Finding RELIABLE Information

The following information is from Chapter 10 of Double Your Brain Power by Jean Marie Stine. This book is filled with usefull information. I recommend you purchase a copy (paperback from Prentice Hall) and read it.


EVALUATING WHAT YOU READ

Double [your brain power] by learning to separate the printed wheat from the chaff, almost instantly. Just zipping through all the printed data that are thrown at you every day isn't enough. There's another step left. It will take you from mere mastery of quantity to mastery of quality.

In the late 1980s, Ruth J., a friend who had just received a rather large inheritance in the 1.5-million-dollar range, stumbled on what looked like a great investment opportunity. The owner of a small software firm with a best-selling DOS accounting program was seeking a partner with working capital to help tide the company through a financial crunch. The company itself was healthy, he told Ruth. The current crisis was the result of a distributor who had gone bankrupt while owing the software firm nearly a million dollars.

Ruth was no fool. She did her homework-or thought she did-and the president of the company appeared to do everything to help her. He provided her the previous year's annual company report, and Ruth read through every word. It was filled with glowing accounts of the firm's past success and the company's prospects. It pointed out that successful software brand names were like successful breakfast cereal names: Once the public found one they liked, they kept coming back to it.

The sales figures in the report bore out this premise. To prove his product's quality, the company president gave Ruth the names of several leading software designers, and all confirmed that it would remain far ahead of other DOS accounting systems for years to come. Ruth was convinced. She invested her inheritance... And lost it! Less than 18 months later, the software maker was belly-up. DOS software was on the way out; Bill Gates's Windows had eclipsed it.

What went wrong? Ruth reviewed all the relevant information, didn't she? It wasn't the quantity of what she read that was the problem. It was the quality. She had missed the last-and most vital-step in reading. She had read uncritically. She had neglected to question or evaluate what she read. Among the other mistakes she had made were not considering the source of information (the company needed her investment to continue operating; naturally, they painted the best possible picture); relying on vague generalizations (those glowing accounts of the company's future omitted all word of Windows); relying on argument by analogy (cornflakes can't be superseded by a new technology overnight); relying on out-of-date information (the previous year's report); and being impressed by authorities who really weren't (the software programmers knew about the quality of the product, but not about the way consumer psychology would bring Windows to the top).

Simply taking in mountains of knowledge uncritically isn't enough. Unfortunately, not all the things we learn and see and hear can be believed. Among the avalanche of facts, figures, and ideas we are exposed to there is much bogus information. We are bombarded by much that is neither factual, accurate, unbiased, nor even truthful.

In a world where success depends on keeping abreast of so unprecedented an information explosion, mistakenly acting on bad data can be disastrous. This is true at every level of our lives. From business to career to the intimately personal, making the right decision depends on getting the right facts and the facts right.

Information can easily become contaminated, sometimes innocently, sometimes with more ulterior motives in mind. Either way, the result is the same for us. We can be cheated, manipulated, misled, or dangerously misinformed.

According to Scott Witt, a successful entrepreneur and author of books on business and personal success, bogus data can become bogus in several ways:

Just think about it. We all know someone who started his or her own business with high hopes, only to have it fail due to bad advice or a misunderstanding of critical details. Most of us have been deliberately taken advantage of in some way by an unscrupulous individual or company that deliberately misled and deceived us. Some of us have made a key decision and later found, to our regret, that it was based on out-of-date information.

A cardinal rule of the information age is never accept anything uncritically. That only leads to disaster. Be sure what you absorb is accurate and current before acting on it. Otherwise, it's worse than useless--it's harmful. Separating the informational wheat from the chaff is the all-important step. It's what distinguishes an excellent learner from a master of the information flow. It's also not very hard.

Fourteen proven tools will show you how to detect what's bogus as soon as it's presented. You'll be able to evaluate the material's worth--and more important, its lack of worth--almost instantly in most cases. In short, you have mastered both the quantity of information flooding into your life and have assured its quality. What once seemed an insurmountable mountain of information will now seem like the proverbial molehill.


SEVEN SURE-FIRE WAYS TO SPOT BOGUS, ERRONIOUS,
AND DISTORTED INFORMATION

In most cases, determining the validity of what you read and hear isn't a lengthy or difficult process. You don't have to pull down research books or look it up somewhere. You can tell good from bad at first glance. Any time you're exposed to new ideas or data, ask yourself the following questions. They will help you spot the bad stuff (BS) 90 percent of the time, without any further effort being necessary. Ask yourself:

Genuine information is always presented in concrete words and figures. Look for vague language and ambiguous words that are open to interpretation, particularly those that might be interpreted in more than one way.

Brain Power Doubler #37

Here are some red flags that signal us the material that follows
may not be as reliable as it seems: "many," "the majority," "market
forces," "experts say," "everyone," "justice," "liberal," "conservative."
Also be careflil when technical or unusual words are left undefined.
You can't evaluate something if you don't know what parts of it mean.


What Is the Source of Information?

Sometimes a speaker's or a writer's sources of information are inadequate, faulty, or plain wrong. Never rely on facts if their source is not clearly stated. If the attribution is vague or nonexistent, you are right to reject or mistrust the material.

Brain Power Doubler #38

Look for these signposts: "experts," "informed sources," "a national
publication," "a television news broadcast," "a scholarly journal" and
others. If no source is given, be doubly suspicious.


Do Any Statements Contain Generalizations?

Distrust generalizations, along with ideas or arguments based on them. Categorical statements about groups or individuals are rarely valid. Life comes in too many varieties. Nothing is true for everyone.

BRAIN Power Doubler #39

Watch for generalities such as, "politicians are spend-crazy," "venture
capitalists bail out at the first sign of trouble," "workers aren't as
loyal as they used to be," "corporations are soulless," "lawyers are
crooks," "their kind are lazy" -- If you can add the word "all" to a
phrase ("all workers... ," "all politicians. . . ," "all women. . .")
it's a generalization you can easily dismiss.


Does It Rely Primarily on Analogy?

Analogy is notoriously unreliable. Analogies are ways of illustrating points or issues by comparing them to something with similar characteristics. It assumes that because there is a relationship between two things, they must therefore be alike in every way. But different things are never completely comparable; they always diverge somewhere, in some fashion. Running a business might, in many ways, be like a medieval Japanese Samurai sword-fight. But it isn't a swordfight, and it could be dangerous to make business decisions solely according to the principles of ancient Bushido.

Brain Power Doubler #40

Be wary of actions, proofs, and conclusions that spring
from analogy alone.


Is It Current?

Things change, circumstances alter, new technologies and ideas supersede one another with lightning rapidity in our modern age. When a fact or figure is not current, it may well be wrong. The older it is, the more likely is the information to be out of date.

BRAIN Power Doubler #41

If a citation is more than a few years old (a few months in
fast-breaking fields such as computers), you have good cause
to be careful. Log on or drop into a bookstore or library and
see what the newest publications in that field have to say.


Is It Firsthand or Secondhand?

The best information comes firsthand from those who actually know whereof they speak. As with gossip, the more people it passes through on its way to you, the greater the opportunity for intentional or unintentional error. Newspapers and general-circulation magazines usually get their facts from reading books by experts or interviewing experts (who are often misquoted). An article based on a newspaper or magazine account adds yet one more likelihood that what's being said could be seriously flawed. So can a fact repeated second, third, or fourthhand--or even worse-by any speaker.

BRAIN Power Doubler #42

When the currency of information is a critical factor, don't accept
it at face value. Take the time to locate the original person or
study (libraries and the Internet are great for this), and make
sure what you have been told by others is correct.


Is There Supporting Evidence or Is It Just a Point of View?

One drawback of the electronic age is that we are barraged on all fronts by personal points of view masquerading as facts. It's just personal opinion unless the author or speaker offers specific figures, surveys, sources, or actual cases. Anything else is unsupported assumptions. Without expertise or verifiable data, one person's opinion is no better than any other's. Points of view can be enlightening, but don't mistake them for facts.

BRAIN Power Doubler #43

It's poor judgment to proceed on the basis of nothing more substantial
than someone else's personal opinion.


SPOTTING "INFORMATION MANIPULATION"

In 95 percent of all cases when you find something worth noting, remembering, or acting on, the previous seven questions will tell you if it's bogus or not. But some writers, authors, and speakers are experts at massaging facts and slanting words to create misleading conclusions and have hidden agendas. But you can unmask their efforts to bamboozle, mislead, and exploit you. It's easy to spot such information manipulation every time when you know the telltale clues.

My friend, Dr. Samantha N., a general practitioner, faced a mountain of mailers from pharmaceutical companies every day. Each touted the benefits of its medicines and drugs. Medical school had trained her to heal. But not a word was said about how to evaluate the sales pitches of drug companies. Samantha left one of my California seminars armed with the knowledge of how to spot information manipulation. Three weeks later, she called to report that the knowledge allowed her to identify phony claims and dubious products. Once she had started to do that, Samantha said, she noticed that some companies were more deceptive in the way they presented their facts than others. She planned to scrutinize any medicine that came from their laboratories very carefully before using it.

Spotting "Selected Proofs"

Information manipulators are masters at presenting only material that supports their ideas. They deliberately leave out all the inconvenient facts that contradict them. (And since there are two sides to every story, there is always something to be said for the other side.) For example, what if someone wanted to sell you on the effectiveness of their management-training seminar? The brochure would be filled with glowing testimonials from those who had great success putting the seminars' principles into practice. It would look worthwhile. But those individuals might number only a few out of hundreds or thousands. Many more might have had just the opposite experience; they might have found that what the seminar taught didn't work in real life. (And those who did succeed might well have succeeded because of their own talent, in spite of the seminar,not because ofit.)

Brain Power Doubler #44

Always assume there is another side to the story. Look for it
and you'll find it.


Spotting "Red Herrings"

Information manipulators try to distract you from finding holes in their argument or asking logical questions about some of their statements that might otherwise arise in your mind. Some people call these "informational red-herrings." The proverbial example is the speaker who has been asked an embarrassing question and must change the subject because he does not dare answer it. "We all agree that company earnings could have been better this year. But to raise questions of mismanagement is extreme. After all, many other businesses experienced a downturn. The economic picture, as you all know ... "

BRAIN Power Doubler #45

When someone suddenly raises an issue that seems unrelated to the
main subject, he or she is trying to throw you off the track. Be
wary of all that follows.


Spotting "Mudslinging"

When the going gets rough, information manipulators get rougher. If they can't substantiate their position, or if a rival's is better, they ignore the issues and start slinging mud at the other person. A salesperson making a presentation to an important client might seek to dismiss a question from a rival salesperson on the grounds that the other has a mercenary motivation in asking it. While it might be true that the person asking has a personal interest in the matter, his or her point might still be valid.

BRAIN POWER DOUBLER #46

When you spot mudslinging, watch out! There is something
the mud-slinger doesn't want you to know.


Spotting "Emotionally Loaded Arguments"

Information manipulators are also expert at stirring up emotion to enlist us in a cause or to turn us against one. Words don't just convey facts. They also convey feelings. No one likes to be called "stupid." It arouses feelings of anger. The words "injured child" are likely to evoke strong emotions in most people. When someone wants to turn off your critical faculties so you will miss important holes in their contentions, they sprinkle what they have to say liberally with emotionally laden appeals. Hearing a "defeatist attitude is undermining the whole company's position" is very upsetting. But is it true, or is the person making the accusation just trying to cover up his or her own substandard performance?

BRAIN Power Doubler. #47
When you spot emotionally laden arguments, ignore them. Look
elsewhere for the truth.


Spotting "Appeals to Authority"

Information manipulators love to dazzle you with endorsements from celebrities and experts. "Professor Schmitz of Harvard takes the same position," an information manipulator might say. But a professor of marketing may not always know what works in practice. Furthermore, the experts are sometimes wrong. More important, people sometimes get the authorities they quote wrong. Sometimes they even get them completely reversed.

BRAIN Power Doubler #48

When an argument rests entirely on the say-so of some eminent
authority, things are getting tenuous Go slowly, be skeptical.
You are probably treading informational quicksand.


Spotting Faulty Conclusions Based On Flawed Arguments

What information manipulators are leading up to with all this is false conclusions based on faulty facts and flawed arguments. The whole idea is to distract you thoroughly from gaping weaknesses in their own position by stirring up your emotions with smear campaigns, words, and appeals to authority. These are common strategies in sales, politics, and advertising. The software company looked like such an attractive investment to Ruth because faulty evidence had deliberately been manipulated to create a false picture of the company's potential.

(For a list of logical fallacies which may be used, see my site on Critical Thinking.

Brain Power Doubler #49

The more BS busters you spot while reading, the more carefully
you want to scrutinize the conclusions. Most of the time you'll
find there is misrepresentation somewhere.


WHEN IN DOUBT, CHECK!

There are no unimpeachable sources. According to newspaper reports, several years back a businessman almost made a fatal decision based on figures given in the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States. This important document contains the key national population and other demographic statistics used by business and governmental bodies. It is published by the U.S. government printing office. By pure luck, the businessman discovered that there was an error of a decimal place in the stats on certain kinds of plastic production. Further research, widely reported, discovered this vital book was riddled with hundreds of errors, major and minor.

You don't have to rely on luck to save you, however. With the BS Detectors you've acquired, you will be able to discern the authentic from the bogus in all but a few instances. When it's business, when the information is critical, double-check. Make that visit to the library, tap into the World Wide Web, ask a friend or a friend's friend who is an expert.

BRAIN POWER DOUBLER #50

Almost any fact, figure, name, or data you could ever want to
know is easily accessible due to computers and data links, and
most city libraries now have computers that can do quick searches
for you. The year's soybean crop, the number of rainy days in Iowa
City, how much is spent on print advertising in Norfolk, Virginia-it's
all no more than 20 seconds to 20 minutes away.

The information age may present many demands. But it also provides many opportunities. Now that you have the tools and abilities to manage both the quantity and the quality of the information flowing into your life, you are free to use as powerful aids the same computers, faxes, cable channels, modems, and other tools that once threatened to overwhelm you. These fabulous new channels of information flow two ways-from them to you and from you to them. Take advantage of them, and you can literally have precisely the information you want, when you want it, delivered right to your fingertips. Conquering the information age couldn't be easier.



by Colby Glass, MLIS.

Animated graphics are courtesy of Club Unlimited.
Planet and moon photographs are courtesy of NASA.


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