There is such a vast chorus of voices out there that it can be tricky to decide who you should pay attention to. “Do your own research” is good advice, except that research will still put you in contact with a lot of different sources of information; discretion is required. So here are my criteria for how I decide who at least is potentially worth my attention:
- They face consequences for being wrong. A surprising number of people ignore this very important criteria, but I want to listen to people with skin in the game. This pretty much eliminates any politician and most people in the media right off the bat. They might point me towards topics I want to research, but they shouldn’t be the final step of anyone’s investigation because they almost never face consequences for being wrong or even outright lying.
- They spend a lot of time in their field. Journalists don’t give information; they write about information. But if a journalist writes an article about an interesting new discovery made by astronomers, that doesn’t make them an astronomer. So they probably got a lot wrong, or oversimplified, or sensationalized, etc. That means if I care about the information, I can use the article as a starting point, but I have to go deep. I might as well ignore it as noise otherwise.
- They can talk like a human. There’s an old adage that says if you can’t explain it to a ten-year-old, you don’t understand it. The more you try to build a barricade out of jargon or ultra-specific industry terms, the more likely I am to think you just don’t want to be scrutinized. That’s not me saying “anything I don’t immediately understand must be voodoo” or anything silly like that. But if you’re simultaneously talking to me and seemingly trying to prevent me from understanding what you’re saying, I’m going to assume you’re more concerned with looking smart than with imparting information.
Those aren’t the end-all, be-all of my list. Just those three things doesn’t automatically mean I’ll trust everything you say; I’m eternally a skeptic at heart. But if you don’t at least check off those three boxes, I’m almost certainly going to assume you’re all smoke, no fire.
Note that a very big, very absent criteria is “agrees with my priors.” In fact, having these three criteria always at the forefront of my mind helps me avoid the echo chamber. If I look at something and say, “okay, this is from a person who clearly has a decent amount of time in their sphere, they’re not being deliberately obtuse, and they’re in a position where being wrong would be very costly to them,” then that immediately tells me that any natural inclination I have to dismiss them is likely to be confirmation bias at work and I should give it a more serious consideration.
There’s a lot of noise out there. Be a skeptic, but be a principled one.