How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness, Part 1

If you’re the sort of person who can spend several minutes at a time staring at unbelievably large numbers being incremented at an unbelievable rate, check this out: Internet Live Stats.

As I write this at 9:30 am, the counter of blog posts written today is at roughly 1.8 million. It is incrementing at roughly 3,000 per minute. This in the same neighborhood as the rate at which an A-10 Warthog’s very impressive Avenger gun fires its rounds, except that according to Wikipedia, “In practice, the [Avenger] cannon is limited to one and two-second bursts to avoid overheating and conserve ammunition; barrel life is also a factor…” By the way, each of those roughly 3,000 rounds per minute weighs nearly a pound. Can you imagine!?

And that’s just the blog posts. It does not count all the stories at news sites, propaganda at campaign websites, YouTube videos, and on and on.

With all that ammunition being fired at us, how can we tell which are the good guys (the truth-lovers) and which are the bad (the liars and BS artists)?

Last time, I proposed the Fearless Person’s Truth-Loving test: Before you believe anything you read, especially if it appeals to you, Google for

<pet idea> debunked.

That is definitely my go-to technique, but what else is there?

As a case study, I’ll use an example that still takes the cake five years later. I happened to catch Rush Limbaugh’s show on October 14, 2011. He has been good enough to preserve a transcript with a headline, Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians. Rush kicks things off thus:

President Obama has deployed troops to another war, in Africa, ladies and gentlemen.  Jacob Tapper, ABC News, is reporting that Obama has sent 100 US troops to Uganda to help combat Lord’s Resistance Army.

Farther down, he makes this claim:

Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians.  They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. …So that’s a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda, and — (interruption) no, I’m not kidding.  Jacob Tapper just reported it.

With that auspicious start, let’s get to my tests.

#1: When the website makes a mistake, what kind is it?

Nobody gets everything right every time, but there are different kinds of mistakes. There are honest mistakes, there’s the outright intent to deceive, and there’s the slinging of bullshit.

At the time I listened to Rush’s show, I happened to know that the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) were a brutal fighting force conducting the usual campaign of rape and murder, and further terrorizing the region by abducting children and forcing them to become soldiers in their “cause.” They may have been nominally Christian, but based on their deeds any real Christian would take exception to that. Certainly terrorism, not religion, was their primary characteristic.

So it was clear that Rush had no idea what he was talking about. He had obviously done no research at all. By his own admission, he was only passing along what Jake Tapper had “just reported.” But Rush went beyond that. He added his own uninformed “facts” about this being President Obama’s “war” to “wipe out Christians.” That was his mistake: making stuff up in the service of his non-stop campaign against Obama.

In my post, On Bullshit and Creationism, I passed along Harry Frankfurt’s insightful distinction between the bullshitter and the liar and why the bullshitter is worse:

Both [the bullshitter] and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him…

The bullshitter … does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth
than lies are.

Rush had not made an honest mistake (say, being confused about who the leader of the LRA was), nor had he intended to deceive (he had done no research, so he didn’t even know he was deceiving). His mistake was worse than either of these: he was simply slinging bullshit as fast as he could in service of his agenda, to slam President Obama any way he could, without pausing to consider the truthfulness of his claims.

I started to trust Rush even less than I had before, but he could have recovered some trust if he had responded appropriately to his mistake. That will be the subject of the next post in this series, when we hear what happened when a caller tried to set Rush straight.

 

3 responses to “How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness, Part 1

  1. Pingback: How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness, Part 2 | Path of the Beagle

  2. Pingback: How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 3 | Path of the Beagle

  3. Pingback: How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 4 | Path of the Beagle

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