Check your sources, your style and your biases to make informed decisions
By Kate Procter
We are living in the information age. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2004) defines that as: “the current historical period, characterized by the capacity to store, retrieve, and transmit large volumes of information using computer technology.” While the information age is thought to have started in the 1970s, who knows when it will end? Or what changes it will bring about? Or what will take its place?
While the information age has made life better in many ways, one of the biggest challenges with living at this time is getting good information. Often it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Or it takes so long to sort through the chaff, you forget what kind of wheat you were looking for in the first place.
We are all challenged with making good decisions on a variety of things every day. This relies on getting good information. While there are countless people and organizations who will tell you they have the answers, it is tough to sort out which ones really do. In the space of 20 minutes, I read one forecast telling me I should expect less volatility in commodity prices in 2015, and another saying that I should expect the toughest year for global businesses since the 2008-2009 recession, with more volatility and upheaval.
We all have our favorite sources of information – books, magazines, conferences, newspapers, the radio, television, our friends down at the coffee shop, our own observations and of course, the Internet. The past couple of weeks have revealed an interesting thing happening on Twitter. While I’m not a bit tweeter, or reader of tweets, even I’m aware of Andrew Campbell’s #farm365 project and the uproar it has caused.
On January 1, Campbell started posting a photo from his farm every day in order to show what real farm life is really like. It didn’t take long for vegans from around the world to try to overtake the project with different sorts of pictures and comments regarding animal agriculture and people who eat meat.
Other farmers got on board – posting their own pictures and comments of real farm life, trying to give readers a picture of how much farmers care for their animals, the environment, and producing healthy food. To their credit – those posting from the farm community were not rising to the bait, but were mostly keeping comments positive, respectful, and informative.
As I read through a bit of it, I couldn’t help but feel for the people in the middle – those with no first-hand knowledge of agriculture, nor any strong positions regarding meat consumption – just the average person hoping to feed their family healthy food and not spend their whole pay cheque doing it.
As consumers of information, all of us rely on someone who knows the truth to share it. We can’t be experts in everything. Yet it seems tough. Passionate people can put forward compelling arguments, and the truth sometime gets lost.
Our kids are taught in school now to be critical thinkers. It seems to me the information age has made this more important than ever. It is vital to go to the source of any information you are taking in – especially if it is helping you make an important decision. What are their biases? What do they have to gain in sharing the information? What are their credentials?
I attended an agricultural conference with the usual list of interesting speakers. One in particular was very dynamic and engaging – telling us things I had never heard before. That was the first red flag. The second was when I reviewed my notes afterward, I noticed there were definite inconsistencies in his story. His examples did not back up the points he was trying to make, or were irrelevant to our situation in Ontario. In a break out session, he was unable to provide answers about some of his more controversial statements, but he was able to skirt the questions like a gifted politician.
While I’m sure no one left that room without some degree of skepticism, when I got home I checked him out. That is one of the advantages of the information age for those of us who tend to be a bit nerdy. You don’t have to just take at face value people’s words in the bios they give the conference organizers – you can look them up yourself. Sometimes what you find is more interesting than anything they presented. And helps you blow away a little bit of chaff.
It is also important not to be fooled by the glitz and glamour of the person telling the story. Some people are really engaging and dynamic speakers or compelling writers. This is something that can be learned. Others, well, others are not so much. How a speaker is able to engage you has nothing to do with the validity of their story, but it has everything to do with how much of it you retain.
One final point about getting good information. Check your own biases. We believe what we choose believe. Anyone with teenagers knows: you can argue with a 15-year-old boy until the cows come home, but that won’t change his mind. It is always a good idea to check yourself. Is the teenager in you coming to the surface?
Maybe we are a little less rigorous when evaluating the information we would like to believe. Or we find the information to back up an opinion we already have. In the information age, it is possible to find credible-sounding stuff to back up almost any opinion. If you really want to make the most informed decisions possible check the source, check the presentation style, and check your own biases. Good luck! ◊
Kate Procter farms, hikes, canoes, and plays guitar in Huron County.