Learn to vet information like an
expert by living intensively
There have never been as many opportunities to access information as there are today. People who want to take advantage of that, however, must not become disoriented in the flood of information and have to be able to vet the truth of the information they obtain. You should also pay attention to the credibility of the information source – and be a reliable source of information yourself. To do so, we need to constantly improve our information habits.
Are you a cork or a surfer?
We live in a sea of information. Whether we are pushed around like corks or settle down largely undisturbed in a tranquil cove or move on the waves like experienced surfers and harness it is up to each of us.
People who have a small knowledge base prick up their ears every time some gossip comes their way and absorb only the things from the news media that confirm their preconceived notions are like corks.
And if you are someone who has chosen to withdraw from the flow of information of what’s happening to more or less be left alone and live their lives without actively participating, then that’s up to you. Enjoy life in your cove!
But if you chose to take part in life around you and engage in the goings-on, actively contribute to social developments with an opinion built on solid facts, and aim to help shape society, then you have to be a good surfer in the sea of information.
Using the flood of information for yourself requires:
- recognizing and sorting the essence of content
- understanding where and from whom information comes from and whose interests are represented
- determining which facts are missing
- asking yourself how we and others consciously affect the way our attention is directed
- observing which information is of interest to which people.
To do so, two requirements need to be met and practiced constantly:
- Keep your knowledge up-to-date and expand it incessantly – stay curious!
- Constantly refine your own methods for taking in and processing information.
Each of us not only receives information but also sends information. For example, we tell each other at home or at the local watering hole or at work what we bought or what we ate when recently went out to eat, how our vacation went or who made us mad, what we saw on TV yesterday, or what we’ve heard behind closed doors. In this personal network, we are both listeners and (story)tellers.
- What do we do with information that we receive in this manner?
- Why do we talk about our attitudes and actions?
- Why do we pass on information?
Keep a separate diary in which you write down what you talked about whom with. Write down in a short assessment what you got out of the conversation and what benefit the person you talked to could have drawn from it. Or did you waste your time?
Leave prejudices behind
When you process new information, it makes sense to refrain from making a spontaneous, prejudiced assessment. The things you took on in your childhood and youth from your environment in terms of attitudes and values should not be maintained indiscriminately as an adult. Moreover, everyone should develop unbiased observation skills and speak and act with as little prejudice as possible. Otherwise, there is a high likelihood, for example, of failing at your work since there is a lack of mental agility and anxiety restricts your mobility.
Information that is important to us and not merely entertaining should be examined:
- What is the veracity of this information?
- Is the information complete?
- Is the source of the information credible?
When it comes to truthfulness, it is neither about the objective truth – who really can find that out? – nor about “my truth”. Even though you were there this does not mean that you have perceived everything “correctly”. Colleagues who also were there may have seen and heard everything differently. Therefore, pay attention to verifiable facts. And be extremely critical of any information that evokes feelings that make you angry, scared, or euphoric.
Most information is conveyed via written and spoken language. The visual media combine language with pictures. Information is rarely restricted to images. Images are used as proof of a claim. But you have to be very skeptical of images. Images are only a reproduction of what a photographer or camera person saw or wanted to be seen or convey. They use the following tools: Selection of the image detail, the perspective, the zoom setting, the lighting, now and then also the staging of the object, and the later image processing tools.
You have to be critical not just of the perspective of photographers and camera operators but also our own ability to perceive things, which is not always reliable. The Visual Cognition Laboratory at the University of Illinois focuses on misperceptions. It is astounding how you can be duped. You should make yourself aware of that! Then you will start to be wary of the often-used claim often used to shut others up: “I saw that with my own two eyes.” Judges know about this due to their experience with eye witnesses.
Don’t fall prey to the power of images or to
misinformation transported by text!
Years ago, I spent some time analyzing TV documentaries. During one of the analyses I found out that the part of the documentary that especially expressed the opinion of the author was presented in the style of the daily news. Today, sophisticated technology makes the possibilities of manipulation are nearly limitless. While images and language are fleeting impressions on TV: images that touch us emotionally in particular are etched in our memory and impact our thoughts and feelings, maybe even our actions.
It is not enough to be skeptical to keep from being led astray: You need to improve your perception and interpretation skills if you want to keep from falling prey to the deliberate or even only negligent manipulation by entities providing information.
People who only focus on being skeptical but don’t bother to improve themselves will soon come to the conclusion that they can hardly accept any information as being truthful. They will then give into the temptation to step away from the flow of information and to live solely according to their preconceived notions. Their motto: You can’t believe anything and you can’t trust anyone. While this may not necessarily lead you astray, you will no longer be living in the here and now.
In order to verify language-based information, there’s no way around the need to maintain and improve your own handling of language. Only people who constantly focus on language – for example by writing down good expressions they encounter – are able use information effectively, both as the recipient and the provider.
Mark the information you received according to their presumed veracity in your “information diary”, using stars, etc., like you would for restaurants and hotels.
Historians check documents for their veracity as part of their job. You can take advantage of this for your personal enrichment.
Read Julius Caesar’s “Gallic War” (Artemis & Winkler, 2003) and then Christian Meier’s biography of Caesar(Severin and Siedler, 1982). Caesar writes how he would like to see his actions or have his actions be seen by his environment; Meier aggregates facts and draws conclusions that put this great Roman emperor into perspective. In addition to learning a great deal, you will learn how to differentiate between the “subjective” and “objective” truth.
Manipulation via omission
Each piece of information is more or less incomplete. Reality can only be represented exactly the way it is in segments or only for a certain, usually short time. It is never possible to depict the bigger picture in terms of space and time. For this reason, you always have to omit, condense, shorten, and focus things. You can observe this when you watch the daily news on different channels and compare news items or when you read daily newspapers on the same topic and pursue the question of where the information differs. The greater your own knowledge and your own experiences on a topic are, the better you are in a position to check which extract of reality was selected and what was swept under the carpet.
You need to keep your knowledge up-to-date. For this reason, you should hone and expand your knowledge continuously. The best way to do this is to use an order system to which you add all relevant information. You should prepare new information before adding it.
- Write a short version
- Add already existing knowledge
- Write down questions that you can think of in this context, and add and justify your own opinion.
The minimum requirements include the details on the time, place, and persons, which you should apply for nearly any information or for your own information. Everything else fosters the suspicion that you are simply being offered gossip. If there is a lack of precise answers on the questions “When? Where? or Who?” then you must be able to understand it based on the context or you have to assume sloppy sharing of information or even intentional withholding of information.
A lack of knowledge makes you susceptible to manipulation. Since many senders assume that the addresses of their information only have a low level of knowledge, the most common way to hoodwink people involves intentionally withholding important facts. The catch is hidden.
Politicians prefer to talk about the good deeds they did instead of sharing at whose expenses they are made and which long-term effects can be expected. People who don’t want be degraded to being pawns of eloquent “guardians” need to inform themselves tirelessly and effectively. There is no way of getting around that if you want to form your own opinion and stay out of the clutches of demagogues.
At the companies of the past – and still at some today – there is no information system, but rather a system of military command and obedience. The superiors have hegemonic knowledge and implement it in actions and work regulations. Political systems based on the principle of keeping the people happy, such as socialism in its different incarnations, also function according to the same principle. Those who want to live their lives in a self-determined way can only exit such a system, which builds on the laziness of “complacent slaves”, if they know how to handle today’s fuel in the best possible way: information.
Test the credibility of the entities providing information!
Be a credible provider of information just as you ask of others not to provide false information either inadvertently or deliberately. Avoid people that do not provide information but rather constantly force their view of things on others. Instead, seek out people whom you exchange knowledge and experiences with and with whom you can arrive at a common method of forming an opinion.
In your family and job, the people you live with and work with are more or less predetermined. And the only way to replace your neighbors is by moving yourself. However, you can select your friends and acquaintances. Establish a circle of friends who also meet the demand for an enriching exchange of information. Both for your own benefit and for that of others, this will ensure that information flows that provides orientation, allows you to form an opinion on the current status of events, and provide for grounded actions based on what multiple persons have perceived.
Make sure that it is the independent and self-reliant people who set the tone in your information sources instead of those who seek self-affirmation and pursue predominantly self-serving objectives.
You need to maintain your circle of friends. This requires attention and tact. And you need to keep calibrating the proximity and distance to these friends depending on the situation. Other people always have to feel that you value them.
A proven approach is to set a topic for a meeting. To do so, you can invite external people who contribute their knowledge in the form of a lecture or talk. Lots of associations provide their members access to valuable first-hand information. Join these kinds of organizations if, for you, it is not just about prestige or mutual admiration, but about cultivation of open and honest dialogue as well as the different perspectives of events and developments.
Internet, radio, and television,
newspapers and magazines
The internet offers a wealth of possibilities for obtaining all manner of information and for discussing it with other people in forums. But be careful: Do not get lost in this virtual universe! It is advisable to make it very clear beforehand what you are looking for – and to save interesting things during your search to click on at a later point in time. You need to be tenacious and inventive during your targeted work. Search engines can also help you. Literature is available on how to take advantage of these tools. You will rarely find what you’re looking for straight away.
For the discussion forums, you need to be careful not to get into groups that will waste your time with meaningless posts and, at the same time, you should keep yourself from being too selective. At times it is certainly useful to dive into the tangle of opinions and to try out your debating skills.
No matter how you get your information, you need to assess the credibility of those providing the information that you read, hear and see not based on likeability, but strictly according to how they compile their information and the factual presentation. You can recognize objectivity based on the wording they use, which should be free of value judgments.
People who tell you what to think of an occurrence are patronizing you. People who primarily give you reports on events in the world that churn up anger and pity in you but that you cannot influence rob you of your joie de vivre. If you want fight the world’s misery, join one of the many organizations that strive to remedy the situation.
Newspapers and magazines: Just like information providers on the internet, the radio and TV, you also need to be vigilant towards the authors as well. When an opinion is stated, it should be clearly marked as such. Over time, you know the journalists and reporters whose texts you can consider reliable. Otherwise, the following applies: “Paper is patient.”
Some newspaper readers have a favorite newspaper that serves as their sole source of information. However, since the publication is geared towards a certain readership, you will ultimately get to a certain conformity of opinions over time. For this reason: read multiple publications at the same time.
Orient yourself systematically
A good surfer on the sea of information is characterized by not surrendering to the waves but using them for their own purposes. To do so, the surfer separates their territory, their life environment into three areas:
- personal environment
- professional environment
- media environment.
In the first two areas, everyone is both the provider and recipient of information, while the receipt of information dominates in the third area. To become more and more knowledgeable regarding your life goals in all three areas, you need to take a systematic approach.
Using your information diary, compile a list of people you receive information from on a regular basis. Write down for every source of information:
- The type of information you receive from
- What character traits and which intellectual skills make you consider them competent and trustworthy.
For information that you receive impersonally from institutions or organizations, from editorial offices and press offices, from companies and political parties – wherever that may be – replace Question 2 with your assessment of the integrity based on longer-term observation. And always ask yourself:
- Why and for whose benefit may this information have been published?
Combine the description of the information source with the 5‑star rating from your information diary and assign all information to one of the three areas mentioned above. Break them down according to how you use them personally. This lets you create your very own information system. Spend time regularly on:
- refining the structure,
- determining the further need for information,
- improving the way you procure information,
- preparing and connecting the information,
- finding new sources of information.
Use contacts to achieve the latter. To do so, you filter your flow of information to authors you may have read or heard something about but that you want to specifically address for further questions. Write these persons or call them up and don’t be shy; provided that you are able to express yourself concisely and precisely concerning your issue.
There is no better time than now to improve your knowledge. However, there are also risks and side effects. Therefore, the following statement in which television researchers have succinctly summarized their research applies: television makes dumb people dumber and smart people smarter. It is up to you to be one of the smart ones.