise it a bit. Setting - we have the King Henry (KH) who is being opposed on all fronts by a priest (TB). TB want KH to submit to the power of the church, and is busy excommunicating all of KH's associates. KH sends message to TB asking what would settle this?

Act 1 - Various knights are are in attendance when a massive document returns, full of various detailed improvements KH must make, which are essentially impossible. KH throws document away, and shakes his head, then said, "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished." He rants on a while, then gets up, throws his hands up in despair, and says as he walks out, "What can I do? Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest and his ridiculous demands?"

Act 2. Knight WdT goes and murders TB. He is later apprehended on some other reason.

Act 3 In a cell, WdT is approach by an Earl (S) who informs WdT that he will lose his head, but S has some claim to the throne, and the law is clear that the king cannot execute someone with out a trial. If he will testify against the king, he will be exiled and the king must either abdicate or will be executed.

WdT, under questioning in a trial, asserts that the king ordered him to do so, by saying, "Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest?"

The point of this is that what WdT says is true in the sense that the king did say it, but it gives a false impression on the basis of context and that it was not all that was said.


message 17: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6184 comments So, a question, applying these rules: What will it take to impeach Trump? And is impeachment likely?


message 18: by Michel (new)

Michel Poulin Unfortunately, it is not likely at present, mostly because too few Republicans in Congress have enough moral rectitude and balls to support an impeachment call, while too many Republicans do their best to hide away from the problem that Trump represents.


message 19: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments From what I understand, impeachment requires "High crimes and misdemeanours" through Presidential power, or manipulating the election. An example quoted in the NY times was bribing someone in the electoral college. They assert that merely hushing up information does not qualify.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/us...


message 20: by Scout (new)

Scout (goodreadscomscout) | 6184 comments Informative article. A quote: "Most scholars agree that the impeachment clause covers abuse of official power by a sitting president but not wholly private conduct committed before assuming office."


message 21: by Nik (new)

Nik Krasno | 16089 comments Ian wrote: ""What can I do? Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest.."

Reminds me for some reason the death of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze, where the king has allegedly mentioned to his subordinates that he needed to be "silenced" and who was further murdered by secret police unit, while their supervisor - the minister of interior (supposedly a link to the president) 'committed suicide' with TWO gunshots to the head: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgiy...


message 22: by Ian (new)

Ian Miller | 11811 comments Suicide with two gunshots to the head. I have heard of "blockheads" but this is something extra :-)


message 23: by Michel (new)

Michel Poulin If a judge or coroner accepted that conclusion, then he/she is clearly unfit for their office...or totally bought.


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