The ideas I put into this site are aimed at ‘serious minded’ people – perhaps not a large portion of the thousands who write and read blog posts. I don’t try to sell a product, or entertain readers (though I try to keep a sense of humor), and my writing style is informal. Not meeting MLA or APA standards isn’t concerning, since publishing another book is not a goal. I hope to attract “eyes”, but only if they can see the real value of knowledge, and it’s power to help them make good choices. If this all sounds conceited, let me only say it comes from years of studying, writing, observing and trying to teach ethical and critical thinking. Those goals remain with me post retirement.
When serious issues appear in popular media (depending on the current ‘news cycles’), they aren’t there because they are important, nor are they discussed with suitable honesty or fairness. They’re published in a rush to be ‘the first’ or at least ‘up to date’ with The News. Of course, new (and old) are relative terms. New is relative to old; present is relative to past. In a sense, everything is new, because nothing is exactly what it was an instant ago – with the possible exception of some concepts, like ‘Two plus two equals four’, or ‘Everything changes’.
People look for patterns in what’s new or different, in order to live practical lives. E.g., turbulent dark clouds racing toward us signal ‘Take cover’, but not to the inexperienced. If we never had that experience personally, we would need a warning from someone who had, or had learned it from another who had, etc. Beyond this practicality, there also seems to be a fascination for changes – being aware of and talking about them. Asking ‘What’s new?’ can simply come from curiosity. It’s part of how children learn to fit in, to be accepted, and to get what they want. This curiosity is so common it’s become a casual way of greeting friends. Here and world wide, on streets and in shops, you’ll hear “Hey! Wa’sup?”, “Que passa?”, “Quoi de neuf?”, “Che c’e’ di nuovo?”, “Was gibt est neues?” etc. I doubt anyone would do this in their homes because we know from observation what’s going on (unless we’re caught by surprise).
Primal societies don’t need such casual greeting, and they probably don’t encourage childish curiosity. But they do need to know patterns. Their lives depend on that awareness; so they keep close tabs on changes and differences. For them, what’s new or different is never casual, and certainly not a matter of curiosity. It’s a matter of concern – something or someone to be watched closely, especially unfamiliar or ‘different’ people. The latter will be distrusted, and possibly even scape-goated, as Rene Girard’s works show so effectively.
Returning to our question, How and where can we find news that’s trustworthy and useful? Unfortunately, appropriate, serious consideration of important topics isn’t what audiences of popular news want. They don’t like thinking well. It’s not easy or comfortable; it takes work and practice. Nor do the news producers want audiences to think well. It would make their game harder. For this reason, I generally stay away from popular media, except as it helps me see how it influences people, and what the trends are. Topics change, but the message seldom does. It only gets louder and more intrusive. Marshall McCluhan said in 1977, the Medium Is the Message. That was 20 years before the Internet came into popular use, which itself was 20 years ago. So The Message hasn’t changed in 40 years! The Medium still influences how we ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘think’, ‘believe’ and ‘feel about’ the world. I particularly worry about the power of those who control contemporary social media which are an intrusive part of ordinary people’s daily lives around the world.
There are serious sources on the Web, but seldom in the mainstream; so it takes work and time to find them. It’s a pleasant surprise to be able to bookmark one of these for reference; and a disappointment when the first impression changes. Books found on the Web add more ideas and suggest new themes to puzzle about, but not enough people have the leisure or interest for ‘long reads’.
If I add anything to the quest for answers to important questions, it’s a very long career of thinking philosophically – i.e., trying to get big pictures, see long-term trends, and make critical value judgments about them, keeping a mind as objective and open as I can. It’s safe to generalize that quick and easy answers to important questions are probably wrong. Moreover, no human can know with certainty The Answer to the most important questions. So the sign of good thinking is to trust that Truth does exist, and continue seeking – i.e., asking questions. A familiar Bible text says “… the truth shall make you free” (John 8: 32). What’s often left out is the qualifying proviso: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”. To ‘continue in his word’ is a key to finding truth, but no human can ever know The Truth.
Anyone who looks for truth and tries to be rational wants to know the facts, so far as possible. Since personal experience is very limited, she or he must count on other sources. How can we know that the source is trustworthy? What constitutes reasonable evidence? These are tough and old questions. (Plato’s search for truth and the reality it describes distinguishes knowlege from ‘mere opinion’ and ‘true opinion’. This is often discussed by Socrates – the main character in Plato’s writing and his tutor. Here is one from Theaetetus that calls knowledge ‘true opinion with an account’ – i.e. an explanation, called Logos – a very common root word, about which Wikipedia says this:
“Logos is a term in Western philosophy, psychology, rhetoric, and religion derived from a Greek word variously meaning “ground”, “plea”, “opinion”, “expectation”, “word”, “speech”, “account”, “reason”, “proportion”, and “discourse”. A complex term! Our word logic comes from it’s use as ‘reason’. But being logical is not equivalent to being a serious critical thinker. Here’s my take on critical thinking – a handout I gave all my students. Logic can be off-putting to some, so don’t order, ‘Be logical!’. Others aren’t interested in reasoning, no matter how modestly expressed. In such a case, we’re both better off if the discussion is dropped politely.
I’ve found sources of ideas and opinions over the years I think are reliable. It’s a judgment that may change. It doesn’t depend on how much I like the source. Believing or disbelieving someone’s ideas based on whether you like or dislike the person is an old and common logical fallacy – Argumentum Ad Hominem. Currently, one of my go-to sources is economist and historian Michael Hudson. Though he’s an atheist (which I’m not) he knows from direct experience and critical thinking the economic trends of the United States, and other developed and developing countries. His thoughts on the “Slow Crash” have particular relevance, following the International Financial Crisis (IFC) of 2007. He often critiques what he calls “Junk Economics” (one of his many books) to show how and why the happy predictions floating around in mainstream media markets are worthless. He suggests that these ideas are based on mistaken assumptions, misleading language, and irrelevant or even false data. He supports his claims with lots of historical reseach and statistical analyses. That’s why I accept statistics and judgments from Hudson more than from his critics. Does it matter that he’s an atheist? Ultimately yes, but I’ll return to that question later.
We’ve all heard this caution about statistics: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. It means don’t be fooled because someone uses numbers to shore up a weak argument. That’s good advice. Statistics have risks, but also value. Statisticians want to get big pictures (all of X) by extrapolating from small samplings (some of X). But some of X doesn’t imply all of X logically. Moreover, finding trends and relationships involving human behavior is not as certain and trustworthy as finding facts about lawful nature, and even the latter are never known perfectly.
Samplings – e.g. yes or no answers, preferences stated, votes cast, people robbed, mortgage loans foreclosed, tenants evicted, etc., etc. – may not be ‘representative’. Questions asked may be loaded; answers may be false; and the connection between one kind of grouping and another (e.g. between poverty and bad health) can be seen as cause to effect, or effect to cause, or co-effects of some other cause, or purely coincidental, etc. Still, we should try to know these things in order to understand our society, and make good decisions about our roles in it.
Statistics get into most mainline media reports about any controversial topic. Effectively, that means almost every topic today – no matter how bitter or violent or awful – since media thrive on controversy. Adding to the complexity, large numbers seem to have a certain fascination of their own – almost magical. I don’t know why. For example, this article from The Observer tells us, for what it’s worth, that Tesla is worth more than GM and Ford combined. Why does that catch our attention?
‘Big Data’ are crucial to today’s individualized, targeted marketing techniques. If I ‘Google’ something on the Web – clothes, doctors, restaurants, child-care, movers, a church, or information about the health benefits of citrus fruit – I can expect to receive e-mails, phone-calls, sms, and/or WhatsApp texts offering what they have to sell related to my search. And the stream from these companies – and their associates – will continue and multiply unless/ until I make an effort to cancel them, which isn’t always successful. Google and Facebook are the major developers of this “Surveillance Capitalism” – a term coined and critiqued by Shoshana Zuboff at Harvard. In addition to the invasion of privacy, manipulative marketing and undemocratic power of these companies, this data also helps bad guys scam countless naive web users such as I. Yes, I’ve been scammed, to the dismay of my more savvy children, grandchildren and friends. Alas, I tend to trust others to a fault.
In evolutionary terms, our brains aren’t used to large numbers which are so much part of modern life. There was never any need for them. ‘One’, ‘A few’, or ‘Lots’ were sufficient, expressed in words or gestures. Who can count a herd of bison or reindeer? Apart from these evolutionary and psychological factors, the lack of number skill and understanding is problematic in public education. It requires extra effort that some school districts can’t afford. Various media, whose audiences find statistics and numbers boring, gain from this lack. It’s easier for people to count on someone else to count (“do the numbers”) for them, which increases the likelihood of their staying ignorant and easily swayed. The outcome is mocked in this Evolution of Education graphic, but my experience confirms it’s not too far off. The lack of math training is one reason many public school students do poorly in the S.T.E.M. subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), which harms their employment propects as well as their reasoning ability. Private schools with more means are in much better shape, of course.
Modern business models use marketing methods intended to keep the general public happy and uninformed about important topics. They can keep most people in intellectual darkness by appealing to their favorable emotions with bright sights, colors, and sounds (that everyone finds attractive). Laws about transparency are an appallingly disgusting joke. This gives unfair advantage and extreme wealth to the small number of people in control of most national economies, ours included. Investopedia for May 2022 lists the world’s top 10 wealthiest people, 7 of whom are Americans. Musk, Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Page (GOOG), and Brin (GOOG). Zuckerberg isn’t listed this time because Meta had a down year, but I’ll bet he will be next year.
Is information about this contest for the top of the pyramid important? No, but it exemplifies how people are not only hoping for wealth – the American Dream – but are fascinated (and distracted) by these data about the few who have gotten there, leaving them ever farther behind. What are some other unimportant distractions? My list would include TV cooking contests; the most popular detergent; MVP of any professional sport; Mr. Trump’s Tweets; a person’s number of Facebook friends; how we look in that selfie; how many miles you (ran, walked, biked, swam) logged by your Fit App, the Academy Awards (or Oscars), the latest Netflix series, U. S. News high school rankings, Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue”, and Kardashian family views on anything. Granted, I’m a curmudgeon.
Then what are some important topics to know about? Education; genuine love; moral growth; the public good; social responsibility; charity; war; displaced refugees; global sea-level; productive business models; useful employment; health; quality of life; and a place to live. Let me dwell on that (pun intended). Housing quality often seems determined by zipcode. Despite the 1968 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and subsequent fair housing upgrades, poverty and prejudice continue to work against finding housing in underclass neighborhoods, of which there are many in every city and exurban area. Of course not everyone can live in an affluent community. But is this extreme degree of poverty a free choice?
Every adult – from any social status – can benefit from knowing trends and their underlying causes, to make practical, reasonable life choices. That’s true with the housing situation as well. Numbers, pictures, graphs and comparisons showing what, when, where and how much (even ‘Statistics’) may help. Michael Hudson’s July 2021 interview with the Penger Group – “living with price above value” – explains who gets hurt and who gets helped by the current housing market. Here’s a quote that summarizes what I consider a major point regarding bank loans:
“Today’s banking sector is in a symbiosis with the landlord class, because 80 percent of bank loans are mortgage loans. The financial sector’s main clientele are the rentier classes [not those who need a home], the very classes that classical economists wanted to free economies from.” Federal banking policies are of course, made by politicians. This is the U. S Treasury built in Greek style, finished in 1869.
I suggested earlier that it matters ultimately whether or not our knowledge of reality comes from an atheist (e.g. Michael Hudson). There are a few reasons for this. First, if one’s notions of reality and truth rested on nature – as Hudson’s do – they can be observed and measured by mathematical sciences. They can be ‘proven’ (confirmed), because ‘facts’ can be known – at least in principle. The presumption is that the only trustworthy way to knowing the truth is the observable, measurable approach of science. Because serious scientists admit such knowledge is imperfect, with respect to predictions of the future, and records of the past, discovering trends is also imperfect. A much greater difficulty for science though – a ‘quantum’ leap greater – are the recent experiments with Quantum Mechanics reported in The Conversation which claims that scientific objectivity doesn’t exist! That’s a real puzzler.
What can be certain when theories keep changing? Maybe this is ‘The Big Problem’ with science as the ultimate approach to truth and knowledge. So far, there’s no Theory of Everything (ToE), even on the horizon. To illustrate the bizarre extremes to which some predictions go, here’s a Live Science article published 5/2/22 claiming that Cosmic Expansion – the universe is getting larger – may soon reverse (“in just 100 million years”). Who knew? So Hudson’s faith is not on much firmer ground than my own, which transcends earth.
How do we find the truth? Truth has different meanings. It can mean ‘the facts’ (or to be more philosophical, ‘what describes the facts’). As shown above, modern science admits the facts of nature can’t be known with certainty. There are also mathematical truths which are conceptual – not at all part of nature. They’re true by definition. It’s true that 2 + 2 + 2 > 3 + 3 because of the meaning of those symbols. As noted several ways, for those who limit reality to the material realm, what they call truth exists, but it can only be approximated. For those who believe in a spiritual reality, there is an absolute truth, but no humans can ever know it fully. They may however learn more and more to eternity, if they choose to follow the One who is ultimate Truth Itself (coming from ultimate Good Itself). For those who reject that path, I think the ultimate result is insanity, whereby he or she can ‘prove’ anything he or she cares about, and wants to believe. Our natural desires are selfish. If they aren’t changed, the outcome will be hell, not joy.
A genuine truth seeker will not claim to know ‘The Truth’ about any subject, and certainly won’t speak dogmatically, which is hateful to hear, and turns away anybody listening. In any ordinary day-to-day conversation, saying what we believe to be the truth needs to be done modestly – not arrogantly – giving reasons where possible to support our suggestion. This allows the hearer to choose whether to agree. Modesty is much more important, though, when we’re discussing higher topics, especially beliefs about morality, spirituality or religious faith. Dogmatic approaches here are bound to fail. Worse, they may come from wrong motives, like conceit, which ultimately opposes the Divine Love that gives everyone a chance to learn the difference between truth and falsity.