10 min read

What Makes a Trustable Source?

Want truth? Embrace bias. You cannot defeat it.
A holy man and a woman meeting at the mouth of a cave. She's kissing a dove. He's wearing red.
Credit: Warwick Goble

NO SOURCE IS FREE FROM BIAS

We're humans.

Our brains record and intepret events, relying heavily on past experience and environmental factors to analyze and act.

Every moment of your life, the wildly complex and unbelievably intricate systems of your mind and body are working in concert to animate your corpus and execute your plan.

To do this, these interconnected systems must draw upon vast stores of subconscious information collected in the past, and in the current instant.

The vast majority of information that's hitting your senses right now is filtered out by your subconscious mind. Sounds, colors, smells, sensations in your body, it's all getting assessed for threats and opportunities. Only a tiny trickle of the sensory input that hits us makes it to our conscious awareness.

WE ARE BIAS MACHINES.

Each of us is siloed in our individual senses and stuck in our physical bodies. Our understanding is inherently limited. Only through communication with others can we move closer to 'true'.

True is not a real thing. When you shoot an arrow and it hits the bullseye, the arrow is 'true'. But then add Xeno's paradox: You can always move the arrow half the distance to the actual center of the bullseye, which means you can never actually get there. You can only get closer. That happens by communicating openly, honestly, and volumniously with other meat sacks.

But remember that they are also biased.


But Liman, you might ask, if everyone is lying, then how can you trust anyone?

Two things:

First, trust them in their own kitchen. Look for the boundaries of their expertise, and the beliefs embedded in their approach.

1950s kitchen. A man washes the dishes wearing an apron, while mother and son watch on appreciatively.
Credit: N.C. Wyeth

I could give two fucks about what Chris Pratt. He's a demonstrated moron. But I still love watching him act.

Similarly, I largely 'trust' the reporting of the New York Times, even though they got it wrong on Iraq, and Kitty Genovese, and a lot of other stories too.  It is generally accurate in what it DOES say, but the story is almost always incomplete, because the NYT cannot attack the wealthy unless they really step out of line. The NYT is owned, written, and read by elites who live in a fantasy world, and they don't know it. They honestly think they're the smartest people in the world.

The problem is that the empire of New York is built on exclusion, extraction, and exploitation. And the NYT can't exist without New York's power base. But nobody benefiting from that system wants to acknowledge what it really is, so the story can't come out.

(And quick pause here... I love New York. Have had amazing experiences there over the years. My dad has a tiny place in the 160s. Big love to the people of New York. Fuck Wall Street.)

How about Wikipedia? Wikipedia is a great source of consensus information. But it is rightly designed to exclude original research, which is to say that if it doesn't have a solid source, it shouldn't be on Wikipedia. That's absolutely the right thing to do as a platform for creating consensus reality.

But it's still a biased and incomplete picture, especially because it's largely written by college-educated white dudes who spend a lot of their lives on the computer.

The point here is that no single source should ever be the basis of human belief. Honest collaboration creates credibility.

So I only trust them in their kitchen. And I do not for one second think that any given kitchen is the whole world.

Second, communication kills bias. Think about the soldiers fighting right now in Ukraine, Myanmar, or Yemen.  

When they are just a lone soldier, they only have their own eyes and ears.

But when the communicate with other soldiers, suddenly they can see the battle space more holistically.

Through anothers eyes, they can gather information they didn't have. They can see enemy positions, escape routes and lines of attack, not with their own eyes, but with someone elses.

To take it further. When we sit down and listen to each other's stories with a compassionate heart, it exands our understanding of the breadth of human experience. It reduces our bias. Just like watching gay people on Will and Grace helped a lot of Americas realize that gay people are, you know, people.

We discover people's bias by listening to them speak. That's also how we discover our own.


An acrylic nonsense image that the visual cortex interprets as a face.
What do you see? What is it actually? Credit: Jerry Stachiw

Tell Me Again How You're Bias Free?

When a source tries to tell me that they're 'bias free' or 'fair and balanced', then I KNOW that they're trying to manipulate me. GTFO. Proclaiming your fairness is obvious credibility hacking.

I've spent a lot of my life wandering around alone, in places where I didn't quite know the rules. Often this was in foreign countries, where I really didn't know the rules.

When there's that much personal uncertainty, you turn to your own senses and experience to try and stay afloat. And while I consider myself to have a wide perspective, I am also increasingly aware of how much I don't know.

I don't speak Russian. I don't speak Ukrainian. I don't speak Chinese. I can barely do math or fix a car. I have no idea what it takes to be the agriculture minister of Bolivia, or an over-wintering cook in Antartica. I have no idea! But I can listen to those people, and learn a little about what it's like.

Any honest broker knows that even in their own wheelhouse, there's more they don't know than they do know.

"Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I assure you mine are still greater." - Albert Einstein

I get pretty worked up about this topic, because we choose our 'leaders' in the stupidest way. And with people telling them how smart they are every day, they start to believe the hype. But these big shots are isolated from the real reality on the ground (cough, cough, Putin), and they make massive blunders as a result.

Musk, Bezos, Gates, and Zuckerberg all have virtually the same story. Exceptionally wealthy upbringing. Great educational opportunities. High-level family connections. Loans from daddy.

I've been to the 1 Hacker Way, Facebook's HQ, and it looks suspiciously like a college campus. Which means that a lot of the kids that work there went straight from high-school to college to Facebook, where the social contract and the built environment are surprisingly similar. They literally think that the foodcourt is representative of the world. Because what else have they seen?

Facebook does a good job of hiring from around the world, but they're still hiring from the upper class, because that's who can afford to have a computer and spend a bajillion hours learning how to code.

There's nothing wrong with that, I just with EVERYBODY had that option, and didn't have to dive for gold and die at 35 just to feed their family.

It's the same global class of kids that work in tech, media, entertainment, politics and finance. It's the children of the 5%.

If you don't know that, then you're ignoring the billions of people around the globe who have virtually no chance of breaching the gates of this relatively closed system.

Obviously, I'm generalizing. There are brilliant, experienced people working in tech and every other industry. I know a fair few of them, because I too am from this class.

There are some people from outside the proverbial walls who break through. But it's not nearly enough, and that's because at the top of the heap in all these industries are way too many Harvard and Stanford frat boys who wouldn't recognize their own "like me" bias if it slapped them in the face with a big black cock.

There's bias everywhere. You cannot build systems to defeat it, but you can build humans who can recognize it, ammeliorate it, and sometimes leverage it to solve big problems.  

Acknowledging bias is usually a better option than pretending it doesn't exist. All the communicating might slow things, and dial back the emotional intensity it takes to do hard things, but in the end, when we honestly communicate, and compassionately challenge each others bias (and our own), what results is a much smarter view of the theater of operation.


A big fat bear lying peacefully in the grass.
Author's Spirit Animal. Credit: Theodor Severin Kittelsen

My Acknowledged Bias

Maybe from reading this you can see that I'm pretty pissed off at the world's upper class. But it's not because I'm jealous (though who wouldn't want to live at Lake Cuomo).

What blows my lid is how fucking arrogant everybody is. Acting like they know something, when clearly, none of us know shit on our own.

Dear rich kids of the world: You are not special. You are not unique. You are just lucky. Now stop thinking only about yourself and do something to make things better for others. And when somebody challenges your viewpoint, listen.

Goddamn.

Should be clear by now, I don't trust any asshole who pretends like they don't have bias. Because it's what we're made of.

So in the spirit of drinking my own medicine, here's some of my known biases. Like everybody else, I have a lot of unknown biases too. If you find one, let me know, so I can get defensive and reject your argument out of hand. (Kidding. I want to know. Hit me up privately, or in the comments of the post you find it in.)

As you're reading this article, others on this site, or really anything anywhere, I hope you will TAKE IT FOR CHECKING, NOT FOR FACT.

You and me both can strengthen our powers of discernment by engaging with material we find challenging, and looking honestly at what we 'know', and what we don't.

Please draw your own conclusions. Do your own thinking. Make your own assessments. This is just what I've noticed. This is just what's true for me.

When we accept that we're all biased af, then we stop trying to fit the world to what we believe, and start getting a lot more curious about each other's subconscious beliefs and behaviors, knowing that there's usually a legitimate behavioral reason for what people do, even when it's lying on the floor in the grocery store, screaming like a toddler because someone wants them to put cloth over their face.

Anyways, here's some more of my conscious biases:

  • I hate people who don't think about other people. Put your shopping cart in the coral. Fuck you.
  • Everything is a rich man's trick. Hereditary elites and their fly monkeys get far too big a cut of the world's labor. For what? Have you ever heard these idiots speak? They're embarassing.
  • Religion does more harm than good.
  • Capitalism corrupts science. Not all of it, but far too much.
  • The wealth of the west is built on the poverty of everyone else.
  • We're approaching an energy cliff, where the dwindling supplies of energy will drive increasingly heavy conflicts, whilst also accelerating the consumption of those energy supplies. We are that dumb.
  • 1-3% of the population are born psychopathic, and the percentage is much higher in prisons and the halls of power. If we don't identify them and keep them from assuming leadership positions, they create a lot of chaos.
  • I recognize no lord or master on this plane or any other. No authority worthy of my respect would ever ask me to bend the knee. Nor would I ask anyone to bend the knee to me.
  • The best of us are dead in a ditch, or headed that way. We usually select morons for positions of power, because they're the only ones willing to perpetuate this unjust and stupid system.
  • In humanity's current context, the solutions are usually subtractive, not additive. We should do less stuff, but do it better.
  • Titles are for sad, pathetic people. Eat grass, 'your honor'. Everybody shits in a bucket.
  • Nobody is special. Everybody is important.


False guru leads you to them. True guru leads you to yourself.

Can't remember where I first heard this, but over the years it's become my main heuristic for assessing truth.

There's a great hypnosis quote along the same lines, from the daughter of Milton Erickson, who is the first name to know in the world of hypnosis.

"We don't want things FROM our clients, we want things FOR our clients." - Betty Erickson

Whether it's a person, a news site, a company, government, or man on the street, the first question is of course, do they mean to help me, or exploit me? Are they trying to teach me, or tap me? These questions help me assess:


Questions to ask yourself when evaluating credibility:

  1. Is it about THEM, or their IDEA?
  2. Is their language or behavior aimed at preventing me from seeing something? What do they NOT want me to know?
  3. Are they using credibility hacks, plausible deniability, or gaslighting?
  4. Is this designed to increase dopamine OR seratonin?
  5. How much have they thought about making sure the experience is positive on my side?
  6. Do they credit others? How careful are they about sourcing?
  7. Can they build a steel man?
  8. What happens when you challenge their ideas or actions? Do they engage, or shut it down?
  9. How do they respond to your mistakes? Do they use them against you, or grant you forgiveness?
  10. How do they respond to their own mistakes? Do they own them and make actual changes so it doesn't happen again?
  11. Who's bankrolling this? How do they profit?
  12. Do they think this kitchen is the whole world? How big is the map in their head?
  13. Are they upfront about the value exchange and what they get out of it?

These are pretty high standards. There's a reason why I live alone.

But I'm not saying you should totally discount anything that doesn't hit this bar. To the contrary, we should all engage with people and presentations that don't rise to meet our standard of truth. Just don't put full faith in anything, including our own perceptions and beliefs.

Eyes open.

Take it for checking, not for fact.

Got guidelines to add to this list? Put 'em in the comments below.