Sincere sources will typically give us correct information a much larger percentage of the time than manipulative sources. Even so, it is often crucial that we can recognize when these sources may be unreliable. First we should realize that there are no simple rules that guarantee that somebody is correct. The person can be totally honest, have no indications of insanity, and be an expert in the field, and still be wrong. Sigmund Freud, whose psychological theories were once widely accepted but are now considered almost worthless, was such a case. John Mack, a psychology professor at Harvard, was without a doubt highly intelligent and seemed to be sane and sincere, but he believed that people who reported being abducted by aliens were telling the truth. Despite his excellent qualifications, I feel it is highly likely that he was wrong.
The main theme of this website is to show how people like you and me can mistakenly wind up believing things that are false. There are many ways - we can jump to a conclusion, be persuaded by clever propaganda, become emotionally involved in a polarizing issue, succumb to wishful thinking, misjudge the likelihood of improbable events, and so on. If it can happen to us, it can happen to others we may rely on for information. These things happen to smart people as well as stupid ones. They happen to famous and powerful people as well as the rest of us. So the unfortunate fact is that there is really no source we can trust totally, even if the people involved are sincere and not trying to sell us anything.
Let's say Mary Smith says she saw a flying saucer. Some people will reason like this: Mary is an outstanding citizen. She has no history of mental illness. She is smart and capable on her job. She has no reason to deceive us about this claim and, in fact, is a little afraid people will think she's crazy. Since we have eliminated the possibilities that she is insane, stupid, or dishonest, the only other possibility is that her story is true!
We may have a good case that she is not crazy or stupid or a liar, but we have not ruled out her being mistaken. Perhaps she was a victim of a hoax. Perhaps she saw a meteor or a blimp under circumstances that made them look different than they normally would so she mistakenly ruled those out as possibilities. Perhaps she dozed off while sitting and had a dream while waking up and confused that with reality. Any of these things could happen to an intelligent, sane, truthful person. Or perhaps there was some other explanation we haven't thought of other than an actual flying saucer. Of course, maybe it was actually a vehicle piloted by space aliens. But there are a lot of ways it could have been a mistake made by an otherwise reliable person. (There is also the fact that lying and insanity haven't been totally ruled out. The involvement of actual space aliens is so improbable an explanation that, unlikely as it may be, lying or mental illness might still be better explanations.)
N-Rays and scientific authorities
A remarkable case of highly-intelligent and sincere scientists coming up with completely invalid conclusions occurred in the early 1900's. A French physicist, Rene Blondlot, researching X-rays at the University of Nancy, believed he had discovered a new type of ray he called N-rays after the name of the University. He published numerous papers on the subject by the end of 1903, as did several other prominent physicists. However, some other well-qualified European scientists were unable to find evidence of the rays.
An American, Robert W. Wood, was sent to Blondlot's lab to see if he could figure out what the problem was. Blondlot's setup used a spark behind a ground glass screen as a detector. If N-Rays were hitting the spark it would be brighter. Wood was unable to see any difference in brightness when Blondlot used his hand to block or unblock the path of the rays to the spark. Assuming the American didn't have sensitive enough vision to notice the differences, Blondlot suggested they switch places.
"I suggested that the attempt be made to announce the exact moments at which I introduced my hand into the path of the rays, by observing the screen," wrote Wood in a report to the journal Nature. "In no case was a correct answer given, the screen being announced as bright and dark in alternation when my hand was held motionless in the path of the rays." (Dewdney 1997)
Wood tried several other conditions, and even tricked Blondlot and his assistant by removing an essential part of the apparatus, but their observations were always related to their expectations rather than the actual experimental condition. Wood's report soon ended the study of N-Rays.
Blondlot was apparently an honest and sincere researcher, and had done valuable work in the past. Others who had gotten positive results working with N-Rays were presumably honest as well. However, they did not design their experiments in such a way that they would rule out biases based on the expectations of the observer. As a result, honest, sincere, and highly intelligent people produced results that were entirely inconsistent with reality.
Normally scientists are among the most reliable sources we can find. However, even top scientists are fallible. A red flag in this case was that some other scientists were not able to reproduce their results. A similar situation occurred more recently with the erroneous announcement of cold fusion by Martin Fleishmann and Stanley Pons in 1989. Although most of us are not in a position to check or seriously evaluate scientific results, we are wise to withhold judgement about any breakthrough science until it is generally agreed to by most of the scientific community.
The above situations involve physics authorities. Physics is among the most clear-cut fields in science. When we got to biology, medicine, and social sciences like psychology, sociology, economics, and history, things get progressively less clear, and are therefore even less dependable. In these areas even authorities with outstanding credentials are likely to disagree on important issues. When considering issues like these, we have to recognize that there is considerable doubt unless there is remarkable agreement among people in the field.
Family and friends
We get a lot of our information from family and friends. It is pretty rare that these people are crazy or lying to us, but I'm sure all of us have run into situations where they are wrong (and they have probably run into situations where we are wrong). They may remember something wrong because they have confused two incidents. They may have read something too quickly and jumped to a conclusion about what it said. They may have been taken in by some marketing ploy. They might pass along to us an unreliable story that they have heard. Most of the time we are probably aware that what we hear from our friends might be mistaken, but we may still get taken in if their claim is consistent with our expectations or wishes.
Some of our best sources of information are the news media and books. While there may sometimes be a bias toward sensationalism or a political point of view, for most kinds of stories news and books can be regarded as sincere sources of expertise. Even when there is bias, these sources have a vested interest in reporting verifiable facts correctly if they are to maintain their credibility. Nevertheless, perhaps due to time pressures on the reporters or authors researching the stories, it is common for false information to reported. Many people I know comment on how they are surprised at the inaccuracies in the news when it covers an event they know about first hand.
Let me relate one such story where I had personal knowledge. I attended the University of Wisconsin in graduate school during the Vietnam war, and there was one building on campus that generated a lot of controversy. It housed the Army Math Research Center. The actual name of the building was Sterling Hall Annex, as it was an addition to Sterling Hall, the physics building. A portion of the top floor, the fifth, I think, was used for a computer center, and at least part of the basement housed physics laboratories, but the remainder of the building was used by the Army and was off limits to students. Anti-war activists naturally regarded it as an unwelcome intrusion on the campus.
About a year after I left Wisconsin radicals blew up the building with a truck bomb. It went off in the early morning and the only person killed was a physics graduate student working in a basement lab. Years later I talked to a friend who had been a physics student at the University of Minnesota at the time. He told me that everyone there was very concerned because now radicals were attacking physics buildings. He had no idea that the actual target of the attack had military connections. The problem was that the reporting of the bombing had been sloppy. I remembered when I read about it that they seemed to have missed the crucial point that this had been an Army building. I can't be sure exactly what happened, but I would guess reporters from out of town came to the campus, found out the name was Stirling Hall something, which they looked up and saw was the physics building. The fact that a physics student had been killed simply confirmed their assumption.
An amusing error occurred when a major Chinese newspaper published a story saying that the American congress wanted a new capitol building with a retractable dome. It turned out that they got their information from an internet site for the "Onion", which produces a humorous newspaper. The story was a parody of the demands of sports teams for new stadiums that have retractable roofs.
While respectable news media generally are a good source of information, we should try to keep in mind that we cannot trust them completely. If we have reason to believe a story might be mistaken, that is always a realistic possibility.
A kind of sincere authority that we have to be particularly careful about is the zealot. This is a person who might be very well informed, but is also very polarized on some issue. She or he might be preoccupied by some social cause, a religion, a political philosophy, some controversial medical or scientific view, or some other issue. As is normally the case with someone who is polarized on an issue, the zealot is likely to accept arguments uncritically if they agree with her preferred position, and work hard to find excuses to reject arguments that disagree. This is probably a category of sincere authority it is less necessary to warn people about, since most people already recognize that claims of zealots are very biased. In fact the problems we have with manipulative authorities are generally true with zealots also, since they would usually like to recruit us to their cause. Unlike many manipulative authorities, however, they are usually extremely sincere about their position, even though they are often wrong about it.
The fallible witness
It is common for us to trust the claims and opinions of people who are relating things based on their own personal experience. They might have written a book or article or have had things written about them. We have to remember that even though they might be quite well known for their opinions, they are subject to making the same mistakes we are. Someone might have had an experience that they interpreted as being an interaction with a ghost. Someone else might believe they had spotted a monster like "Bigfoot" or the Loch Ness monster. Stories like these sometimes end up in books or newspapers, but the person who made the report is as fallible as anyone else, and may have misinterpreted something they saw or mistaken a dream for reality.
Critics of taste and fashion
There are people who are considered experts in matters of taste who will tell us that a certain kind of wine or clothing or art is superior to some other. Since these things are very subjective, we have to be careful about how much weight we attach to their opinions. Even though they may have a great deal of experience with the subject they are telling us about, they rarely do blinded tests (for some things this is not feasible) and have the same problem as the rest of us with their perceptions being influenced by their expectations. A wine expert may be favorably influenced by a particular wine because they know it is expensive or comes from a winery they like. A fashion expert may unconsciously favor things made by a particular designer. We have all heard of great artists were not appreciated until after they died. This strongly suggests that the art critics of their time did not do their job competently - they may have had restrictive expectations about what qualified as good art.
Judging the reliability of sincere authorities
Here are some things we can look at when trying to determine how much we can rely on what an apparently sincere person tells us:
How do they know?
We cannot rely on a statement made by someone if that person did not have any reliable way to determine the truth of the statement. Other people, including those we think of as authoritative, can have false beliefs for all the same reasons we can. We should understand as well as possible what information the authority used to form his or her judgment, and, if possible, form our own conclusion based on the original evidence rather than simply accepting the authority's conclusion.
My father was once highly amused when he came across a statement saying something like "This computer has never made an undetected error." How would they know it made the error if it was undetected?
Someone might say "My healthy lifestyle kept me from getting the flu." Perhaps, but how does the person know that?
I have heard it said that "rape is about control, not sex." Perhaps, but how would someone actually determine that? Was there actually a study that showed that no rapist ever was motivated by sex? Probably not.
Would it be apparent if they were wrong?
One important question to ask when someone speaks with authority is whether they could be wrong without it becoming obvious to their colleagues or others who would expose their error. If there is easily performed research which would contradict an erring authority, we would expect others in the field to recognize the error quickly. If that doesn't happen we are justified in a certain amount of confidence that the authority's claim is true. If an error could not be easily demonstrated, we should recognize that the claim might be wrong, but not yet refuted.
Let's say that an astronomer says she has discovered a new comet that will soon be visible from earth. It the statement was printed in a major newspaper or magazine, I can be pretty confident that there will be lots of other astronomers who will check this right away. If the claim was wrong, we would know quickly.
On the other hand, a politician might say he has secret information that suggests a foreign country is planning a terrorist attack against the United States. If the only people who have access to that information are people friendly to that politician, we have reason to be suspicious of the claim.
Are they speaking on their own field?
If authorities are not speaking about knowledge in their own field, any credentials they have are virtually worthless. They may be "smart" in some general sense, but this doesn't prevent them from being wrong.
A classic example of this was the Linus Pauling promoting the idea that vitamin C could prevent colds and possibly other infections. Pauling was a Nobel prize winner in chemistry, but he had no credentials in biology or medicine. While it is reasonable to respect him as an intelligent individual, his opinion should not carry as much weight as that of someone who had actually worked in the medical field.
Is the issue controversial?
If there are other authorities of similar reliability who disagree, then we are not very safe in assuming this particular authority is correct. We should be especially wary when an issue is polarized into opposing camps since people on both sides are likely to lose their objectivity because they have become emotionally attached to their side of the issue.
If an economist says she expects the economy to improve, that may be correct, but it is very likely there are other economists who have good credentials who are predicting the opposite. Even though these people are experts, we don't really know if their predictions are accurate.
Even people who are intelligent and sincerely believe in what they are saying are frequently wrong. Just because someone isn't a liar or a lunatic doesn't mean he or she is correct. Even people who are recognized experts in their fields can be the source of misinformation. Even though we often have to depend on others for our information, we should always think carefully about how much we can rely on what they say.