May 30, 2009

I try to be careful in my statistics. It is so very easy to pull numbers out of the air and make them sound official, but I am trying to learn, not to argue one side of an issue: so what would be the point? Whenever possible, I try to go back to the original study. Where there is none, I try at least to verify from two or three distinct sources. There is no such thing as truly objective -- everything has a frame -- so I try at least for opposite biases which are willing to take enough of a step back to analytically consider the same material.

For too many things, this is becoming nearly impossible.

Check any ten sources, and odds are good that they will quote each other verbatim or even be absolutely identical. Read a hundred competing newspapers, and nearly all pull from one or another of the major news agencies such as AP or Reuters. For the current project, I just finished searching through over a thousand different Internet sites, looking for a single statistic I loosely remembered from nine years ago. Virtually every site that was on-topic had exactly the same information, word for word: while also glossing over the specific point for which I was seeking.

The choice increasingly seems to be only which content to carry. If a story is not selected, it does not run. If a story is selected, it runs in exactly the same manner regardless of the specific medium. One version of the story will sweep the conservative blogosphere, another the liberal blogosphere: but in each sphere the stories will be essentially the same, as will the counterarguments.

If a statistic or other fact is originally cited incorrectly, it is repeated so often that its original form becomes part of the common knowledge long before the mistake is caught, let alone apologised for and corrected. Thereafter that same inaccuracy will continue to rear its head again and again. Each and every time, the very fact that it was repeated by someone accepted as authority will be held as proof of its truth.

What is happening to our ability to analyse for ourselves? Are we become nothing more than parrots?

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