Which Information Should You Trust?

Once upon a time, the Pony Express was the fastest way to deliver trusted information.

On Tuesday, November 6, 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. The next day a Pony Express rider departed from Fort Kearny, Nebraska with the election results and headed for Fort Churchill, Nevada. The two forts marked endpoints on different telegraph lines.

Statue of pony express rider

Several Pony Express riders traveled across snow covered trails before one rider arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah 3 days and 4 hours later with those same election results. The journey continued. The mail was handed from rider to rider, until on November 7 it found it’s way to Fort Churchill in time for news of the election to be wired to California papers on November 14th.

7 days and 17 hours after East Coast newspapers received news of the new U.S. President, West Coast papers learned that Lincoln won the election. It was an unrivaled feat for the time in how quickly the news traveled.

Information overload

Information Overload

In 1860 the problem of information was one of scarcity. If it took over a week to get election results from East Coast to West, how long would it take less important information to travel?

The reality was information didn’t travel quickly and consequently there wasn’t a lot of information being passed around. Many people might never learn of the goings on in neighboring towns, let alone cities across the country.

Information was scarce.

Fast forward to today and we mostly have the opposite problem, though in areas without reliable internet connections information is still scarce.

Early last year a plane crash-landed in the Hudson River. Within minutes anyone with a Twitter account had pictures.

Last summer when Michael Jackson passed away, the news traveled so quickly that Google initially believed it was under a denial of service attack. Both Twitter and Wikipedia reported crashing. This all happened within 45 minutes of the initial story being published on TMZ.

Today information travels at the speed of wired and wireless connections. The problem isn’t one of scarcity anymore. It’s one of information overload. Within a very short period of time any number of sources will have reported on the same information. The issue for us isn’t how to find information, but rather which information to trust.

Information is plentiful. Trusted information is scarce.

Truth is relative

The Truth is Out There

Last month Robert Capps interviewed Simon Singh for Wired Magazine, in a short article entitled The Truth is Out There. The interview is mainly about truth in the scientific process, but one quote by Singh stuck with me the moment I read it.

Don’t come up with a view, find everyone who agrees with it and then say, “Look at this, I must be right.” Start off by saying, “Who do I trust?”

I think far too many of us don’t start by asking “Who do I trust?” I think many of us seek information that reinforces what we already believe. It’s why more and more we’ve become a polarized world. It’s why most people vote strictly on party lines.

By no means does everyone do that, but the truth is most of us do whether we want to admit it or not.

The last week or so I’ve been going back and forth with someone on a forum about the issue of political correctness. We’re both coming to the debate with our own view and neither of us is ever going to change the other’s mind.

As long as we continue both of us will find facts that back up our view and prove our case. We’re both doing exactly what Simon Singh would tell us not to do.

Sign saying Microsoft Research

Your Research is Tainted

As a kid I learned that Columbus discovered America. Not long after I learned that Leif Ericson discovered it first. Not long after that I learned that long before either of them discovered America people had crossed Beiringia and settled the continent. The truth changes.

On Monday CopyBlogger published a post by Sean D’Souza, entitled Why Being Too Diligent About Your Facts Can Hurt Your Content.

Sean makes several arguments to show how much of the information we receive is unreliable. How it often can’t be trusted. He says:

  • Information may not be objective and instead is often biased
  • Facts passed on from one person to the next lose information
  • The truth evolves as we learn new information and our understanding of things changes

Sean is exactly right in everything he says. Information is biased sometimes purposely and sometimes accidentally.Facts change. Nowhere is he suggesting you shouldn’t seek out information and research what you write. His advice is mainly to put a cap on how much time you spend researching, because after a point you really aren’t uncovering the truth anymore.

It’s not bad advice, but it left me with a bad taste. I think in many ways Sean is saying the same thing I’m saying about trusting information. There’s so much information available to us now that we can find something that will back up any point of view we want.

Unfortunately I’m afraid the advice in the article will ultimately be interpreted as not to bother researching at all or never look past the first source of information you find or want to find. I’m afraid it will unfortunately further add to the problem of more information without knowing which to trust.

Again not because of anything Sean actually said, but because of how some may interpret what he said.

Trust

Who Should You Trust?

I wish I could give you a nice simple answer about who to trust, but I can’t. In the end only you can decide who and consequently which information you believe to be truthful and accurate. Sometimes that’s not too difficult.

If I tell you that adding the following css to your website

1
body {background: #0f0}

will turn the background of the entire page green, it’s easy enough to try it and see for yourself.

If I tell you that green symbolizes hope and fertility and tell you that your audience will associate your mostly green website with feelings of safety and well-being, it’s not quite as easy to test.

You should be questioning every bit of information you take in, whether it’s the latest news or some advice meant to make you a better designer. Only you can decide what sources of information to trust and which facts to mix together with your experience. That’s how you develop a blogging voice or develop a filter that leads to your creative style as a designer.

Always be open to different points of view and take in information from a variety of sources. Odds are none will give you the whole truth, but each will give you parts of the truth. In the end the responsibility to cut through the overload of information and discover the truth is yours and yours alone.

Trust is an essential part of business. It’s an essential part of life. Trusting the best sources, the best people, the best information isn’t something that necessarily comes easy.

Like many things discovering which information is the best to trust is a skill that can be developed and improved as long as you look to information with an open mind and a willingness test that information and compare it to your own experience.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

13 comments

  1. Amazing!, I love the introduction, I didn’t know how it worked in those times, but now it’s really difficult to know who says the truth. it’s funny but you have to wait a few days as well to get to know the whole truth… not 7 dyas but maybe 3 or four hehe

    • Thanks Jonay. It just came to me to tell a story of a time when information didn’t travel so fast and I hit on the idea of the Pony Express. I did a little research and then had an intro.

      That’s an interesting point about it still taking a few days to get the truth. And now you have to wade through a lot of of information to get to it. :)

    • Some are more pretty than they are useful. In the last year or so infographics became a popular topic so now everyone is creating them regardless of whether or not the information justifies one.

  2. Steven, thanks for the informative post. Our world overflows with “dots” of information. An author’s skill is demonstrated by the manner in which dots are selected, organized and connected to convey an understanding to the reader. That skill might be one criterion in assessing whom to trust. As you said, it’s easy to find “facts” to back up a particular position. For some, research might mean finding only those facts that support a pre-determined conclusion. Your earlier post about your writing process suggests that research can fall within the discovery phase of your writing to stimulate new ideas, understandings, and blog posts. It sounds like an ongoing process of asking questions, seeing how new ideas and processes work, and trying to make sense of them. You given me a lot to think about.

    • Thanks Greg. I like your analogy of “dots” of information. I guess that’s what they really are and you’re right about us needing to connect the dots. And you’re right about it being a skill.

      I can’t say I’m not opinionated and won’t sometimes just look for facts to back up what I want to say. I do try to keep an open mind as much as possible. I find it helps if you can step outside yourself and see things from another person’s perspective.

      Quite often both side of an issue have good stuff to say if we’re willing to listen to the other side.

      With my process for blogging I do like to make the research a bit of a discovery phase. Usually I have an idea what I want to write about and I’ll brainstorm an outline. Then I’ll start researching. More often than not the outline and the post change after finding something interesting or from a point of view I hadn’t considered.

      I like asking questions and I find the answers usually lead to more questions. Once you start getting in the habit the ideas come. One of the tricks is to make sure you write them down somewhere so you don’t lose them.

  3. Steven, thanks for your response. I found the “assembly line” metaphor useful in differentiating and keeping apart the different “personas” involved in the writing process, like the brainstormer, the composer, the reviser, and the dreaded editor who likes to take over at any phase.

    Your reference to habit reinforces the observation that your brain will deliver if it realizes that “you” are going to do something with what it offers. That’s the reasoning behind freewriting–Hand ends up writing the same thing over and over until Brain gives it something new to write. Hand’s demand results in Brain’s supply. If Hand gives up, then Brain figures out that it wasn’t important to begin with.

  4. For me it was always the editor fighting with the composer. Composer would write a sentence and editor would immediately want to go back and perfect it. My whole process came from trying to keep the editor away until the composer had done his thing.

    Once the editor knew he’d get his chance he would be willing to wait and the composer was free to write in a carefree way and get all the words down. I sometimes think of the first draft as roughly shaping some clay. Later the editor will work the details into the clay.

    By the way for some reason my spam filter keeps flagging your comments as spam. It happened to both in this post. I caught and them and marked them as not spam obviously so hopefully the filter will learn. Just wanted to let you know in case you don’t end up seeing one of your comments or if you’ve had the issue somewhere else.

    • True about having to pick and choose. I’m sure I’d say everyone has an agenda, but there’s definitely bias in everything. I think a lot of the responsibility falls on us. If you’re aware of an author’s bias you can find the more objective information within. The more you read a particular author and the more author’s you read on a particular subject, the better you can get and seeing through the bias.

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