A lot of infighting could be prevented by advocates taking the time to determine whether an information source—the person or group sharing information—is reliable.
If a trans rights activist is arguing that a new LGBTQ+ organization is anti-trans, for example, how do we evaluate this claim? Or if a feminist is insisting that a feminist organization’s new campaign is harming women, how can we tell if the claim has merit?
One point to consider is how healthy, or relational, the source’s communication is. Is the person communicating in a way that suggests they’re emotionally mature, self-aware, and are willing and able to self-reflect and admit when they’re wrong? People who are more relational are more likely to share accurate information.
However, someone’s manner of communicating doesn’t guarantee the accuracy or inaccuracy of what they’re saying.
So it’s important to assess not only the manner of delivery but also the validity of the sources of information.
Here are some questions you can ask to help you assess whether and how much to trust a source of information.
Is the person providing the information an expert on the subject they’re discussing?
It’s striking how many impassioned arguments are made for a particular approach to outreach by people who have no formal training in the subject, haven’t learned what the leading experts are saying, and/or haven’t looked at the bulk of empirical studies on the topic.
A perfect example of this is the widespread support for the aggressive confrontational approach—a method of encouraging others to change their attitudes and behaviors that is inherently shaming. Advocates of this approach claim that it’s effective, despite all the research demonstrating otherwise.
Of course, you don’t have to hold a PhD in a subject to have the authority to speak about it. And just because someone does hold an advanced degree doesn’t automatically make them credible. However, if someone is promoting an approach or opinion that runs counter to what credible experts are saying—and they don’t provide solid, empirical support for their claims—this should be a red flag when it comes to their credibility.
If the source is an expert, is their claim going against what others in their field are in agreement about?
Just because someone is credentialed, and therefore considered at least somewhat of an expert in their field, this does not necessarily mean that they are credible. Consider, for example, what the Center for Countering Digital Hate refers to as “the Disinformation Dozen,” the 12 people responsible for generating approximately two-thirds of the disinformation about vaccinations on social media and almost three-quarters of such disinformation on Facebook.
At the top of the list is Dr. Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician who’s been practicing medicine for decades and who’s built a business around his work that’s worth over US$100 billion. And yet Mercola’s claims have been consistently proven to be unfounded, and the vast majority of scientists don’t consider his work to be valid.
If a source’s claim contradicts the general consensus in their field, it’s a good idea to do an online search to get a sense of the broader conversation around the issue.
Is this person generally respected by their peers?
When it comes to communication and outreach strategies, the experts to look to are those in the social sciences, like psychologists and psychotherapists, and those working in negotiation or conflict resolution. So when assessing an advocate's claims about communication and outreach strategies, ask whether their claims are supported by those who are considered leaders in these fields.
There is a lot of agreement among respected experts in these areas. Experts such as Brené Brown, John Gottmann, Terrence Real, Harriet Lerner, Matthew McKay and colleagues, and Donna Hicks all say the same thing about which communication and outreach strategies are most likely to build resilient relationships and groups and to bring about positive change. They draw on a tremendous body of literature, including empirical data and extensive experience that speaks to what most of us understand intuitively: that contempt, shame, belittling, and aggression harm relationships, weaken groups and teams, and reduce the likelihood of positive change.
What kinds of biases may be driving the source’s claims?
Dr. Joseph Mercola, for example, stands to profit from those who believe his claims about health dangers for which his company sells remedies. When it comes to infighting, sometimes the “profit” gained is additional traffic to the attacking individual’s website or the elevation of the attacker’s moral or intellectual status in the community. Consider such possibilities when, for example, a source makes online claims attacking a public figure, or uses tags that are “clickbaity,” or uses hyperbole, threats, or other emotionally evocative phrasing in their communication.
Is the person providing evidence for their claim?
Are they, for instance, referring to studies to support their ideas? And if so, are these studies recent and from peer-reviewed journals—periodicals that publish studies that have been reviewed by other experts in the field?
A number of strategies haven’t yet been thoroughly investigated, so more research is needed. For example, we still aren’t sure what kind of imagery of farmed animals suffering, and how much of it, motivates people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of animals, and research needs to be done to determine the answers to these questions.
When someone is making a claim that doesn’t have solid scientific support, you can ask: Is the source acknowledging that their claim is not research-based?
If someone is making a claim that’s anecdotal, based on their personal experience, you can ask the following questions to help determine how strong the anecdotal support is for their claim:
Is their anecdotal evidence based on their own extensive, reliable experience with the issue? In other words, is their experience credible? For example, if a therapist has decades of experience in not simply treating, but successfully treating, people with PTSD, their anecdotal experience likely has a high degree of validity.
Are they explaining why they’re using anecdotes rather than empirical evidence? And are they acknowledging the limitations of anecdotes?
Are they making claims such as “I was shamed and changed my behavior; therefore shaming is an effective outreach strategy” without acknowledging alternative possibilities? For example, they may have changed in spite of being shamed rather than because of it, or they may have felt ashamed even though the person communicating with them hadn’t been communicating in a shaming manner.
It’s easy to buy into arguments that are made by passionate, morally outraged activists who are tapping into our own moral outrage and offering us what seems like a quick fix for a problem we desperately want to solve. But it’s important to remember that without empirical data, their claims should not be assumed to be true, even when we may very much want them to be.
Is the source’s communication logical, or does it suffer from a logical fallacy?
The straw man fallacy: oversimplifying or misrepresenting someone’s point, therefore making the point easier to contradict. Suppose you tell a fellow advocate that the form of outreach you use has been shown to be more effective than the one they use, and they respond by saying, “So basically, you’re telling me that your strategy works every time and mine doesn’t work at all?” By misrepresenting your perspective, they make it easier to contradict.
The false dilemma fallacy: asserting that there are only two possible outcomes to any given scenario. For example, a progressive claims that if someone doesn’t support the more progressive political candidate, then that person doesn’t care about protecting democracy.
The ad hominem fallacy: discrediting the person making a claim rather than the claim itself. Suppose an environmental advocate claims that the only way to convince people to use public transport instead of driving is to “wear them down” through confrontational communication. Another environmental advocate who disagrees with this approach may try to discredit the former’s claim by saying the former is a hypocrite, since the company that person works for engages in greenwashing.
Logical fallacies are common and are generally unintentional—they’re not usually committed with malicious intent. Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize them if we want to evaluate information and information sources effectively.
Is the source presenting objective information or subjective ideas?
Objective information is based on facts, whereas subjective information is a matter of opinion. Facts are provable; opinions are not. While the meaning or interpretation of facts is debatable, the facts themselves are not.
Objectivity applies not only to the information being presented but also to the manner in which it’s being communicated. Is the source yelling? Are they using all caps or multiple (or even one) exclamation points? Are they making gestures of contempt, such as eye-rolling?
Is the source critiquing an individual’s ideas or attacking those ideas?
Often, advocates critique other advocates’ ideas, as presented in their books, lectures, articles, and so on. To critique is to provide an objective analysis, stating both the positive and negative aspects of what’s being examined. Critiquing is an important and productive way to deepen understanding.
Some infighting is driven by what are presented as critiques but are actually attacks. To determine whether a source is attacking rather than critiquing someone’s work, you can ask whether the source is:
(a) objectively discussing the facts; (b) supporting their own claims with logic and, when possible, evidence; (c) acknowledging the validity of any aspects of the other person’s argument; and (d) communicating in the spirit of examining and understanding different perspectives.
Is the information being presented as simply as possible?
When it comes to discussions that are academic or intellectual in nature, the concepts and language used may be complicated. As a result, we can fail to notice it when an advocate is not presenting information to support their claim but is actually just demeaning another’s opinion.
When cleverly articulated arguments combine with passion and self-righteousness, the result can be intoxicating. Well-intentioned advocates who read or hear such communication can end up unknowingly joining in the stone throwing at those whose ideas have been deemed wrong or immoral. Such “intellectual shaming” can fly under the radar of people who would normally refuse to support this kind of behavior—sneers are far more difficult to identify than shouts.
Evaluating the credibility of information and sources is an integral part of determining whether claims about people, groups, and institutions are valid or unwarranted. Once you know the signs to look out for, you can approach these claims with a healthy sense of discernment.