Data, Intelligence, and Truth

In an age when the sum of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips (literally), and everybody with a keyboard is capable of adding to that knowledge – for better or worse – one of the biggest challenges Emergency Managers have is in figuring out how to handle the sheer amount of information that flows through and around our offices at any point in time. In just one second of the day, there are approximately 5,700 tweets added to twitter, 3.4 million emails sent, and just under 55,000 posts added to Facebook. At the time that I’m writing this (approximately 0330GMT/2130 Local) there had been approximately 5.4 million blog posts added to the internet today alone. One company estimates that we create 2.5 Quintillion bytes of data per day, and that 90% of all the data that exists was created in the last two years.

For those of us who rely on accurate and timely data, this poses a major problem. As an emergency manager, my jurisdiction and partner organizations rely on the accuracy and timeliness of my data and intelligence in order to make decisions that will safeguard lives and property. Even more importantly, in a world where truth is apparently relative, and even purely objective facts are subject to question, how do I know that my information is correct?

An artistic photograph of a series of interconnecting lines meant to evoke the thought of the interconnectedness of information.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In order to effectively collect, evaluate, and share information and knowledge, there are a few things that we have to accept as being true.

  1. There are some things that are unquestionably true.
  2. I need to trust that most people know more about most things than I do, particularly if they have studied or worked in that field for multiple years.
  3. I need to seek out and try to compensate for how my beliefs affect how I interpret information.
  4. Truthful information does not change because of my beliefs or opinions.
  5. I (and every other person) am completely separate and distinct from my beliefs, they do not define me.

There are Some Things that are Unquestionably True

I’m not looking to get into a conversation about Epistemology or deep into philosophical conversation about how we know and what we know. There are much wiser people than I who can carry on a much more articulate conversation on those subjects. What I am talking about is that in order to effectively collect, evaluate, and share information there are certain core truths that we need to accept and evaluate the information against.

I’m not talking about “The Dress” or “Yanny/Laurel”, or even the calls made by most sports referees/umpires. I’m talking about core beliefs upon which we have to build all of our other beliefs. Things like:

  • The Earth is round.
  • Vaccines are proven to reduce the rate of mortality from preventable diseases.
  • Our global climate is changing, and our disasters are changing as a result.
  • Trains run on tracks.
  • The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.
  • Gravity exists (and keeps us on the ground).
  • An object in motion remains in motion until acted upon by an equal and opposite force.

These, among others, are key foundational truths that we have to accept as true. It is entirely impossible to evaluate the truth of a piece of intelligence or information without having a benchmark of truth. When everything is relative, there can never be any truth.

That’s not to say that these items are fully and accurately explained, only that they are true to the best of our ability to understand at this point in human history. At one point, doctors thought a woman’s uterus would fly out of her body if she rode on a train. Obviously, we know better now, but at one point in time, that piece of knowledge was considered to be “true”. If we think that we have the final explanation for everything in the world, we are sorely mistaken. Future generations will likely find that many (if not all) of our explanations are incorrect and that our “truths” will seem as foolish as a woman’s uterus flying out (for any reason).

And here, I have veered directly into the conversation I was trying to avoid. My point is that in order for us to assess the veracity of data or intelligence, which is essential for me as an Emergency Manager, we have to accept that there are things that are unquestionably true. If there is no benchmark against which to measure, then the truth contained within data or intelligence becomes impossible to figure out.

Most People Know More about Most Things than I do

There are very few places in which I would call myself an expert. In fact, there are likely only one or two in which “expert” would be a designation that would apply to my level of knowledge. In all of my work and writing, both in my full-time job and in my consulting work, I rely heavily on the work of people who have come before. A lot of my time is spent researching and reading, and I’m incredibly lucky to have a network of fantastic subject matter experts that I can call upon.

When I get information or intelligence from one of those subject matter experts about their area of expertise, I know that I can trust their information and analysis. I know that I can trust information from people who have spent their entire careers working on the same subject. Their information and analysis is seen through the lens of someone who could legitimately be considered an “expert”. They will know their area of expertise far better than I ever could.

But how do I know that they are actually experts? Someone can spend their entire life researching something that doesn’t exist (Chemtrails), or that isn’t founded in reality (anti-vaxxers). That doesn’t make them an expert in chemicals, aviation, or vaccines. When I’m looking for an expert in a subject, I look to see where they get their information from. Are they citing reputable sources? Are their results replicable or do they already match existing results? Are there others who are researching supporting topics or subjects? Have they built up a reputation of trust in their own community of research?

I generally don’t look for the flashy ones, though having a well-respected book never hurt anyone’s reputation. Just having speaking engagements or showing up on television doesn’t make you an expert. Very few people have ever heard of the “father” of current disaster science and emergency management, Enrico Quarantelli. He made a huge impact on how we understand emergencies and disasters, but did most of his research and publishing in a quiet little office at the University of Delaware. Despite a low profile outside of the academic world, he would be considered to be an expert on disaster science and emergency management. He is someone who most definitely knows more than I do.

I Need to Seek Out and Try to Compensate for how My Beliefs Affect how I Interpret Information

One of the biggest concerns I have about how information is received and understood is that the vast majority of people do not know how to correct for their beliefs and biases. Before you jump up screaming about how you don’t have biases and aren’t biased, I want you to understand that no matter how hard we try, we all have biases…we’re just not always aware of them. The way that we take in and process information is deeply affected by the things that formed us. Our parents, our community, our social connections, our schools, even things like gender and sexuality change how we take in and process information.

Here are some of the things that I know affect how I interpret information:

  • I am white, of European ancestry
  • I am male
  • I am a native English speaker, with a smattering of other languages
  • I am Canadian
  • I grew up in a middle-class household with two parents and two sisters
  • I was deeply involved with organized religion for much of my life
  • I completed both elementary and high school
  • I attended post-secondary school
  • I am heterosexual/cis-gendered
  • I have a background in emergency services

I could go on, but there are literally thousands of things that affect how I take in and process information.

For each piece of which I’m aware, there are at least two pieces that affect my biases of which I’m NOT aware. These are actually more important than the ones of which I’m aware. When I’m aware of a bias, I can at least make efforts to compensate for that bias. I’ll never completely compensate for a bias, but if I make a concerted effort then I can begin to see places where my bias has affected my perception.

What does this have to do with data, information, and truth? When we look at items that are true, how we see that truth is deeply affected by our biases. We are far more likely to accept the truth of something that confirms our biases than something that opposes them. By being aware of our biases, or at least some of them, we can work to compensate for them and look at the truth of items that oppose our biases. When I am confronted with good information from someone who is a subject matter expert but runs contrary to my biases, I have to consider that my biases might be the problem.

When I discover that my biases might be a problem, I find whole new ways of taking in and processing information that I hadn’t ever considered. All of a sudden something that had seemed as insignificant as the colour of bandaids now takes on a whole new perspective. The caption on a photo that was intended to be an inside joke takes on a whole new meaning in the context of racism and colonialism. The design of airport terminals becomes extremely challenging when seen from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair who needs to use an emergency exit in an emergency.

When something I’ve accepted as “truth” is challenged by new information that doesn’t agree with my perspective of truth, then I need to recognize that my perspective is always skewed by my biases. By knowing that I, like everyone else in the world, am subject to biases, I’m better able to understand how a message is both sent and received. This means that I am able to try and compensate for any perceived biases I might have of the sender, and for the biases of which I am unwittingly guilty. As a result, I might be able to better find the truth in the data I’m receiving.

Truthful Information does not Change Because of my Beliefs or Opinions.

As I talked about above, I am subject to biases, beliefs, and opinions the same as any other person. It’s an inescapable fact of humanity that we are all different, and frankly it’s what makes us so damned interesting! If there were no differences between us, life would be incredibly boring. In some places (particularly around equality and social justice), I hold strong beliefs or opinions. I hold weaker beliefs around some other places. Some of my beliefs are foundational and core to who I am (every person has inherent worth and deserves the same treatment as I would expect). Some of my beliefs are less so (wasabi is disgusting!), but no matter what the belief or opinion, it doesn’t change the truth of certain items.

People can, and do, hold all types of strange and wonderful beliefs and opinions. I may agree with some and not with others, but no matter what I believe or opine, truth is truth. Some people may believe that world is flat, and yet the world remains spherical despite their belief.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You see, things that are independently, verifiably true (at least to the extent of our ability to prove such things) remain true no matter what anyone believes. In the example I used above, doctors were once of the belief that a woman’s uterus was apparently removable by way of rail travel. Regardless of their belief, the truth is that a uterus cannot be removed by anything other than a surgical procedure. It doesn’t matter how fast a woman goes, her uterus does not fly out of her body. In the same way, a truth remains the truth regardless of my personal beliefs or opinions.

I am completely separate and distinct from my beliefs, they do not define me.

This is perhaps the greatest single problem that affects public discourse and reasonable conversation: the inability to separate people from their opinions and beliefs. A person with more conservative views in the US is no longer a person first, they’re a Republican. A person who strives for equality and equity for all is no longer a person first, they’re a Social Justice Warrior. Names matter, and when we start assigning people into categories of belief first, we lose sight of the fact that they are people first.

When we dehumanize our conversation by putting people into belief-based boxes, we lose the ability to speak to them as people first. Never, ever, have we been able to change anybody’s mind by referring to them as part of a group. People have always had their beliefs, opinions, and biases changed through continued deliberate conversation that recognizes their humanity and person-hood first. This is evident in the manner in which people are converted to radical beliefs.

While their interest may first be sparked when they are referred to as part of a general group, the movement towards radical actions generally start because of a relationship with someone who they trust. Trust is built on a relationship between two people, and not because of any propaganda. If we are to have any effect in moving people towards understanding the importance of truth in intelligence it will be because we have built and sustained relationships with them.

Relationship building necessarily requires that we approach the other person as a person and not as a belief system. Unfortunately, it is easier to classify people in terms of generalities than as individual people. Generalities also make it easier to dehumanize people and to see them in terms of their beliefs and not as individuals. Trump has mastered this with his border wall rhetoric, referring to the people as “illegals” instead of as families and individuals seeking better opportunities. Referring to someone as an “illegal” instead of a person who has presented legally at the border seeking admittance under the laws of the USA simplifies it to the point of idiocy.

Groups associated with the Alt-Right and Antifa (far-left) are guilty of removing the complexities of people, truth, and relationships. When those complexities are removed and people are lumped into one group, we lose the ability to see the truth in their statements. Even if it is only their perceived truth, it is truth to them. As a result when we talk about contentious items with people with whom we disagree, we are blinded to the truth in each other’s statements. This prevents us from seeing new perspectives and from understanding how and why people aren’t able to accept that certain things are irrevocably truthful.

In a world with as much access to as much information as ours, finding the truth in data and intelligence has become as much a challenge as sifting through the data and intelligence in the first place. It can be done, and it can be done well. I’m not an expert in this, but as someone who relies heavily on data and intelligence, it is incredibly important for me to understand how to find that truth. My job becomes a little bit easier when I consider data and intelligence in the light of these ideas. I hope yours will too.

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