Rule 4: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate


Evaluate everything you read, see and are told. Don’t accept anything at face value. Fake news and conspiracy theories have always been with us and in recent years have proliferated. Respectable media outlets also need scrutinising with a generous dollops of scepticism. Most of our information about the world comes from such sources and while they might claim to be conveyors and purveyors of the truth, their facts must always be checked.

I wanted to use the remark here that everything you read in the news is true until it’s about something you know about but it appears, ironically, to have disappeared from the internet. I can’t attribute it, nor quote it accurately. Nonetheless, it remains essentially true. The trick is to ensure you do know what is being talked about. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. They don’t always check their sources, have their own agenda and are invariably in a hurry; accuracy is the casualty of one or all of these.

What is the solution? Some advocate not listening to/watching/reading the news at all, while avoiding all online chatter. Certainly this is tempting, but in these Covid lockdown days perhaps not altogether practical. More realistic is to ask the questions: how does this outlet know this? What is its source? How reliable is this source? Why is it reporting it in the way it is? What is significant or suspicious about the language it uses? Answers to these questions should help navigate the torrent of misinformation that’s out there.

Starting at the bottom of the cesspool, we can safely disregard anything that is proffered as coming directly from the Lord (or any other supernatural agent). Any number of self-appointed ‘prophets‘ have told us recently that God himself informed them that Donald Trump would easily win a second term. They announced he’d also vanquished Covid-19 at their bidding. Don’t even bother asking the questions I suggest above of this sort of batshittery. Dismiss it out of hand.

One step up from this is the stuff that informs us that ‘the Bible says’. This is merely a second-hand version of the claim that God has delivered a message personally. Quoting first century fantasists who believed God had spoken to them is not an advance in the sourcing of accurate information.

Don’t believe anything that cites an unspecified source. The tabloid press in the UK is fond of referring to ‘sources close to the government’ or ‘boffins’ (journalese for unspecified scientists who have invariably discovered a miracle cure or diet). Sources that cannot be verified may as well not exist. In all probability they don’t; they’re made up by lazy reporters and conspiracy theorists. Anything that requires a manufactured source is, by definition, unreliable. Don’t be taken in by it.

Then there’s the mainstream, ostensibly respectable media. Broadsheet newspapers and, here in the UK, the BBC, Sky and so-called Independent Television News (ITN). However these media have earned their respectability, there is no reason not to apply the enquiries I outlined above; moreso when they rely on their reputed respectability, assumed by many to be synonymous with ‘accurate’ and ‘reliable’, to inform and direct our thinking. Take as an example the reporting this week of Covid-19 fatalities in the UK by both the BBC and Sky TV news. Significantly, both networks used an identical phrase to announce that 454 death certificates on a given day ‘mentioned Covid-19.’ (you can see it used here on the BBC‘s web-site.) Notice how the word ‘mentioned’ slips by; the number of deaths is the focus of the announcement.

But what does this ‘mentioned’ mean? That 454 people died as a direct result of the virus? Evidently not, otherwise the announcement would say so: ‘454 people died of Covid-19 today.’ It doesn’t, though perhaps the use of ‘mentioned’ is intended to make us think this is the case. In fact, the phrase is the replacement of an earlier one designed to amplify the number of deaths attributable to the virus. This read ‘x number of people died with Covid-19’, conflating ‘with’, with ‘of’. The two are evidently not the same. The number of deaths directly attributable to Covid is lost, masked by the number of unfortunate individuals who had indeed contracted the illness but died of other causes, as humans, particularly elderly ones, are prone to doing. 

In fact, both the old and new phrases emanate from the Office of National Statistics, a government body that exists for who knows what useful purpose. That the BBC and Sky News adopted both phrases – the earlier one that tried to make ‘with’ mean the same as ‘of’ and the newer one with its casual use of ‘mentioned’ – reveals that neither the BBC nor Sky did their own work here; they merely repeated (parroted?) what government sources told them. How much more of their Covid reporting was and is like this?

None of which is meant to imply that the pandemic is fake news. Clearly it isn’t. Nor is it likely it represents any sort of conspiracy on the part of government or press. To coin a phrase, there is no need to ascribe to deviousness that which is adequately explained by incompetence or compliance. Reporting fatalities in this way has meant, however, that the UK appears statistically to have the highest mortality rate from Coronavirus in Europe. It has also helped alarm the populace into compliance with severe lockdown restrictions.

How many people have died as a direct result of Covid-19? We can’t tell from these particular statistics, reported as they are with a misleading use of language.

Evaluate everything.


3 thoughts on “Rule 4: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

  1. Yes, that’s true. All sorts of things come into play: confirmation bias, pre-existing beliefs, the paucity of memory, the failure to recognise that the best we can hope for is reasonable probability. It is unlikely there is anything like Truth with a capital T, despite what some claim. Yet we must, I think, always strive for that which has the greatest probability of being right. Whether the media and governments deliver that is another matter.


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