Who Can I Believe?

As an engineer, I tend to rely on data and analysis to form opinions and guide actions. But since I alone cannot possibly obtain lots of raw data and then analyze it, like everyone else I have to rely on external sources of information.

I have never relied on social media for anything. The quality and veracity of that information is so suspect as to be useless. And we are allowing big tech companies to get away with ideology-based censorship even though they are perilously close to functioning like public utilities.

Scientific journals have long been the source of the most reliable information. Sadly, junk science, or “predatory” journals have invaded that community like a metastatic cancer. They generally act as clearing houses, making little attempt to curate the content and are only interested in getting paid to publish. Even respected journals seem to have compromised their standards in the pursuit of timeliness. The Lancet was just forced to retract a study labeling hydroxychloroquine dangerous because it bypassed its usual source verification. The number of “scientific articles” during the rise of COVID-19 that either failed to pass the smell test or were based on flawed data is overwhelming.

Unfortunately, this is not a recent phenomenon.. Articles in mainstream circulation that are labeled “scientific” are too often either the opposite, or unfounded editorials. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been touted as grave threats to humans although absolutely no evidence or logical reasoning can support it. Mathematical models have been treated as definitive when neither the algorithms within nor the inputs are by any means proven. Just look at the climate debate. But perhaps the worst was the (eventually withdrawn) paper by Andrew Wakefield that claimed to have found an association between vaccination and autism.

Even during the pandemic, reliability of information from public sources was spotty. The experts logically acted conservatively based on what limited knowledge they had at the time, but they relied on inherently speculative models to draw broad conclusions on the backs of which politicians rode to confounding policies. Reversals in recommendations about surface transmission and the value of masks undermined faith in the experts’ grasp of the situation.

I rarely believe the mainstream media. It has morphed into a giant advocacy group with little regard for facts, too often willfully ignoring them in service of building an audience or simply reflecting their ideology. The New York Times recently apologized for running a perfectly acceptable editorial by U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, (R-Ark.) because some of its employees whined that it was “wrong.” Have all the journalists left the building?

“Narrative” has replaced reporting information. The media took an event that is indisputably rare (in 2019, only five unarmed black men not in the process of a violent attack on a police officer were killed by one; in three of those cases, involved officers were convicted of crimes) and turned it into an exposé of “genocide” and “systemic racism.” They even ignored that the race of officers involved in the Floyd incident was not 100 percent white.

Media information often eschews appropriate context, as in talking about police brutality. Do they mean physical harm, harassment, or embarrassment? The police have an incredibly difficult job, and they see the worst of society. Various statistics put the percentage of black perpetrators of murder and violent crime between 40 and 50 percent. The cops process killings of blacks committed by blacks, which constitute over two thirds of all murders. It is therefore not surprising that police are suspicious of blacks in many situations. It is wrong, but not inexplicable, that there are far too many incidents of unjustified traffic or pedestrian stops. Police unions insulate officers from consequences far too effectively, and that must change.

I am also skeptical of the media because they consistently downplay important aspects of a story when they are inconvenient to the narrative. Intellectually honest black opinion leaders like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, both of the Hoover Institution, or Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) decry the lack of personal responsibility among the black community, the breakdown of the family (some 75 percent of black births are to single mothers), and the victim mentality. Teachers’ unions, which universally oppose charter schools, largely escape media criticism. But, without hope of a future tied to good education and a supportive family, the black community instead gets a steady stream of disaffected youths that see crime and handouts as their best option. When reporting on business, the media rarely examines the consequences of elevating racial statistics over merit in personnel decisions.

I almost never believe politicians given how they are abetted by the media. Pandering and outright lying is the order of the day because the media’s biased reporting never holds them to account. I would like to think that words from our leaders matter, but they don’t any longer. I am forced to judge politicians by their actions alone and must completely ignore what they say. It should not be this way.

For example, the media and other politicians relentlessly pick on every word the president utters; their complaints are often valid, but they shunt aside knowledge that his policies have, by and large, worked for our country. On the flip side, Mayors Eric Garcetti or Bill de Blasio, or Governors Gretchen Whitmer or Gavin Newsom say many high-minded things that are well-reported, but what they do is often harmful to their constituents and escapes criticism. Garcetti says he wants to cut police budgets by $150 million when his police force is already spread too thin over too large an area, and I recoil in horror because my daughter lives in Los Angeles. Whitmer seems to be power drunk and manages the pandemic with no common sense. I want them all out. Now.

Bad, biased, or misleading information has real-world effects. The murderous police officers responsible for the death of George Floyd will pay a steep price for their actions. Everybody agrees. But George Floyd was no icon. He had been in prison five times and was high on two substances when arrested. You never hear that. Shows of support for aggressive prosecution of his killers are appropriate but martyring a criminal to stoke anger (helped by media coverage) and then using protests as cover for looting is not. This has now devolved into advocating to defund police, which is a call for insurrection by the criminal class, but any media discussion of the implications is, unsurprisingly, absent.

I know that our country is now nearing a tipping point, and this is abetted by a storm of misinformation, disinformation, and a paucity of reliable source data. Because many progressive ideas are faulty, weak, or dangerous, the Left works hard to stifle opposing free expression. Fearful of the repercussions from them, many information sources are silenced.

Only our elected representatives have any hope of restoring the notion of truth over narrative and assuring believability of information imparted to the public. I despair of this happening, so in the meantime I will continue to believe very little that I read or hear until I can synthesize multiple data sources to arrive at supportable opinions.

About Andrew I. Fillat

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases.

Photo: Nosyrevy/Getty Images

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