A Truth Machine

Today I’m going to explain why I want to build a truth telling machine, what it is, how much it will cost to make, and why I simply must do my part to help create it before I die.  Are you ready?

A truth telling machine? Really?

Trust in big tech declining
Despite growth in fact-checking, trust in big tech is declining in every sector. Is it time for a paradigm shift?

I like the word, “machine.” It sounds so industrial, so inventive. It’s why I made the sprocket of industrial innovation Pamalogy’s central symbol, right atop the top hat of excellence and creativity. I went for something steam punky, and it wasn’t just about fashion. I was thinking about humanity taking its first steps int0 the technological age with the help of that leveraging gear, that ever-useful sprocket. It spoke to me saying, “limitless creativity begins here!” And then deep under the outer layer of ingenuity, far beyond the comprehension of the here and now, there in the midst,  was God Almighty – Creator of everything, inspiring it all.

I’m using the word “machine” loosely. It’s not as though what I’m thinking of has literal sprockets and rotating “widgificators,” and it doesn’t have polygraph hook ups. What I’m really going to describe, my truth telling machine, is a social media platform for researchers to create better fact-checks with.  It’s a sort of dull product really. You, of course, are welcome to call it a “truth machine” anyway, because functionally, it’s designed to help us figure out what’s true and what’s not. And it’s nothing like anything you’ve seen before.

Let’s talk about that. First, the current art of fact-checking. What’s going on?

Probably the best known fact-checking organization is Snopes. Snopes started out looking into urban myths. Was there really a siting of the Loch Ness monster? Does Big Foot really have a family now? Where did those pictures come from? Was Bill Clinton really visited by Martians? You know the sort of thing. Somebody had to check into these stories to see if they were true. Snopes was the go-to place to figure stuff like that out.

Politifact fact-check total scores from 2007-2019
Politifact‘s average truth score significantly higher for Democrats than Republicans and gap is widening.

Then one day, politicians got a hold of Snopes and ruined it. Don’t you hate politics? If Snopes said something that helped the other side, presumably it wasn’t because Snopes was telling the truth. It was because Snopes was politically active and biased. And that’s just how people think. If you were a conservative, it rubbed you the wrong way that Snopes claimed to be started by Republicans but the information they gathered seemed to be coming from Hillary Clinton’s legal defense team. If you were a liberal, you were wondering why Snopes wasn’t exposing systemic racism and gender disparity and why it was lying about the extent of LBGQT+ oppression. The left thought Snopes was biased to the right. The right thought it was biased to the left. No one trusted it for politics.

Before long, Snopes left Facebook and gave its political fact-checking business to a few other organizations approved by the International Fact Checking Network, known as the IFCN. You may not be aware, but only IFCN endorsed fact-checking organizations are utilized by Facebook to block content based on their fact checks. They use an algorithm, also used by Google, called Claim Check Review. Google uses the algorithm, to place only what it considers factual at the top of search results. It determines what it guesses are trusted sources and authorities. Few people, especially Americans, ever search through page two of a search result.

This is a good thing. Right? That means misinformation is being suppressed. Misinformation is bad for people. Isn’t it?

Yes, yes and yes! But there’s a problem. The world is divided between believers and skeptics. Trust in big tech has been declining. Conservatives, in particular, are reluctant to believe what fact-checking organizations have to say. The demographics here are quite fascinating, so I’m including on my Pamalogy blog and podcast transcript some charts. Women, for instance, tend to trust fact-checks more than men.

Respect! … but is that trust merited?

In July of 2019, a programmer named Scott Cole scraped every fact-check that Politifact had ever done since they started business in 2007 and tabulated the scores. Like most people, he assumed he could trust Politifact and expected to show that it was unbiased. However, the data he collected showed Democrats consistently scored higher than Republicans on truth scores. In fact, year after year, Republicans, got lower scores and Democrats got higher scores. It wasn’t even close and the difference kept widening.

Republicans versus Democrats
Average Truth scores according to Politifact for those with 100 or more fact-checks.

This could mean many things – probably some combination of them. It could mean Republicans really do lie significantly more than Democrats overall, more so now than ever before. It could mean Politifact is being selective about what it reports. It could mean that Politifact itself is being less than honest and fair, consciously or subconsciously because of the general leanings of its staff. And it could be because its editors find that exposing lies sells more newspapers for the Tampa Bay Times and its syndicates. It could be because it gets more attention through those vital and very lucrative Claim Check Review algorithms that pop up every time someone says something officially incorrect or debatable on social media. It doesn’t all have to do with bias. Money is a driver too. Whereas, most companies pay Facebook to advertise, Facebook actually pays Politifact literally millions of dollars as a content provider.

Now, somewhere in the midst of all those most likely explanations is the truth and your opinion about it may be right or wrong. Conservatives look at this reporting and are not likely to conclude that it is because Republicans lie more than Democrats do. Democrats may well think so, but Republicans definitely wouldn’t. Please get real with me about this. Two bad things are happening because of the way the fact-checking business is currently being conducted. First, trust in media and big tech disappearing – first it will disappear on the right, then it will disappear on the left, as well, as the practice of censorship is first denied, then justified, and eventually mocked. The second bad thing stems from this. We resort to dangerous echo chambers.

I’m sure you’ve heard of an echo chamber before. It’s a place where you only hear your own voice. You surround yourself with a community that agrees on certain issues. Anything contrary to the echo chamber’s narrative is dismissed as something that can’t be trusted. It comes from those liars in the other echo chamber – those poor, poor Kool Aid drinking fools. Belief follows the crowd in the chamber. Those in the one chamber don’t venture to the other much at all because it is uncomfortable, daring, even painful to do so. It means challenging their own assumptions. It means removing the comfort of acceptance from a group they may have enjoyed and gained much from, maybe even been paid by. For the majority of us, it may simply mean removingan ego-boosting sense of personal pride and self-worth. It will mean we have to face the fact that so much of what we’ve worked for and spoken about was actually wrong.

Let me ask you a question. Do the causes we associate with serve as a substitute for our own merits in deserving self-respect? Turn this into an “I” question. Where do I get my sense of self-worth from? Is it from the groups I associate myself with? What am I personally doing to contribute to the awesomeness of this world? Would I still be able to love myself if I discovered the groups I supported had been wrong?

There is a lot behind what goes into why we associate with various groups. All I really want to focus on here is the fact that when these disparate groups have conflicts of ideas, the results can be very dangerous to us as a society. It’s the sort of thing that results in riots and insurrections. Now whether you are the person who thinks Google and Facebook can’t be trusted, or whether you are one to believe they can and they need to do more to stop the daily flow of disinformation, surely you are aware that the side that does not trust these tech giants is doing whatever it can to create its own communications platforms and is starting to succeed. Whatever efforts there may be to minimize their influence, expect them to fight back. Suppression of their ideas will only serve to convince them all the more that their free speech rights are not valued by you. As they see it, we are going the way of the Chinese. They see the end of America in these efforts. Can you see why that might not be a good path towards peace?

Decline in Trust of Big Tech
Trust in Big Tech is rapidly declining both globally and in the United States even as fact-checks are suppressing disinfoermation

From their perspective, the system has been rigged. And from what I can see, they have good reason not to trust it. It doesn’t take imprisoning them. The FBI doesn’t have to line them up with white nationalist profiles because of the events they’ve attended or the groups they’ve joined for them to distrust you. All they have to do is go to the Poynter Institute‘s web site and see what it takes to get an endorsement from the IFCN. While Duke Reporter Labs now lists over 300 fact-checking organizations worldwide, there are only 29 IFCN endorsed fact-checking organizations, last I checked.

Let’s talk about how the IFCN endorsement  process works. A seven member panel checks out applying organizations. And who are those seven people? Well, the two Americans of the seven are Angie Holan, of Politifact, and Glenn Kessler, of the Washington Post Fact Checker. These two only need two other votes from other members to approve or disapprove an applicant fact-check organization. Given how fact-check authority is used by big tech, these two people wield a lot of power over the information we receive.

Fundamentally, then, here is how the conservative who distrusts big tech is going to look at this. They are going to say the Washington Post and the Tampa Bay Times are left-leaning organizations that have a long-standing tradition of undermining conservative political causes and candidates through their choice of reporting, not-reporting, and the way they do report. The fact-checkers merely lend an air of authority to their bias. As far as they are concerned, the whole thing is a crafty ruse. It’s good marketing, but it’s a sham. And these are the people who are selecting which other fact-check organizations to endorse. Those algorithms, in turn, are used to suppress what is classified as disinformation by Google and Facebook. What conservatives have always suspected, (that the media is biased and big tech can’t be trusted), is grounded in this basic reality.

Can you see how their distrust might be warranted? So, if George Soros and other philanthropists contribute another $15 billion in grant monies to organizations that will put an end to disinformation, as was recently announced, will that solve the problem of disinformation?

Average Truth Score Dropping
Politifact’s average truth score dropping year after year.

The answer depends on whether we change the way we’re approaching the problem. If not, then the efforts of Soros might be well-intended, but doing things the same way as before and expecting different results is still the definition of insanity. Instead of getting everyone to agree, thanks to suppression of disinformation, that method has resulted in a demonstrable increase in distrust. Worse, we’re talking about civil unrest and possible insurrection and getting the FBI and intelligence community involved.

So, put on your thinking cap. What if you could think of a way to peacefully resolve this problem? What if you could think creatively, if you could let that sprocket on your top hat spin a little bit? …

.. you might just invent a truth machine.

And that is what I did. I call it the CounterChecker. Instead of just watching things go from bad to worse, I’ve designed a new platform that doesn’t assume truth is all contained in any one echo chamber. It depressurizes each chamber by connecting them with an airlock.

OK. That’s just a metaphor. No one is trapped inside an echo-chamber. What the CounterChecker actually does is it addresses an obvious flaw in the way things currently work. Let’s look at that.

The way fact-checks are currently done, some question will come up that helps or hurts a particular political candidate or cause. For instance, climate change. It is very common for climate change experts to show evidence that proves climate change denial is wrong. In 2017, for instance, a fact-check organization specializing in climate change, ClimateFeedback.org, was approved by the IFCN, having been created for that purpose. The way it works is that a claim is made. And then that claim is disputed by the organization. Typically, this ends the discussion because there is research data to back up what the organization’s expert has said. End of story. There’s your fact.

The problem with this methodology is that there is no cross-examination in it. What the CounterChecker does differently is it turns fact-checking into a dialog between researchers that addresses as many points as needed to fully examine a question. Minority and dissenting views are given a voice. The result is that the reader not only hears whether something is right or wrong, but can find out exactly why by searching through the dispute.

How the CounterChecker un-separates echo chambers
The CounterChecker brings the separated echo chambers back together through a single system.

The CounterChecker also offers an objective scoring system. It is based on the number of points made and the number of times the point is violated. This produces scores for articles, scores for researchers, scores for teams of researchers and scores for organizations. And the way it is designed, facts are easily searched because repetitive information is systemically discouraged through a system of penalties issued by the opposing researchers and their teams.

And that is not the only difference. In the current way of doing things, a highly funded organization, which is trusted among journalists, but not necessarily by the population as a whole, pays journalists who tend to agree with them ideologically. While this is great for selling news because it targets specific echo chambers who will pay for what comforts them, it is not great for providing just the facts and it is not great for building trust or uniting a divided country.

If our goal is to determine a common set of facts that we can all agree on, instead of each echo chamber having its own alternative facts, a paradigm shift is required. Claiming to be unbiased is easy to do. But what measures are in place to ensure it? The CounterChecker does this by providing just a platform – not the researchers. It invites researchers selected by opposing teams of thinkers to hash out their ideas on the platform.

Demographics of attitudes toward fact-checking
Do Republican women trust fact-checking more than Democrat women?

Picture this: the head of think tank A and the head of think tank B, political arch enemies, select their own teams of researchers to use the platform and dispute one another’s claims. The platform itself issues objective scoring criteria. People may well believe that a researcher or a team of researchers is biased. Or vice versa, they may claim they pass a test and earn an IFCN endorsement as selected by respected authorities, while others still doubt them, but no one can rightly say that the platform itself is biased. The platform is a machine with rules that apply equally to each side of any dispute. The machine is the only thing we can say is indisputably unbiased. No matter what ideological view a person holds, they can’t disagree with the inherent fairness of the machine itself.

Of course, I still like the old Snopes. I like the idea of checking into things that have nothing to do with politics. What I want is a full blown fact-telling widget. Suppose I’m having an argument with a friend about how many  planets there are in the galaxy, or whether there really are miracles? What about who is the best NBA player of all time? Many questions involve subjective answers. There may be certain objective criteria. What measures should matter most? One of the other features I like about the CounterChecker, having seen the design, is how it separates facts from opinions and beliefs. Another is the way it is designed to resolve disputes on any subject – not just politics. It may come up with the answer “I don’t know” a bit too often for most peoples’ taste, but I suppose that’s the price of being fair.

I won’t go into the later iterations of the technology here. I told you I would talk about how much this machine would cost to build and why I thought building it would probably be the most important thing I could do before I die.

Monthly truth score average since 2008
Do we lie more in October than other months? Politifact seems to think so.

The CounterChecker is a truth telling machine. I don’t just love truth. I think the truth is vital for us to have access to if we are to survive as humanity. Maslow would put survival at the top of his hierarchy of needs and I’d have to agree. I also have to limit my list of things I can accomplish in my life to things I have the personal capacity to do. If I raise the needed money through the Pamalogy Society, I can build this truth machine. I can’t build a machine that controls the weather or blocks meteors from hitting us. Those things are someone else’s department.

If you follow the Pamalogy Society blogs and podcasts, you also know that truth is what the Pamalogy Society is built on. It questions traditional authority.

Knowing this, you should know that I’m not worried about whether my own thoughts are right or wrong. You should know that I trust the truth above all, wherever that may lead, not even regarding my own philosophical assumptions. Have you ever thought about how close the word ideology is to idolatry? Etymologically, I don’t think there is any connection, but I think we do need to renounce ideology as if it were an idol in our minds. We do well to be delivered from cherished political beliefs and admit we’ve been wrong.

It’s pride. Pride goes before a fall. You can be proud of your family or your friends, your team or your country in the sense that you love them and appreciate what they do. That’s a good pride. But the pride that is self-defensive, egotistical pride that can’t admit when it is wrong, or places goals above principles, that sort of pride is destructive.

If we can manage to leave our pride to the side and trust the exploration of truth, admitting it when we find out we’ve been wrong, then maybe there’s hope for us as human beings. We may just survive.

There’s more to my “why” than that. There is a matter of strategy. Once the truth machine becomes a part of every mobile phone and every big tech algorithm, having been sponsored by the Pamalogy Society, there is an intangible benefit for the Pamalogy Society there that can leverage into the realization of other great projects – those I’ve made on my maximization of awesomeness list, and maybe those you have too. Did you make a list of all of everything you thought you might be able to get done before you died, like I advised you to in my last Podcast? I want to see your list. Don’t just write it down. Share it. Stick your neck out publicly, like I did. Make it happen.

That’s what the Pamalogy Society is about.

Average truth score by day of week
Coming clean on weekends. Average truth score by day as reported by Politifact since 2008. Or is it because we read the Funny’s on Sundays?

So, back to the truth machine: it stands to reason that if grant monies become available for better journalism and the elimination of disinformation, as I hear is increasingly the case, that the CounterChecker is the best choice for achieving that goal. An estimated  $1.4 million in research and development funding is needed for the project, which is expected to take nine months to complete, so you can expect the Pamalogy Society t0 make an appeal in the coming days to those granting organizations. The Pamalogy Society will begin voting on the first projects it will be funding very shortly. Expect an announcement soon.

Now before I say goodbye until next time, let me address a funny sort of elephant in the room I mentioned earlier, named George Soros. When it comes to who we can accept funding from, there are certain limits. First, a 501(c)3 public charity can’t accept funds from a political candidate or political advocacy group. I’m sure you know that. Financial conflicts of interest are one area. Second, there are conflicts of perception.

Conservatives are likely to suppose that if the Pamalogy Society accepts funds from George Soros, or any other source with a history of support for progressive causes, that in some way the Society would be beholden to support their viewpoints. Others have suggested that progressives like Soros would never support a platform that permitted objections to progressive “facts.” The views expressed in the Aspen Commission might show an objection to two way communication.

But I have a question. Why should someone like George Soros object to funding the CounterChecker – a vehicle that allows those who probably disagree with him, to have a platform to communicate, if he believed his own views would prevail? Wouldn’t he not see its “platform only” approach as an opportunity to prove that he has no hidden agenda? If he were to refuse to fund it, that might certainly indicate that fairness was not what he intends. But if he did fund it, he would be able to defend himself through the platform’s inherent fairness. The voice of the left would certainly be heard on it, but so would the voice of the right and there would be ample opportunity to dispute anything the right claimed.

This is why I like the CounterChecker as a truth machine. It doesn’t really matter who funds it. It’s just a machine. It doesn’t have any opinions or agendas. People with their ideologies and agendas will use it to present their side of the story with. In the end, the public sees both sides of every story, not just one. Trust in Soros is restored. The conspiracy theories of conservatives are weakened by the facts. On the other hand, if he doesn’t fund it, maybe the conservative conspiracy theories are right.

Then there is another side of this sort of elephant in the room – it’s the idea that if George Soros and company were to fund the CounterChecker that it would be perceived as left-wing. Let me explain how this works. Funding does one thing. It makes the technology possible. It pays for development costs. It does not pay for researchers.  The platform’s mission is to provide a voice for every side on any question. It is the users who determine the content.

Now you may be familiar with talking head shows where there is someone on the left and someone on the right shouting at each other before the next commercial break. That’s not what we’re talking about here. For one thing, the guy on the left may be much less adept at arguing than the guy on the right, as the producers decide. For another, the CounterChecker is a written format that eliminates repetition in scoring arguments and it doesn’t have to take commercial breaks. As long as there is more evidence to present, there is room for presenting it.

The right doesn’t get to out-shout the left. There is no limit to the number of cross-examinations in any argument. In short, neither side can cheat. Whether you see either one as an angel or a devil, who paid for the machine that gave them an equal voice and an equal opportunity is irrelevant. Similarly, whatever my own personal views, or the views of the shareholders of the CounterChecker ultimately happen to be, are irrelevant. It won’t be the shareholders producing the content.

The last aspect of the Soros-factor I need to address is this. It’s sort of odd, but apparently every time someone mentions this man’s name, certain outlets claim it is antisemitic to do so. I’ve dared mention his name, so I unfortunately must clarify that I do so with no clue as to why mentioning such a name should have anything to do with what my opinions of the Jewish people are. I haven’t read up on that. All I know is that we are living in a very sensitive age. For the record, I have no particular opinion about Jewish people. I am familiar with various forms of Judaism. There is a lot about Judaism I appreciate but I’m not a Jew myself. And I haven’t quite learned why this became an issue.

My personal experience with Jewish people has not been negative. Generally, when Jewish people have been around me, it has been the Jewish person calling attention to their Jewishness, rather than me. If they weren’t wearing a yamaka or a phylactery, I wouldn’t know if a person was Jewish unless they told me. I can’t personally remember any time where I ever brought the subject up outside of a discussion of asking questions about religion with someone who seemed to want to talk about it. I don’t know whether Georege Soros is a Jew by heritage only, or whether he is an active believer. I know more about what he has done as a political activist.

All that said, let’s suppose I was able to convince an organization like the Aspen Commission, which is working to diminish disinformation, or Good Information, Inc., which is being funded by Reid Hoffman and George Soros to support journalistic enterprises that are fact-check based, to fund the CounterChecker. The people behind these enterprises, Katy Couric, Rashad Robinson and others, have publicly opposed equivalency media. That is, media that gives an equal voice to opposition, when fact-checks have shown one side is a source of misinformation. I would have to show that the CounterChecker is not just showing balance, it is offering a better process for determining facts. Assuming I succeeded, the problem is not George Soros. It is the question of whether conservatives would participate, knowing George Soros had a hand in funding it.

And here’s the bottom line. Just as the platform presents a litmus test for George Soros, it does the same for conservatives. Are they willing to trust that they can best their opponent in a dialog that presents the facts? In other words, instead of taking an alternative media approach, where they continually paint their opposition with a wide brush, attacking a straw man, would they be willing to take a courtroom approach, where their arguments were held up to scrutiny by their opponent? If they did, then they would demonstrate that they believed the facts were on their side. If they did not, then why should anyone believe them?

All this is to say, that the platform only approach is clearly the best approach. It remains to be seen who will come forward to support it. I want to do all I can to make sure the vehicle is available. Trust starts there. The rest is up to the powers that be. Let’s see what they do with it.

In future episodes, I will describe how the process of funding projects works, and what it is we hope to do to incubate worthy programs, like the CounterChecker, like other programs listed at JamesCarvin.com and, if you’ll submit your own concept, maybe the things you think would make this world more awesome.

Ciao!

 

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