Einstein headshot with Aristotle quote.

Internet Truth vs Verifiable Truth – The Importance of Traceable Provenance in Water Information

The most passionate people involved in the water monitoring industry all care deeply about the preservation of traceable provenance for their data. To people on the outside, this can seem like an indulgence that adds a burden of work to the data management process with little apparent benefit.

The benefit is ‘verifiable truth,’ a distinction with little value. Until it matters!

In the days when information was primarily shared on print media, people would choose a credible source for any given subject based on its credentials as a trustworthy source. The reputation of each source depends on its ability to consistently and reliably withstand the test of relentless scrutiny. This level of rigor filters out any sources that are not reliably founded on verifiable truth.

Increasingly, ‘internet truth’ is gaining currency.

People are increasingly a) time-sensitive (i.e. they have a short attention span) and b) vulnerable to heuristic fallacies such as anchoring. Notably, people will anchor on things they believe to be true and will therefore trust whatever sources agree with their belief and not trust sources that do not. This means that, given immediate access to all sources of information, people choose the first results they find and then if they don’t like those results, re-phrasing their search terms to find a truth they prefer rather than systematically seeking out the most credible evidence, especially if that evidence may differ from their beliefs.

Astute political candidates are now blatantly exploiting the reality that that there is no single source of ‘internet truth.’

For example, a candidate is now free to make outrageous statements – even if they are demonstrably false – for the sole purpose of being outrageous hence ensuring headline news coverage. The large up-side of this behavior is unbalanced by any down-side as long as the candidate never apologizes, retracts the statement, or admits it is a lie. A completely contradictory statement can be made that logically refutes the first (often resulting in more headlines!), but logic is not tested in ‘internet truth,’ both statements become ‘internet true.’ The first statement remains true for one audience; the second statement becomes true for a different audience. This is a win-win for the candidate.

Gordon Pennycock et al. recently won the 2016 Ignoble Peace Prize for their improbable research paper  “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit” which should, in my opinion, form the basis for mandatory citizenship training for all young adults and new immigrants in any democratic country.

What does the distinction between ‘internet truth’ and ‘verifiable truth’ have to do with water data?

When it comes to water we are, and must remain, a reality-based community. We can’t decide how high to build flood protection levies and then seek an internet truth that affirms that choice. We can’t allow industrial polluters to pick and choose an internet truth that conceals their actions. We can’t plan for sustainable water supplies using the internet truth that most conveniently fits within a desired budget allocation.

In the past, water data were only discoverable and accessible from a few data providers, each with a reputation for providing verifiably true information.

Water monitoring sensors are getting smarter. It is now easier than ever to purchase some sort of sensor, put it in a stream and publish the data on the internet. It is now possible to discover and access all manner of water data from all sorts of different data providers, many operating with undiscoverable standards. Whereas it would have been historically unlikely that a stakeholder in a watershed would have a choice in water data, it is starting to become likely that there may be choice amongst alternative versions of water information some of which is ‘verifiably true’ and some which is merely ‘internet true.’

Whereas it is too early to tell who will be legally responsible and accountable for water tragedies resulting from deceptive water information – acquired and published without attention to standards and accepted procedures – there is no doubt about who will pay the price. It will be everyone else in the watershed, for generations to come.

People who care the most about their watersheds also care the most for the quality of water data. Best practices for water data management exist to ensure verifiable truth. Don’t let truth be a casualty in a watershed you care about.

Photo Credit: By Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J. Modified with Photoshop by PM_Poon and later by Dantadd. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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1 Comment
  • Pete Dupen
    Posted at 5:57 pm, October 13, 2016

    Yes, interesting trend and one for us all to be aware of and push back where the internetted BS overrides the truth by scientific method (which may not be true, but is at least understood to be a working hypothesis supported by xxx evidence).

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