The Truth Is Out There. Or Is It?

A dame that knows the ropes isn't likely to get tied up. - Mae West

The X-Files has a famous tagline: “the truth is out there.” As someone who studied research methodology, it’s fascinating (and a bit disheartening) to watch as we collectively struggle with what’s “out there” right now, questioning what’s true, who is truthful, and what matters in the current age of “fake news.” It’s fascinating to see folks reflect on bigger questions: Who do we believe? What do we believe? How do we decide? And then, ultimately: What do we do about it?

But I’m disheartened to see mostly shallow attempts at answering these questions and the slapdash manner in which we engage in these discussions. Our culture is mainly one of doing, and that can be a great thing - but overdoing without thinking about it is as bad as overthinking and not doing. If you don’t have some sort of strategy for gathering and making sense of information, you’re probably wasting resources and possibly creating harm. If you’re not transparent about that strategy, you’re not able to get feedback that could help you improve it (and you’re leaving it up to others to make sense of what you’re doing and why, and that can create misperceptions).

I’m a firm believer that there is bias and error in all information, but that it doesn’t make information useless. Understanding how information can be biased is helpful. Equally helpful is understanding the roots of bias within ourselves. We often think of other people deceiving us, but the best place to begin to whittle away nonsense is within ourselves. Take the bold move of National Geographic to reflect on and share their own history of bias. As Susan Goldberg, the Editor in Chief of the magazine, indicated, “...when we decided to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

I’ve found myself reflecting on the ways in which I get, test, and use information. “Research shows…” is not enough to make something true; snazzy data visuals and seemingly impressive numbers can be misleading. Research and journalism are supposed to be bias-free, fair and balanced, and all that jazz, but they aren’t and how we engage with them isn’t either.

That doesn’t mean all is lost, however. It just means more digging is required.

It takes a lot of work to suss out what’s “true,” and we’ll always be limited in our “truth detection” abilities. But the more we know about how to gather, interpret, and use information, the less likely we are to get caught up in assumptions, bias, and outright deception.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.

Further Reading:

Know about the common sources of bias: http://mentalfloss.com/article/68705/20-cognitive-biases-affect-your-decisions.

Learn how your brain plays tricks on you: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/brain-games/.

If you are someone interested (like really interested) in research methods, this blog post by Helen Kara offers some great reading suggestions about indigenous methods as well as better understanding the connection between colonization and research methods: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2017/07/26/reading-list-8-books-on-indigenous-research-methods-recommended-by-helen-kara/.