How to Embrace Uncertainty

Contrary to some claims, we do not live in what could be called a “Post-Truth” world. That is a vast oversimplification of our dilemma when it comes to knowledge. We instead live in a world of MANY truths. This may well be a more difficult reality to deal with.

Turn on the news or internet, and you’ll find hundreds, if not thousands of different reports on the same events. This makes it hard to figure out what is real, and what is not. A few years ago, USV student Aaron Cohn described his perspective on the problem:

A cynic might say that this is evidence of the innate duplicity and agenda mongering of the news media. I tend to take a more constructivist approach to the media at large. Everyone is shaped by different experiences, and that tends to color their interpretation of events. For example, a native Texan and a Californian might not interpret the events of the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 the same way.

How does one become informed when it comes to news events? This was difficult even when objective journalism was the rule of the day in the Progressive Era, and vastly more difficult in the 24/7 news cycle we see today. With that in mind, here are Three Guidelines for staying informed.

Empirical Evidence and Experience is the most trustworthy

Empirical evidence, also known as sensory or experiential evidence, is knowledge gained through direct observation. As in, you were there when the events happened, and you saw it, heard it, tasted it, etc. This also includes direct physical evidence. For example, if a house burned down in a fire, the most obvious evidence of this would be the incinerated remains of the house.  If an event can be perceived through direct experience or obvious physical evidence, then it can be proven to have actually happened. A news report can say something happened, but if you were actually physically present at the time of the events, you could say with a reasonable degree of certainty, whether or not the report is true.

Unfortunately, empirical evidence is also the most limited form of knowledge and information available. It is highly specific, limited to human senses, and very rarely if ever able to describe causation. For example, you might have actually seen a car crash or a fight happen, but you may not have actually been present to see the exact moments that led to the incident in question. Based upon that, your testimony might be useful to describe the incident, but not for explaining WHY it happened.

Rely on Multiple News Sources (Especially Ones You Disagree With)

It is a standard practice among academics and journalists to require multiple sources of information to verify an event. As mentioned previously, those events may be reported with what I could describe as truthful INTENT, but due to personal biases and interpretation, those events may come out being portrayed a certain way. The most reliable way to avoid this is to look at as many different sources of information as possible. This practice is easier to say than to actually perform. In order to use multiple sources to make sense of a news event, it is a best practice to get information from the following sources:

  • Two National Level Sources, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CBS News, etc. Essentially, you’ll want a nationally recognized news source.
  • At least one progressive/liberal news source, like Huffington Post, Salon, Vice, Daily Beast, any news from a source with a known progressive or liberal perspective.
  • At least one conservative news source. Examples might include the National Review, Fox News, and The Daily Caller. It’s important to access information from both a liberal and conservative perspective. Not only does this “balance” the news sources used, but often each of these paradigms in political perspective tends to include different details which the other may not address.
  • One Western European Source. Sources like BBC, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, or The Local are good examples of solid Western European news reporting.
  • One Eastern European Source. There are few sources in English from Eastern Europe, however many European news agencies have fairly extensive Eastern European offices. Among native agencies, RT tends to be the most notable.
  • One East Asian Source. Xinhua, CCTV, Asahi Shinbun, Yomiuri Times, China Strait Times. Many good sources here, which can also be also very useful for finding financial information on the Asian markets as well.
  • One Middle Eastern Source. Examples include Haaretz, Al Jazeera, and Jerusalem post.
  • Any sources from any other parts of the world.

So after that, you should now have about eight different sources describing a given news event in question. The reason why you want so many different international sources from different parts of the world is to gain as many different perspectives and interpretations possible, especially those outside of North America and Western Europe. Once you’ve looked at the reports from each of the sources, you might be able to better assemble a picture of what happened, and gain a perspective on the various opinions on why it happened. If by some unlikely chance every single source has the same portrayal of events, then very likely it actually happened as described. If it did not, then one must conclude that there are gaps in information. By the end of this process of research and inquiry, you should be able to make this statement regarding the events:

“Based on what I’ve read and learned, it seems that this happened, and these are the varying opinions as to why it happened. I’m inclined to believe (insert your opinion), but that’s all I really know.”

Notice that at no point does this statement presume that you have a definitive and total understanding of the events in question. This is ok; in fact, being able to say this is the extent to what you know, while at the same time admitting there are things that you may be unaware of is the most honest and complete demonstration of knowledge possible.

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