Grain from chaff: Form opinion on solid facts


Take time and verify information that you receive. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Bombardment from the left, inundation from the right, deluge from above, and blizzards from below. Constant news on every topic under the sun, rambling streams of consciousness from opinion leaders, celebrity gossip, corporate commercials, and disinformation campaigns from politicians to national governments around the world. Today’s global citizen muddles through cornucopia of hyper-information.

Now, compare today’s profusion of communication to life even three generations ago.

A calmer quiet existence in days past on a banana farm in Meru, a soybean field in Kansas, or a rice plantation in Hanoi whereby wind through the trees, birds singing on their perches, cattle grunting, and insects buzzing in the air comprised the bulk of sounds someone hears in a day.

So, when a visitor passed through a village, the community would rush to meet them and hear news of people and places.

The brain is peaked to listen, digest, add meaning, interpret, and act based on the data we receive. But, how does the human brain deal with the cacophony of over-information today? We filter, filter, filter, and filter. Sadly, as we filter, we make judgments about trustworthy sources of information and fail to investigate sources on a regular basis, check other facts, or look for corroborating evidence.

So, we become easy prey to false news, one-sided information, rumours, and sweeping pronouncements about someone based on one data point instead of dozens.

Examples include a large subset of Americans fearing the disinformation from naysayers of global economic collapse and hoard gold, food, and water.

Millions around the world also disbelieve scientific facts from climate change to evolution.

Previous generations believed someone came down with cancer because of the sins of one’s grandparents.

In Kenya, we often biasedly assume that a politician from our community actually works for the betterment of our area.

We forgo the original methods our brains used to determine another person’s trustworthiness.

In normal relations in trusting someone, famous researchers Denise Rousseau, Sim Sitkin, Ron Burt, and Colin Camerer determined that trust gets built through interactions, reciprocal expectations, reliable predictable patterns over time, and reciprocity.

These reasons explain why we trust or distrust our bosses, neighbours, co-workers, friends, siblings...

However, Jackson Nickerson, Timothy Gubler, and Kurt Dirks uncovered that today’s discordant social structures create reputational effects that increase or decrease our trusting behaviour as we form opinions quickly even about those whom we have no contact with and limited information about.

We easily believe what we read on social media or hear on a newscast. We will read a headline and form a harsh opinion instead of reading a whole article and forming a nuanced judgment.

The phenomenon stands as surprising given thaSt social scientists Jan Delhey and Kenneth Newton rate East Africa as a low trust region as compared to higher areas of high trust in Scandinavia and Canada or lower regions of zero trust such as Turkey, the Philippines, and Brazil.

In low or zero trust cultures, usually individuals seek larger quantities of information before forming an opinion. Instead, if the source is on social media and many people repeat it, we tend to believe it. This goes against the history of our culture in information gathering.

Do not get caught in what Singaporean scientists Tan and Lim term the negativity spiral.

If we seek to be negative and offended, then if a central banker misspells a word on a Facebook post, the social media space may swiftly and harshly judge her.

However, she may have received a disturbing phone call during her Facebook post so the public ignores a decade of flawless work helping to save their economy.

Alternatively, maybe a corporate leader’s speech to his employees gets truncated and one sentence gets taken out of context which causes a consumer boycott. Such small gaffes then wrongly define people for the rest of their lives.

Did someone misspeak? Did someone merely spell a word wrong? Were their full thoughts inexpressible by social media word limits? Look at trends in their behaviour not one-off occurrences.

Look to the source of rumours. Look at someone in their totality. Therefore, live a life based on truth and research, not conjecture and myth.