"We all know the vast majority of French citizens are against Turkey joining EU", I heard on the radio last week, inspiring today's post. Really, do we all know that? "We all know that [insert pile of merde here]" is one of the most common phrasings to make unwary people believe facts which, usually, aren't facts at all. While I am not going to discuss EU politics today, I thought I could share a bit of my communication background to discuss our beliefs and opinions, and the reliability of information we hear and read every day.
I remember an argument I had with a family member about Japanese culture some years ago, where her justification against my case was "but I saw it on TV". TV, and mainstream media in general, have an aura of authority. People tend to believe what they hear or read quite easily, because journalists are professionals and did their research. Right?
Without discussing journalist's professionalism, TV is full of many other things than journalist's reports, mainly, advertising, messages sponsored or endorsed by private companies... Most of these have to be biased. What shocked me the most in that video about sugar, is that people have a completely twisted, and medically inaccurate, vision of what a healthy diet is, because they have been fed with false information endorsed by major food companies.
Over the course of our lives, we all gather a certain amount of knowledge - from school perhaps, but also from what people tell us, from what we read, hear or see. We integrate these pieces of information into our belief system, and, over time, tend to accept it as true, even if it has never actually been proven or verified. A valuable lesson I learned from my Master thesis research days is: always verify and double-check your sources. While I do not possess the Ultimate Truth, here are a few tricks that can help spot the merde.
"We all know that cow farts kill over 3500 trees a year on the French territory."
That one's huge, but you get the idea. Be careful of wordings that tend to be too assertive and induce that it is common knowledge or proven, without citing any source or data. Other similar wordings can be something like "it is scientifically proven that...", "We have known for a long time that...".
There is a textbook example in French, the mention 'Sans Sucre'. It means "Sugar Free". BUT, if you write "sucre" without plural, it actually means without glucose. But there still can be other forms of sugar in the product, like saccarose or fructose. You'd have to look for the plural form "Sans Sucres" to make sure there is, indeed, no sugar at all in the product.
In English, the word "flavored" is a perfect example of food communication bullshit. "Lemon flavored" = Artificial flavor. And they usually put a lemon picture on the packaging, just in case the wording wouldn't be enough to fool you. There is a hilarious video from George Carlin on advertiser's words, debunking myths like "authentic", "natural" and other communication flips. As far as food is concerned, the best is just to look at the ingredients list, I'd say.
The Little Annotations and Sources (or lack thereof)
On the same topic, an easy way to assert the solidity of the information contained in an article is to take a look at their sources, if they cite any. A solid demonstration will be based on research, former publications, tests, statistics... It shows how the writer formed their conclusions and got this information they are feeding you with. Granted, not all types of articles can be full of sources, it applies better to scientific papers, or articles that mention facts and numbers, but is does show if the writer is thorough in investigating their own sources.
For example, I am a regular reader of Beauty Redefined. If you take a look at most of their articles, you'll see some annotations with a "references" paragraph at the end, listing the sources they got their information from. I'm not saying it means we should believe them blindly - knowing sources doesn't prevent from critical analysis - but at least, I know their opinion is based on something solid, and not endlessly repeated assumptions with no basis whatsoever.
As a counter-example, a couple of media or public figures cited information from Le Gorafi (all French links). For non-French speakers here, le Gorafi is a humorous news site which only publishes absurdities as a way to mock the current hot news. I wouldn't trust the source-checking ability of these media and persons, who take this obivously satirical material as sources for their own serious articles.
What I personally like about these debates, is that I get to hear other people's views on things, and nuance my opinions in the light of this different world view. However, how to assess the other person's opinion, or rather, the beliefs that lead to that opinion? Sometimes, it only takes a couple of questions to see if the other person's argument is solid, or if it is based on assumptions.
My fiancé hates when I question everything he says. I remember a political discussion over a Christmas holiday lunch, where he said "M. XX is stupid". (I don't remember which politician he was talking about). I asked: "Why do you think he is stupid?" And guess what? He didn't even know why he believed that. He probably just repeated what he heard. Can you imagine how many absurdities become beliefs, if we accept everything people tell us as a fact, without actually checking it?
As A Conclusion...
I just wanted to touch on that topic and raise the question of the critical analysis of the information we receive everyday. After all, we base our choices and actions on the belief system we create from these pieces of information, so I think it is important to make sure they are solid. Don't you think?