Evaluating information – a prepper skill
Evaluating information is a really important prepper skill! I would love to see The Prepared do an in-depth article on it. Would anyone else like to see that? While I’m not the person to write it, here’s an outline of what could be covered just to get the idea out there!
WHY IT MATTERS: There are many threats and crises where correctly evaluating conflicting sources of information can be vital. Is this a real threat or hype? Is this rumor or fact? What sources can I trust? How reliable is this recommendation? Do I believe this politician, or this government agency, or my cousin on Facebook? Do I act on this information or should I wait?This is the case in particular for situations that develop over time, like a pandemic, economic or political crisis, civil unrest or war. During these times misinformation and rumor are everywhere, and trust in institutions declines. But even in very fast moving situations (“Is the fire heading my way or not?”) it can be very relevant.
BEING AWARE OF COGNITIVE BIAS. Understanding things like normalcy bias and confirmation bias and how they affect our own thinking are very important. Be aware of our own ways of tripping up and recognize when others around you are doing it.
MEDIA LITERACY. Understanding the reliability of different sources, how to fact check, what the motivations of different sources are (are they invested in journalistic integrity, or are they sensationalist), being willing to look at sources from opposing views and different countries, and also seeing the limitations and biases of traditional journalism. Social media literacy is an important subset – understanding its strengths and weaknesses, the motivations of those who spread misinformation and how and why fake news spreads faster than the truth.
SCIENCE LITERACY. Understanding how science builds knowledge (peer review, it’s not about one study, and it can be slow in response to a fast moving situation), that studies can be flawed, that science-y language doesn’t make it science, what cherry-picking is, that expertise is real and the serious limitations of “doing your own research”.
TRUSTING INSTITUTIONS. We are in an era of increasing mistrust of institutions (the government, the police, the CDC, journalism). These are all reliable sources of information to varying degrees but none are at all perfect, and it is valuable to have a nuanced understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Examples are the slowness with which they react because of bureaucracy, the challenges of messaging, the mission to communicate correct information but also shape public behavior (e.g. avoid panic), and the influences of politics and profit.
WHEN AND HOW TO RELY ON FAST INFORMATION. Science and journalism take time and in a fast moving situation, sources like early scientific studies, Twitter, and first hand accounts may give you an essential edge if you can evaluate them correctly.
UNDERSTANDING POLARIZATION. The more politically polarized we are, the more misinformed we tend to be. When we are politically or culturally at war, we distrust anything the “other side” says simply because they said it, we believe everything “our side” says without question, we believe everything bad about the other side and good about our side because it feels right and we are emotionally invested, and things that ought to be neutral somehow get drawn into it when they become vaguely associated with one side or another. All of this can lead to being poorly informed and vulnerable to blind spots, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
SHORT CUT RECOMMENDATIONS. It’s great to learn all the above stuff about evaluating information but it is a lot of work. An article like this could conclude with some shortcut recommendations on specific trustworthy sources and strategies.
Those are my thoughts!
CR - October 15, 2021
Excellent ideas! I would love to see someone qualified take that multi faceted subject on. We are so inundated in nonsense nowadays it’s really hard to sort out the truth.
rebecca - October 15, 2021
The ideas and fantasy creations of a few snowball and spread like wildfire until a huge portion of the population believes in it. Never in the history of mankind has information or misinformation been able to spread so quickly.
DO NOT be the one to spread misinformation. Stop it dead in it’s tracks if you can and don’t be the cause of hurting others.
I’d like to share a couple other pointers that I’ve seen over the past few months of thinking about this topic.
- MEMES don’t equal factual news. Spend 5 minutes on places like Facebook and Twitter and you will quickly see MEMES (pictures usually with big white letters captioning it) that try and share an idea. Don’t trust these, and even don’t even read them. They are only created to trigger a strong feeling like anger, fear, or outrage. And these easily get likes, comments, and shares. Most of the time they are inaccurate and misleading.
- Unfollow family, friends, and ‘influencers’ that tend to share things like this as well. You don’t need any more garbage in your day, you already get enough of that elsewhere. Subscribe or follow nice things that make you happy, are positively educating, and make the world a better place.
- Trust your gut. Many of these extremist misinformation sources are very obvious by how they get heated up about everything, lead into conspiracy theories, and divide you from others.
- If you don’t know if something is true or not, research it and don’t talk about or share it with others until you have fact checked it for yourself. Don’t lead to future panic and distrust.
Thank you for bringing up this topic. It is important to be able to verify and know what is true or not. Misleading information could have you bugging out at the incorrect time, teaching you bad ways to take care of your health, or just cause unnecessary stress in your life.
Bob - October 15, 2021
Good evening July,
A critical topic to master ……
If there are any good matters needing skilled evaluations, I’ve successfully relied on 2 specific themes;
1. I seek common-denominators. If, for example, I hear multiple gunshot rounds in rapid succession, it could be rabid animals roaming around this rural area and being shot at by amateurs. It also could be enough ammo being popped off that the authorities are going to deem this a “domestic terrorism” event thus generating a mandatory evacuation. Since “news” sources here – all have their biases and much not even reported – I use the common-denominator and do the basic prep for an evacuation hoping this choir results in only having to put things (like food and fuel cartridges) back on the shelves.
2. I’m one of the few NOT using peer-reviewed material. Using the mentioned CDC as an example, … CDC has 3 basic organizations: their Atlanta complex, their Washington, D.C. lobby office – Yes, it’s staffed with people skilled in addressing Congress. Scientists aren’t the key staffers – and the CDC Foundation, a private-sector affiliated org. A peer-review that refutes a high-viz statement might place one’s career moves on hold for a long time. The high-paying civil service jobs are highly competitive. For non-peer evaluations, I use insurance company reports and their claims payments history. This clarifies much for reliability.
If I’m under stress, as I determine this based on my own criteria, I do not evaluate material.I know any evaluations of mine will be far from accurate.
Seasons4 - October 16, 2021
Excellent topic and excellent points made here, Bob. Your last paragraph about not evaluating while under stress reminded me of a time decades ago.
Civil unrest developed, and my employer sent employees home. I was stuck in my car on a highway off-ramp, boxed in by cars in front and behind me. I thought sure a passenger in the car behind me was brandishing a gun, though I didn’t want to look in my car’s rear-view mirror too closely. It turned out to be a magic marker pen.
If I’m under that much subjective stress again, I hope I find something useful to do in the moment that’s *not* evaluating.
Bill Masen - October 16, 2021
Excellent idea and I nominate July to do the Sig Int / El int article 🙂
I love gathering intel from multiple sources then cross checking its validity, especally on social / political and environmental issues that DIRECTLY impact preppers / homesteaders/ survivalists etc. I’ve little time for scaremongering and doomsaying by certain sections of society.
Oldprepper - October 16, 2021
I started making preparation for civil unrest only a couple of years back when I realized that you cannot trust ANY media as being authentic.
When I looked around and realized society is polarized on what someone else said and hardly ever on a actual eye witness occurrence, its publicized goals are that of advantage over or detriment to someone else.
Where groups require support of their peers as a priority…. rather than fact…… and all claim plausible deniability when it all goes to heck, even when they know that the information they received was at best………. questionable.
I evaluate what I see around me in society, and prepare accordingly…..trusting nothing in the system that I have not verified for myself……and in a crisis ……trusting no one that I do not personally know well.
The information that I get….. I retain on the basis of usefulness to me and whether the giver has an interest in giving that information. There are many that give good information with no ulterior motive (this site for one)
I believe its good to read as many ideas that you can…… prepare your reserves as much as you can, and defenses as much as you can…….. discarding anything that is not personally valuable to you.
Maybe……… if we are very lucky……. we just may not have to use the insurance policy we have taken out on our lives by prepping…… but to rely on what social media, or so called experts that have not put theory to the test is not for me! There are no shortcuts!
rebecca - October 16, 2021
I like what you say about not trusting the media and relying on your senses and gut based off of what you are seeing. Hey, maybe it’s the best source of media out there and is 100% true, but I like what you said because you are developing the skill of thinking for yourself and being observant of things around you rather than just mindlessly tuning into what someone else says and is telling you how to think, feel, and react. That is a valuable skill to learn.
Oldprepper - October 16, 2021
Thank you Rebecca for the reply.
I agree absolutely with what you say..and you made a point I did not mention in ‘thinking for yourself’……… so important!
Pops - October 16, 2021
Great post and very good outline July.
I would just reiterate that knowing our own biases is fundamental. Only by understanding the filter through which we observe the world can we hope to understand any part of what is happening, let alone assess potential danger.
Frankly the greater our conviction to whatever ideology, the more we become convinced of our own infallibility and perhaps even righteousness. The more our biases filter out evidence that disputes those convictions, the less likely we are to have a true grasp on reality. We complain about the bias, ignorance, bad intentions of those in the media, politics, etc who do not share our worldview, so we stick to our silos where our own biases are never challenged.
We need to consciously calculate how our own bias affects our model of reality.
As Rebecca mentioned in her great post, disinformation has been liberated by digital media. I would disagree only with “trust your gut.” I would say something more like use your head. Propagandists of every stripe are betting on your knee-jerk outrage. Manufactured outrage has always been a reliable tool for despots and anti-democratic politicians. If you see a story, advert, meme or post that illicits an emotional gut reaction, beware! You can be confident the author was intending that very reaction.
Don’t just sit there and nod your head. Check yourself. Use search and other tools to help you verify basic facts, debunk conspiracies, follow the money, find the rest of the story. It could well be that there is cause for outrage.
Just be sure it is you using the tool, not being used as one.
rebecca - October 16, 2021
Very well stated. I would like to study psychology more and understand how biases are so deeply ingrained into our psyche. Was it a survival mechanism our ancestors developed or what? I personally have seen some family members SO stuck in their ways and their ideologies that they can’t see something so obvious. It’s like they have horse blinders on and only can see what they want and deny that anything else exists.
I appreciate you disagreeing with me on “trust your gut”. Thinking about it more I would say it is more of use your head. For example, during this past year I talked with a friend who was sharing some obvious covid misinformation. What they were saying was seriously ridiculous. But they weren’t thinking and using their head at all and just was believing all that was told to them by others.
Learning to critically think, question what I am told, and know how to sort out facts and fiction is one thing I value about going to college. I do not remember 99% of what I read in those expensive text books, but developing that critical thinking skill is something I will use my entire life.
Bob - October 16, 2021
Good morning Rebecca,
Re “our psyche” and “survival mechanisms”;
There’s now a substantial corpus of literature re above.
One 2019 article I saved from the Wall Street Journal addresses this.
A couple of excerpts from article titled “Your Caveman Brain Isn’t Built For Investing” by Jason Zweig ( 18-19 May 2019):
“One plausable explaination: In general, negative events sear themselves into the human mind more deeply than than positive outsomes do. … “
“Imagine that you’re a caveman and saw a horrible mauling by a bear on a certain path. That will stick in your mind and you will tend to think ‘I’m going to avoid that path even if the bear isn’t there anymore’. A path with delicious fruit will also stick in your mind, but that’s not as important as to your survival so it’s not as memorable.”
” … immediately after the Dow fell 23% on Oct 19, 1987, … asked investors what was most important to them in evaluating the prospects of the stock market. The crash in the Dow was much more important they said than major economic indicators, … ”
Bob - October 17, 2021
From a book review of “Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetrics in Daily Life” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
“The more “skin in the game” you have, the greater your exposure to ‘black swans’ [ extreme, unexpected events]. He concludes that the folk wisdom handed down by grandmothers – concerning the virtue of birds in the hand – shows an awareness of extreme risks not found in economists’ models. “Rationality is avoidance of systemic ruin”.
Book review in the 24 February 2018 “The Economist”.
Shaun - October 16, 2021
July, very interesting post.
I would add a few things from my own experience that I have taught my kids:
1. Authority is Transparent. For example, if someone tells me that ‘someone at the top level of XYZ is saying ABC but they can’t identify themselves yet’ – be very careful. A message like that is an appeal to the authority of the ‘top person’ but you don’t know who they are so the authority and value of them message is highly suspect. Therefore, the value of the message is non-actionable, it’s only something to consider on the back burner.
2. Does the source have primary evidence that can be independently confirmed? Almost everything on the Internet falls into this, therefore, something to consider on the back burner.
3. Is someone with an unverified source telling me/us something with great emotional content, something amazing, scary or fantastic and calling me to specific immediate action? If so, I am not going to do anything until I can confirm the story to my satisfaction.
My 2 cents.
Bill Masen - October 16, 2021
Doubting Thomas in 2021 would only accept facts after getting confirmation from multiple independant sources.
There are some forums / blogs that have been forcasting the collapse of society / new world order / illuminati / hostile alien state / alien grays / the big one / second revoltion-civil war just about every other week since the mid 1980s.
Mike M - March 26, 2022
Bill, I can go back further to the McCarthy hearings in the early 1950’s with the ‘communism scare’. There were earlier ‘pundits’ but they did not have the advantage of TV and the 24 hour a day news cycle on multiple media platforms to sustain them. Advances in technology is a two-edged sword. YMMV.
July LewisContributor - October 16, 2021
Love these comments! One more from me: I’m really interested in what lies in between “I trust the experts!!” and “I don’t trust ANYTHING that they say!” These extremes are shortcut thinking. The cynicism of not trusting experts or institutions at all can really be dangerous because they are huge sources of reliable knowledge and expertise. They are flawed and don’t always get everything right but it’s so much better to understand why they sometimes get things wrong, or do bad things, rather than conclude that everything they say and do is worthless. By the same token, always trusting experts and institutions is a shortcut. They are subject to biases, the slowness of science and bureaucracy, political and money pressures, and sometimes just plain bad messaging. The more you understand how they work, the better you will be able to judge when they are getting it wrong, responding too slowly, and giving bad advice. If there is a contradiction between the experts and your gut, or the media and what you are actually seeing in your community, knowing their strengths and weaknesses will help you make good judgments.
CR - October 17, 2021
What a great post & discussion! I’m reminded of a relative who adores conspiracy theories and recently told me point blank that he didn’t trust anything that the authorities said. This in response to some scientific data I read out to him to refute a particularly bizarre Covid vaccine related belief he had (social media based). The obvious irony here is that he happily laps up (and regurgitates) completely unverified nonsense the talk show hosts (entertainers, really, right?) who cater to his particular biases spout, which are crafted to appeal to and excite their particular audience’s emotions.
Biases are a huge factor that do color how we receive and process information. If you never question your own biases, then even otherwise intelligent and resourceful people can really go astray after a savvy leader that exploits their ingrained beliefs.
Pops - October 18, 2021
I hear you, July. America has always had a bent toward anti-intellectualism, John Wayne was a Founding Father after all.
Today it is likely egged on by the backlash against “meritocracy” (which decodes to “education”) and the continuing political sort which seeks to divide and conquer. Not only are we continuing to sort, we are also “stacking”— whereby we are increasingly inclined to adhere to to every doctrine of our faction without hesitation.
Some folks just can’t stomach the scientific method itself, which demands one to change their “belief” with the addition of new evidence—as opposed to non-scientific “belief” which demands adherence regardless of evidence, even in spite of it.
And of course there is the ever-present internet where one can find a whole raft of cosigners for any Loonie Tunes idea they can brew up in their crackpot. LOL
Experts are merely humans who have concentrated on one area of study, like say plumbers or janitors. Their opinions can be just as fallible as any other humans but in theory they have had more time and resources to form theirs, and are actually paid to do so, so their guess should have more value I think.
Again, my thought is do not trust your gut, get a few competing views. In my experience, and I’ve been pontificating online since dial-up, my knee-jerk gut reaction is often factually wrong to say nothing of my off the cuff opinion.
P.S. Ha, look at that appeal to (my own) authority! LOL
July LewisContributor - October 21, 2021
One more comment to add – in general I default to “trust the experts” which I think is a good and appropriate strategy but there are times to deviate from that, and here are some examples.
At the beginning of the pandemic when the cdc was telling everyone that masks were not helpful for the general public and to stop buying them – well, they got that wrong. And you could tell because it just defied common sense. Masks were absolutely essential for medical workers but useless for everyone else? Masks are recommended and common practice for infection control in many parts of the world. But it also made sense why they would say it – they were (clumsily) trying to manage a severe supply shortage and didn’t trust the public enough to say “yes they probably help but don’t buy them, save them for medical workers”. They weren’t trying to trick anyone, they were just bad at messaging and probably prey to cultural bias against wearing masks outside of medical settings.
Another moment of the pandemic where I doubted the experts was when the delta surge began and breakthrough infections began being reported in greater numbers. The messaging from public health agencies at that time seemed to be that breakthrough infections were super rare and that it was a pandemic of the unvaccinated. But there were case studies of outbreaks (the Provincetown case study in particular) that were made up of mostly vaccinated people. And these were not all mild cases – some were hospitalized and some died. I looked at the case studies and they seemed to be from reliable sources. I also read articles that talked about the difficulty getting data on breakthrough infections because they weren’t being tracked in a consistent manner. I also started hearing personal stories in my community about breakthrough infections. I became a lot more careful despite the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” messaging because I know that science is slow – it takes time to draw conclusions from case studies; it needs good data – which was apparently lacking; and I know public health agencies would be super reluctant to communicate anything that might undermine confidence in vaccines. I didn’t think I had all the answers – there were just enough early signals for me to think breakthrough infections were more of an issue than was currently being communicated, and I changed my behavior accordingly.
Finally, one more example that sticks in my head is the example of the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, CA. It was a devastating fire that moved much faster than authorities could track. Early on, residents started calling in reports of fire to 911, and the 911 operators told them they were not in danger, that the fire was north of another area and that they were fine and no evacuation orders were in place. Callers would thank them for the info and were reassured. Sometimes they’d say really? It looks a lot closer than that. At one point some were told that what they thought were flames was probably just the sunrise seen through smoke. All of this was because the fire was traveling unbelievably fast, much faster than official information was flowing to 911 operators. So people were seeing one thing and being told another by officials. I can imagine doubting myself in that scenario, doubting what I see with my own eyes and thinking I must just be wrong about it. And that self-doubt could cost precious time.
CR - October 21, 2021
That’s an excellent analogy, July. The Camp Fire was a real shocker out here, and there was such disbelief that fire could so swiftly just roll right over a town like that, incinerating houses and people. Usually towns are saved…I have a friend who told me her first person account of barely escaping a forest fire with her family and nothing else. A whiff of wood smoke still sends her into a panic attack many years later.
July LewisContributor - October 21, 2021
It must have been so terrifying! So glad your friend and her family made it out.
LBV - October 21, 2021
When I was teaching people about using verified sources, I always used the Mankato Underwater City website as an example of why you should not trust everything on the Internet. The disclaimers are amusing.
In regards psychology, the series The Human Zoo is rather interesting. It covers a variety of studies as well as real life examples. It was out in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Carlotta SusannaStaff - December 7, 2021
Here’s a good checklist from the Center for Truth in Science to help understand red flags for bad science https://truthinscience.org/what-does-bad-science-look-like/
I’ll just copy/paste the main points to respect their intellectual property, but I’d encourage you to read the rest of their article as each point is well explained, they use simple terms, and it doesn’t take long:
1. Failure to define key terms
- Do you understand exactly what is being studied?
2. Poor study design
- What is the sample size? How long were they studied for?
- Are the subjects representative of the population being studied?
- Did the researchers control for other variables that could explain the results?
- If it was an experimental study, were two or more groups compared? Were participants randomly assigned a group where there was a difference in exposure?
3. Lack of replication and review
- Has anybody replicated the study? Did they produce the same findings?
- Were they published in a reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journal?
4. Lack of transparency
- Did the researchers share all of their methods and data?
- Did they disclose where study funding came from?
5. Exaggerated and editorialized results
- Are the results statistically significant? Or could they be due to random chance or something else entirely?
- Does the study confuse association with causation?
- Do the researchers advocate for policy changes in their conclusions?
July LewisContributor - December 12, 2021
Just found an interesting article that made me think of this thread. This one on a scientific error about airborne transmission that became accepted scientific knowledge, and hampered our ability to respond to covid-19, only to be challenged successfully by plucky scientists who proved their point with excellent research and a lot of persistence. https://www.wired.com/story/the-teeny-tiny-scientific-screwup-that-helped-covid-kill/
Eric - December 12, 2021
This was really strange to watch. I was listening to Chinese epidemiology reports in Feb 2020 about COVID spreading by 3 routes: contact/fomite (40%), droplet (40%), and aerosol (20%). (I might have remembered the percentages wrong – that was a long time ago and the numbers were wrong anyway.) I couldn’t understand why CDC and WHO kept emphasizing, months later, only one of the three transmission methods when there were so many examples that could only be explained by aerosol. Turns out they just assumed up front that COVID couldn’t spread by aerosol, and ignored all evidence to the contrary.
(BTW: The Chinese epidemiologists had the same bias, only considering aerosol if there was no possibility of the other two. Otherwise they would have reported a much higher percentage for aerosol. But at least they didn’t ignore the data that didn’t match their expectations.)
July LewisContributor - December 17, 2021
Wow, really interesting! And it was a situation where common sense could tip you off that the science was off base, or had a blind spot. I remember seeing these statements about it definitely not being airborne at the same time as seeing reliable case studies where it was clearly being transmitted via aerosols over a distance. And I remember thinking there can’t be anything totally magical and absolute about the particle size – there must be some gray area and variation. But I’m not advocating for just trusting your gut above the experts! Usually they are right and have a lot more knowledge and insight. That’s why the topic is interesting to me – WHEN do you trust your perception and “common sense” vs the experts? I think the only thing I can say is to notice when they differ, and examine why that might be.
Eric - December 18, 2021
“WHEN do you trust your perception and “common sense” vs the experts?”
Depends on how important the topic is to you. Most of the time, official sources will provide “good enough” information. People who just “go with their gut” and ignore official sources are usually just fooling themselves. So if you’re unwilling to put in the effort to do it right, better to just trust official sources.
I cared how COVID spread, because it affected how I protected my family. I was willing to put the time and effort into becoming an expert myself. This requires lots of reading, including both current research and relevant background knowledge that experts in the field consider common knowledge. It also requires keeping track of multiple possible explanations for the same observations, until it becomes clear which explanation is correct. When you read about the latest findings, pay attention not just to the top line conclusion, but also to the evidence and why someone thinks that conclusion is warranted. And BTW, becoming an expert doesn’t mean you get to ignore all the other experts. It actually requires a lot more listening, to a lot more people, with deep scrutiny of everything that you listen to. All of this is difficult and time-consuming. Doing this on even one topic is exhausting.
Decide what topics are worth your effort, then spend the time becoming an expert. For everything else, at least make sure the sources you listen to are reasonably trustworthy.
rebecca - December 18, 2021
That’s great that your study was driven by your desire to protect your family. Having a strong reason why you are searching forces you to search after the best and most reliable sources.
Eric - December 21, 2021
Ari’s latest post is an excellent example of seeing deeper than official sources. Many reputable journals all had the same top story today. Ari doesn’t just say that they’re all wrong. He thoroughly explains how he knew that they were wrong.
The best way to read this article is to focus on learning Ari’s techniques. Learning how to do this yourself is far more important than knowing the percentage of Omicron cases this week.
July LewisContributor - December 21, 2021
I saw that! Great article – still waiting to see if the news outlets walk that back or clarify, or if the CDC has anything to say about it.
Carlotta SusannaStaff - January 13, 2022
I’ve recently discovered AllSides (website, as well as an app) that shows you the same news story, but from left, center, and right perspectives. I’m finding it useful and really interesting to be able to compare the tone from different outlets. It makes it so much clearer to realize how all the news sources use different voices to elicit different reactions, and it makes it almost easier to cut through the noise (i.e. you can just see what’s the real news item, and how the rest is just bias).
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