What Are Your Sources?
"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end with doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." - Francis Bacon
Recently I found myself at the bar in conversation with a boomer. He was an amiable sort, fairly apolitical, with a relatively conventional blue state American outlook on the world. As the conversation went on, the subject turned to the conflict in Ukraine, and it emerged that he was under the impression that Putin was obviously a madman (there being no rational reason for his having invaded), that the Russian economy had been devastated by the sanctions, that the Russian army was getting chewed to bits by the brave Ukrainian resistance, and that Russian troops were committing atrocities against Ukrainian civilians.
I proceeded to correct him - or at least, to share the perspective I consider more accurate - on each particular, going into as much detail as I could (and as a conversation in a bar permits). Far from being irrational, the special military operation has compelling national defense, geostrategic, resource acquisition, and humanitarian goals, all of which align in the direction of the invasion's motivations being extremely logical. While the rouble was initially badly hurt by the sanctions, it rapidly rebounded and is now the top-performing currency of the year - it turns out that the real, physical resources Russia offers in abundance, in terms of wheat, oil, natural gas, minerals, rare earths, and so on, are more highly valued by most of humanity than the primary post-West exports of debt and sanctimony. While the Russian military undoubtedly made mistakes in the early days of the campaign, it is now methodically dismantling the Ukrainian military, with victory all but guaranteed. As for the atrocities, every single one of the allegations against Russian troops that I'm aware of has fallen apart upon closer inspection, whereas by contrast the video evidence of war crimes by the devil-worshipping Azov nazis against both Ukrainian civilians and Russian soldiers is abundant and sickening.
To his credit, he was fairly open to what I had to say. He had enough self-awareness to know that he had no deep, personal knowledge of the situation, and was merely expressing views he'd accepted without challenge from the legacy media. To be fair, I don't have any direct knowledge either, and am essentially just repeating the opinions that I've found in online media.
His head reeling from this onslaught of cognitive dissonance, he then asked the dreaded question: "Where do you get your information from? What are your sources?"
I really hate this question.
Part of it is that a lot of the places I tend to go to collect information would strike the normie as batshit insane conspiracy sites. Once you're on the other side of the great hyperreality bifurcation, you're experiencing a world in which very fundamental assumptions of the old societal mainstream, ranging from 'what is true' to 'what is moral', are no longer taken for granted and, indeed, are widely rejected.
Another part of it is that a great deal of what gets circulated within the hydra originates with anonymous or pseudonymous writers. By the very nature of communicating one's thoughts from behind a veil, it is impossible to verify whether they really know what they're talking about. A normie used to the anodyne pronouncements of credentialed experts being fellated by talking heads on CNN will find the idea of taking seriously the words of random Internet schizos to be a bit jarring.
But the single biggest reason I dislike this question is that it's the wrong question. 'Sources' have absolutely nothing to do with how I gather information; and from what I've seen, that's true for most of us.
The general assumption in normieland seems to be that there are reliable and unreliable sources of information. The former carry the stamp of approval of established authorities, who go to great lengths to ensure that the information they communicate has been extensively vetted for accuracy, with obvious mistakes removed by dedicated teams devoted to the rigorous vetting of every piece of information that gets included. The latter consists of wild speculations, rumours, and crazed ramblings. There's some nuance there - most people will admit that politicians, bureaucrats, and corporate marketing executives will usually put some spin on the information they communicate - but in general the heuristic that gets applied is "there are reliable sources, and unreliable sources; all you need to do to have an accurate view of reality is to limit your information diet to the former and ignore the latter."
The peer-reviewed scientific literature is the most entrenched version of this. The concept of peer review is that, since all scientific results should be open to criticism (true), and given that individual scientists are only human and suffer from biases, blindspots, and deficits of expertise (also true), and as we should desire the scientific literature to be as free as possible from error (fair enough), the best way to do this is to have anonymous scientists read a manuscript before its published, identify the mistakes, and insist they be corrected before it see the light of day.
In practice, peer review is a terrible way of doing this. First, one or two referees are themselves only human, and while they might find a couple of mistakes are unlikely to find them all (and often find nothing more than a few typos). Second, and far more perniciously, once a paper is sanctified with the halo of peer review, it attains a sort of unimpeachable status. Having obtained the epistemological gold standard, it's the next best thing to gospel truth.
Note how I phrased that- 'gospel truth'. The mindset that says 'this paper has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and is therefore probably true' is the same mindset that says 'this passage comes from the New Testament and is therefore true'. Both apply a very simple heuristic: an authoritative and therefore reliable source has proclaimed something to be true; therefore it probably is.
Most scientists in practice will admit that the peer-reviewed literature is full of garbage. Ask any of them and they'll be happy to relate a litany of ways in which their rivals have pissed in the collective truth pool (their rivals no doubt feeling the same way about their own contributions). They're fully aware that many of the reviews they've received themselves are either lazy (which they generally don't mind, it makes their lives easier) or tendentious (which they mind a great deal), neither of which does anything to improve the paper. They're also generally aware of the replication crisis - the horrible truth that something like half of scientific papers fail to hold up under attempts to reproduce their results.
Despite this, academic scientists almost never make the connection between the shortcomings of the peer review system, and the unreliability of the literature. They'll usually say that while it isn't perfect, it's the best we've got, and better than nothing. In fact, it is worse than nothing, because it leads directly to pernicious complacency: a paper has passed peer review, so why bother trying to replicate the results? It's that mindset that allowed shit results to accumulate in the literature to the point where a 'replication crisis' could become a crisis in the first place.
When you're attempting to scale the walls of Chapel Perilous in the weird corners of the Internet, you don't have the luxury of relying on authoritative sources. The very concept of 'authoritative source' loses all meaning, and of necessity one develops a very different approach to information gathering and belief formation. Inside the datastream of the Internet, no one perspective is privileged as being unimpeachable. Nothing is to be trusted. Nothing is ever to be 100% believed. Everything one comes across, from any source, whether an established blogger with hundreds of thousands of daily readers or some rando in the comments section, is greeted with more or less the same response:
Here's what I do; and I suspect it's pretty much what the rest of you do, too:
I've got a variety of news aggregators I tend to go to, each more or less reflecting the worldview of the individual or team who maintains them through the lens of the topics that attract their attention. I skim these feeds and occasionally click on something if it catches my own attention. There are a few forums that I frequent, where various topics are discussed, and people share links to things they think are interesting together with whatever impressions they have of them. Social media plays a similar role; while I'm not on Twitter or Facebook, I do subscribe to a couple of hundred Telegram channels, some of which I'll peruse throughout the day, once again clicking on anything that looks interesting. Add to this an archipelago of blogs which provide some degree of original analysis, but are mostly the Internet's editorial page; in these cases, I gravitate towards those authors I find to be consistently interesting. Then there are podcasts and livestreams, most of which take the form of a free-ranging conversation between hosts and guests.
In most cases I have no idea about the identities or credentials of the authors, and I could generally care less. The contribution of an anon on 4chan can be every bit as insightful and correct as the analysis of a facefag whose CV I can review in detail. Equivalently, the facefag can be every bit as wrong as that of the shitposter. The salient detail is not the identity of the person originating the information, but the structure of the argument.
When perusing something, at the same time that I'm evaluating the information, I'm also evaluating the worldview that produced the information. What are the ideological biases of the author? Is he a libertarian, a post-liberal, an old-school leftist, a nationalist, a trad-Catholic, a deep ecologist, a neoliberal managerialist, a critical race theorist? Does the author have something to gain from what he's writing - is he trying to get me to buy something, or being paid to advance a perspective that will enrich his paymasters? The author's perspective is inseparable from the argument being put forward, as it structures what the author considers to be interesting, and what he believes to be axiomatically true and false - creating attentional foci and blind spots.
This doesn't mean that something is to be rejected or accepted merely because it conflicts or accords with a worldview I find personally agreeable - that's ultimately just a version of the 'authoritative source' mindset, one that leads straight into an echo chamber. In principle, valuable insights can come from almost anywhere. The purpose of the exercise is rather to discern the model of reality that produced the perspective leading to the information being organized as it has been.
All models are by their nature simplified schema that fail to capture the full complexity and nuance of the world. They emphasize some things and omit others. That's why it's important not to get overly attached to them. However, some models are more accurate than others, much more likely to correctly predict unfolding events. By foregrounding the models that produce the hot takes, one begins constantly testing these models against one another. As events unfold, one notices which models are more, and which less, accurate. New information can then be evaluated on the basis of the model that generated it, and its probability of being accurate weighted accordingly.
As this goes on, one inevitably begins to construct one's own model of reality, simply by combining the elements that seem to have worked from the models that one has been exposed to. There's nothing particularly special about having a model of reality - we all do, of necessity; the advantage lies rather in that this process becomes conscious and deliberate. One makes one's own model, rather than simply accepting whatever model is offered by 'authoritative sources'.
The normies still trapped in the mass media holodeck cling to the certainty that their 'reliable sources' can be trusted, and the result is that they inhabit a nightmare world of shifting illusions that has driven them quite entirely mad. It frequently happens that they wake up to one or another of the lies of which the control system is built, but having perceived the deception on a given topic, they react by looking for an authoritative source elsewhere that they can rely upon. Invariably in this case, they get trapped in a different lie - trading the regime ideology they've left behind for a new ideology, one that they accept whole as uncritically as the one they were raised with. That's what that boomer in the bar was looking for. His first instinct, upon being confronted with plausible arguments that he'd been systematically mislead by the legacy media, was to reach for something he could trust. To trade one gospel for another.
In truth, there are no reliable sources, and there never have been. Paradoxically, it's only by letting go of the desire for reliability, by holding things conditionally rather than absolutely true, and by constructing one's own provisional reality model, that one can find one's sea legs on the shifting and uncertain waters, and successfully navigate the ocean of the real.
Although I do try to glean what I can from on-the-ground observers in the Slavic world, and you could do a lot worse than reading Rolo Slavskiy's Slavland Chronicles.
There are those who over time are proven truthful and thus gain a reputation for accuracy, honesty and the most important -humility...a willingness to admit when wrong and correct. That none of these include any corporate outlets is why we're all here, and so bless them for providing us this opportunity.
This is the first piece I have read that actually analyzes (correctly) what most of us do when evaluating positions/sources/what-we-read. This is a more important piece than the credit it will receive, sadly. Thanks for thinking this through and writing it down.