3. Source Vs. Message Credibility

What role did the various methods by which we acquire information play in the fatal miscalculations during Hurricane Ike?

On one level, people place credibility in the source of information. For instance, they may trust The Wall Street Journal more than the National Enquirer.

On a second level, they also evaluate the credibility of individual messages within each medium based on factors such as perceived fairness, balance, thoroughness, etc.

Today, people have thousands of options to get their news. Inevitably, they look at things from different angles and filter information in different ways.

When parallax becomes an issue, conflict can result. In the case of Hurricane Ike cited earlier, whom should we believe – the county sheriff and National Weather Service telling us to evacuate or a relative bragging about surviving previous Category 2 storms?

Triangulating on Truth

We often assign credibility through triangulation. If two out of three sources agree, we may believe them more than a third that doesn’t. We might give less credibility to points of view that appear to be statistical outliers. We look for consistency and give credence to trends.

                Who do I believe?

Different media affect the credibility we place in information. When actively researching important topics, most of us investigate alternative sources of information and attempt to resolve conflicts logically through some sort of weighted decision matrix. But when a warning comes from an unknown source, as it did with the East End Park alligator, we may simply dismiss it.

While a lack of source credibility can cause us to dismiss important information, sometimes putting too much credibility in sources can also lead to harm – especially when people rely on triangulation in their search for truth.

Here’s how that sometimes works. Thanks to news syndication, one newspaper report may be printed in thousands of newspapers. Television stations may then pick up the story and report on the report. Magazines then put their spin on the topic and so on. Pretty soon, the story seems to be everywhere. Seeing it in so many places may predispose the reader (and editors) to consider it as true even though it may contain inaccuracies. After all, how could so many people be wrong?

Quite simply, people repeat claims without referencing the original source. That makes it impossible to verify the information. Eventually, the source becomes forgotten along with all the assumptions and qualifications behind the story. And when repeated often enough, the story soon rises to the level of conventional wisdom. People assume its truth.

Example: During the OPEC oil embargoes of the Seventies, many publications printed reports that the world would run out of oil in 30 years. Against the backdrop of supply shortages, rising prices and gas lines, many people believed the claims. People panicked. Prices skyrocketed. Governments leaped into action. The great Sunbelt migration began.

Just one problem – 35 years later, we can see the predictions were not very accurate. Since the beginning of the oil age, reporters have periodically concluded that the world was running out of oil in 30 years. Curiously, the producing life of most new fields is 30 years. When you look only at the consumption rate of current supplies, the claim looks true. But explorers keep discovering new fields every year.

A 2006 shock doc called A Crude Awakening repeated many of the claims from the Seventies in a very compelling fashion. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, new shale and deepwater technologies have added huge new reserves to the world’s oil and gas supplies since then. Some estimate that the practice of hydraulic fracturing could extend the world’s supply of hydrocarbons by a third. Subsalt exploration offshore Brazil suggests their reserves may be as large as Saudi Arabia’s.

How many times each day are we bombarded by dire claims – about the environment, health care, the economy and more – that will ultimately prove untrue? How much credence do we give claims simply because we hear them repeated over and over again?

To determine the truth of any given claim, triangulation on facts alone is insufficient. We must examine the credibility of the sources as well.

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