I regularly receive emails from friends who are concerned because they had received an email informing them of a new type of crime, a grievous social injustice, a rampant computer virus, etc. Perhaps the more excited or agitated something makes us, the more we want to believe it and spread the word (a riff on Hitler’s “Big Lie” theory). Many have cautioned against the “news” relayed by bloggers, and to rely upon the better credibility of authoritative sources.
That being said, authoritative sources from the New York Times’s Judith Miller to the CNBC’s financial expert Jim Cramer have had their credibility issues. Newspapers and television, with their financial stake in attracting readers thrive on inflating the scandal factor of the events around them.
And now the mushrooming growth of social networks where everyone tweets, blogs and provides status updates, grasping for something to say has to be added to the mix of what to believe and what to cast aside as talk for the sake of networking. Maybe the same drive to network socially drives us to have our friends and colleagues join us in our cause(s). It’s not just misery that loves company, but joy and indignation too.
Yesterday, when I was pulling together some statistics for the follow-up discussion to my blog post on bicycle helmets and safety, I was taken aback by a statement on the statistics page of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. They caveated one of their statistics sets by saying:
“We don’t know where the numbers in the bullet point above and the chart below originated. The data to make that determination is not usually collected in the field.”
Overall it was an excellent page of statistics, and I applaud the BHSI for noting that they don’t know where the data came from, but it also meant that I had to look elsewhere for a source that could stand by its data.
The credibility others give to a source higher on the status hierarchy can’t be denied. Fifteen years or so ago, when I was in a role that had me in a relatively low status role collecting and assessing information in order to make determinations that would have a permanent legal impact, my practice was to collaborate with other agencies in pooling the raw data and assessments, and then make a case for Washington’s concurrence. In the initial analysis phase, I had to be careful in reviewing information from other agencies because occasionally I would recognize my own work there, simply recycled, but now bearing the authority of another, often higher status office. I had to be carefully internally not to create a circular argument in which my own conclusions were used to justify themselves. But, in presenting a case to others, it was helpful to present the assessment as having come from the higher status office.
When you need to make a decision based on accurate information, it may not be the prestige of the analyst that’s important, but an ability to identify the source of the information and assess the analytical methods. I guess that’s what transparency is about.