Reply to “How Good Are Internet Sources?”

(Blogger “Emily” has mentioned a post in my climate blog as an example of what to look for when deciding to trust an internet source or not. Here’s my reply)

I definitely agree, the only way to measure the truthfulness of a story is by keeping a critical, inquiring mind always turned on, looking first to check if a story is internally consistent, then if it can be verified independently, and finally if it leads to obvious consequences. If somebody says people are living in tents, then one or more organizations helping the homeless must be reporting something about that too.

There is always a limit though, as resources are not…unlimited. In my blog you linked to, there is a language barrier that would need a dedicated professional translator to bridge. In my experience the situation is even worse the other way around, as I often try to convey in Italian, to an Italian audience that is, pieces of interesting information originally written in English.

Or, say, think about the report from Austria on hailstones coming out of a toilet. If you search for it on the Internet, there are pictures of a bathroom covered indeed with what look like tiny clumps of ice. But how can we tell if the pictures themselves are not fake, or even staged?

Fact is, we cannot do that. Or at least, we cannot do it in a universal sense, in a way that we know will be the same for all fellow human beings. At the end of the line, there is always a judgement call, by each individual: and different individuals will look for different “signs” in a story to confirm its truthfulness, they will hold it to different standards, and at the end of the day will (perfectly reasonably) arrive at different conclusions.

Part of living as a human being should be about peacefully handling those differences. Unfortunately, a great deal of us are still convinced “truth” is something that can be beaten into (bombed upon, knifed into, shot into) other people.

All in all, the question perhaps is not “how good are Internet sources?”. Rather, “how good are we in dealing with them?”

ps my own preferred “truthfulness test” is Carl Sagan’s. Extraordinary claims must be backed by extraordinary evidence. People living in tents in perilous economic times? It has happened already -> not an extraordinary claim -> a good article with references, and some minor additional confirmation do suffice to take the story as true.

Human beings changing the planetary temperature by minutely increasing the presence of a trace gas? It has never happened, and CO2 physics says the effect is logarithmic (each additional molecule matters less than the one emitted immediately before it) -> such an extraordinary claim will need something stronger to it than what we have at the moment.

Some people disagree with the above. And that’s fine to me.

ps apologies for any mispelling and grammatical errors…