Epistemology and sources

Back in the excellent philosophy class I took in high school (Hi Mr. Lutness!), epistemology was simply explained as How You Know What You Know.

And different philosophers said you know what you know for different reasons. George Berkeley, for example, had this whole “seeing is believing” thing, for example. If he didn’t perceive it with his own senses, it might as well not exist.

No retweets for him, I suppose. No newspapers. I seriously doubt he would have trusted cable news had it existed in his day.

(Scholarly friends: I am aware that Berkeley took the above given as step one, and then rambled off into metaphysics, yes. I am not going to go there today.)

And so we come to a few amusing events of the past week or so. I have three in mind.

  1. Jason Calacanis, Web entrepreneur and investor, posts a series of tweets about the Apple tablet the night before and morning of its unveiling. Journalists at several surprisingly major news organizations repeat and report the rumors Calacanis starts.
  2. Someone poses as the philosopher Jurgen Habermas on Twitter.
  3. Someone pretending to be from a rich family claims to give millions to help post-earthquake Haiti.

In all three cases, [GENERALIZATION AHEAD] our desire to believe seems to have been the primary reason we did so.

You got duped by @Jason

The Calacanis story took advantage (and indeed, mocked) the breathless pre-announcement hype about the tablet. I probably saw it because someone retweeted one of Jason’s early posts claiming to have been a beta tester, and I have to ask myself why I clicked. The truth is, I was quietly reading everything I could get my hands on about the tablet, building up my own hopes and dreams of a magical and wonderful device.

Multiply me by millions, and you get an idea of what the demand was like for information, rumors, patent translations, and actual leaks about the tablet in the run up to the moment when the little heavy-thing-landing-in-a-pile-of-dust “iPad” text dropped into Steve’s slide on screen in San Francisco.

So Calacanis, just for fun (I think), provided some supply for that demand.

Was he a reliable source? Only if you’d never paid attention to him before, which really works out well for him when you do the math. There were plenty of people who had followed Jason’s work, attitude, and penchant for showmanship long enough to stay skeptical.

Of course, anyone with a search engine could also quickly become a skeptic.

The moral of the story for reporters? Consider your source’s history on the topic and motivation at all times. Then consider it again.

I got duped by @JHabermas

Look, I dropped a philosopher’s name earlier, and I’ve done bits and pieces of reading on postmodern philosophy, and I’m a big fan of Guy Debord and whatnot, but I haven’t studied Jurgen Habermas. But I do know he’s the “public sphere” guy, and when I retweeted @attackerman’s “THAT’S JURGEN HABERMAS” update, I didn’t do a whole lot of investigation. None, actually.

But, of course, someone knew better.

Jurgen Habermas’s audience knows more than I do. Follow the trail from that link and its comments, and you’ll even find someone who (claims to have) tracked down Habermas on the phone:

“He added that ‘my email address is not publicly available,’ which suggests that perhaps he didn’t quite understand what I was getting at. In fact, the father of the public sphere doesn’t seem to understand the internet very well at all, judging by his few previous references to the topic.” [The links are in the original.]

Wait, run that back a paragraph. Did you catch that little parenthetical disclaimer I dropped in?

“…someone who (claims to have) tracked down…”

Hedging my bets.


Because I don’t know the person who says they made the call to Habermas, and I didn’t take the time to even check their About page. The author did, however, include a link to an mp3 he says is the recorded conversation between him and Habermas about the Twitter account. That would be easy enough to listen to, and anyone familiar with Habermas’s voice could confirm it’s him.

But I haven’t listened, although I would be amused to hear some sort of creative remix of it if such a thing were to go viral.

Moral? If you don’t know the answer to a key question about your source, someone else probably does. Find them. And ask them.

Stefan Roberts didn’t dupe Wikipedians

A man says he’s Stefan de Rothschild, and he’s giving $2.5 million to Haiti.


  • Famous European name
  • Unusually large charitable donation
  • A few quick Web sites
  • A handful of Wikipedia entries

I’m going to lean heavily on this Valleywag post to explain the sequence of events (I know, consider the source, right? But there’s lots of links in that post, too.) The important part is that the guy was a faker, and although no journalist caught it, he was busted when he caught the attention of Wikipedia reviewers who noticed he kept putting the same fake pages up on the encyclopedia I’ve linked to four times in this post.

Here’s a quote from Valleywag’s story:

“What brought Roberts down was one of the tools he used to hoist himself up, Wikipedia, on which he posted no fewer than five fake entries: for himself, for his fake line of Rothschild family members and for one of his fake companies, Rothschild Estates. His antics caught the attention of the Wikipedia Review after editors kept deleting the fake entries and Roberts kept trying to resurrect them.”

Moral: Give a small number of editors a reliable system for tracking down claims of truth, and it gets easier to spot falsehoods, whether the editors have expertise on the topic or not.

[UPDATE: So there’s a comment below that points out an important factual error I made in the Rothschild bit. In fact, it’s an error that makes this “moral” have no backup in the actual narrative of the fraud and its discovery. I’ll explore it further and report back here, or in the comments, about what I figure out.]

I like tools and systems and truth, so I’m going to repeat variations of the aforementioned morals-of-the-story in a real general way for a moment. Bear with me.

  • If you give journalists tools to help them spot anomalies in the system of the news, it gets easier to discern what’s true.
  • If you give journalists tools to help them track how truthful sources are, it gets easier to tell readers what’s true.
  • If you give journalists tools to ask their sources and readers good questions, everybody wins.

Did I mention I like tools? And truth? And also, links. Feel free to suggest a few more in the comments of this post, or wherever fine links are shared.

11 thoughts on “Epistemology and sources”

  1. @Daniel – Of course we are. I think network effects help — there are technological systems and there are social systems.

    In the case of clearly-not-Habermas, it was a very social exercise. Someone wrote a blog post. Someone else recognized a hole in the story and commented. Someone else did the legwork of picking up the phone. If that community of commenters didn’t exist, nothing happens.

    But if there were 2,000 comments, technology might get important. 🙂


  2. Thanks for the interesting look at this business. However, you got one aspect of the Stefan de Rothchild business wrong: it was the Wikipedia Review (a Wikipedia Criticism site) and specifically the contributor there who goes by Tarantino who pieced the Stefan de Rothchild business together : http://wikipediareview.com/index.php?showtopic=28361

    It was one contributor who put the pieces of the puzzle together, not a group of editors. One person with the skills, the intelligence and a critical mind can go much more than the “wisdom of the crowd”.

    The Stefan de Rothschild business pales in comparison to another recent incident, involving fictional “cast director “Lee Dennison” : http://wikipediareview.com/blog/20091211/its-the-casting-director-lee-dennison-story/


  3. @Paul — First of all, thank you for leaving a comment and straightening this out. The language in the Valleywag post (consider the source…) was a little opaque, so I looked up Wikipedia Review, found the Review, and figured, no, they were talking about some class of user at Wikipedia itself. Looked that up at Wikipedia and say “hey, that looks right” without, say, asking a Wikipedian, which would have utilized one of the points I make in this post.

    Of course, given the nature of the post, this becomes a fun game to play:

    How do I know your version is correct?

    You back up your assertions with links, and the first takes us to the Wikipedia Review forum, but is that where the action took place, or where the action was celebrated? And then more forum members weigh in with useful puzzle pieces that ended up in the Valleywag post.

    So as an outsider, Wikipedia-wise, I’m left to a) trust that you’re a knowledgeable source, b) trust that Tarantino’s narrative is correct, and c) opt to figure it out, if I want to, by communicating on Wikipedia with the folks on this discussion page, right?

    What’s the most likely track for the generalized average journalist to take, and what are the tools that would make it easier to cut out some of the steps in that track?

    Fun game…


  4. If the media can be so easily duped by Jason Calcanis and the like through Twitter, what other stuff (of a more sinister nature) is unresearched but reported as truth?

    I know that this is a site for reporters, but there should be some equivalent morals for readers, also…

    Something like:

    If the site you are looking at has more screen real estate devoted to ads than stories, or if you can’t tell the difference, consider its motivation in reporting controversial stuff just to get page views.

    If the objective of the author or the venue is to make money from ads, then it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not – all that matters is that people talk about it. In fact, a story that’s not true can have more value if it generates controversy (and ad views) than a true but un-controversial story.


  5. @Ryan : You might try contacting some of the people involved and verifying the order of events. Emails can start the process…but most journalists will probably want to talk to somebody on the phone at some point.

    You’ve got a name and website, in my case…That’s better than talking to a bunch of Wikipedia usernames. If you’re looking for an introduction to Tarantino, then why don’t you just ask?


  6. @Anna — Apologies, the link is there, but my styling of links in comment threads is remarkably subtle. I’ll change that.


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