It’s bad enough trying to figure out who to listen to when it comes to real world events, but if you have an interest in art and culture, well, it gets worse. I’ve had related arguments about this problem with a colleague from work; he takes the extreme position that you can not trust anything written by anybody, whether it’s culture, history, or current events. When we discussed some of the history of India, he nearly blew his top when I consulted the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because in his view even an encyclopaedia is written by people and reflects only one version of events.
I substantially agree with that position, but that doesn’t mean the encyclopaedia should be entirely dismissed. It was the one source available to me at the time, and adequate for a conversation, but he took that to mean that I go to the opposite extreme – gullibly accepting whatever I read and hear. The answer lies somewhere in between, and there are two methods I can use to get what I hope is a balanced view of a topic.
The first is the balancing of multiple sources. Some sources carry more weight than others, though none can be taken as absolute authorities. In the case of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it helps to remember that the articles were written by individuals, and contain some strong opinions, but it’s not hard to see when that happens. The articles have been subjected to peer review and editing, before they end up in print, so some of the work has been done for me. The Internet alone doesn’t carry much weight, and I’m loath to mention it at all, unless it’s backed up by something more substantial. I mentioned it once, in a pub discussion on the Masons – just for fun – and my colleague nearly jumped down my throat. I thought the accuracy requirements were loose enough, at that point, to use a risky source, but I guess I was wrong.
Multiple news sources are difficult to find with regard to current events; in Iraq, we have the US communications centre, giving their own presentations and reports on what is happening, but they only see what they have to. Then we have the journalists: shocked when the war comes to them personally, awed by everything they see, and horrified when the military doesn’t toe the line and follow their journalistic or nationalistic agendas.
The second method is more useful when it comes to culture, politics, or any field where opinions are more important than facts. So much is written on such topics, and it’s impossible to keep up on it all, even if you wanted to. The trick is to leverage your own judgement and experience in detecting and compensating for the bias of a few particular sources. Allow me to use film as an example:
- The Internet Movie Database is a good source for the facts behind a movie – crew, release dates, etc. Its subscribers also weigh in with their opinions and ratings, and they use a well-documented formula to combine these ratings into a single overall score. The results are quite useful, especially when it comes to the great films; there is little disagreement over the position of Citizen Kane in their Top 250 list, though it does contain populist favourites such as The Shawshank Redemption and E.T.
- Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times is probably the most famous living film critic, and the most consulted, since the Sun-Times posts his reviews on their website at no charge. He watches and writes about movies on a full-time basis, six a week or more, and the experience shows, but so does the fatigue. I pretty much agree with his general assessment of movies I’ve seen, though he can pick up positive factors that I miss, and he can thus seem a little too lenient at times. His “Great Films” list, on the other hand, is where he gets highly selective and analytical, and he thoroughly justifies his selections.
- Metacritic is a useful service that I subscribe to on my PDA: it simply combines comments and ratings from multiple sources into a single score – a good way of getting a “quick fix” on a film. It has no review staff of its own, but its entries are based on the US box office, so the offline version isn’t much help with films released here in Ireland months later.
- For offline use, I have a copy of Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide. I find this book to be highly reactionary: not only do its reviewers totally miss the point of some films, giving them low ratings and missing their positive points, it also practices snobbery, by apparently discounting films based on popularity or box-office success.
Its index of “four star” films also exposes its “golden era” prejudices: the numbers follow a downward trend over the years, from a peak of eleven in 1940, to just one per year since 1997 and none in 2000 or 2002. Has film-making, as an art form, really deteriorated that much over the years? Where’s Kieslowski’s Three Colours, or Speed, Heat, or The Man Who Wasn’t There? The early forties may have produced Fantasia, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, but Halliwell’s four-star list for that period also includes some very dubious choices. This means that I take Halliwell’s advice with a large dose of salt and compensate accordingly.
Obvious, eh? It is, in a way, when I lay it out like this. As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I write this blog is for the sake of clarifying my position on a topic, for myself primarily, but also for anyone else who may be interested. I think it’s always useful to lay out even basic principles, if it helps maintain a consistent approach.
There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.
— Alfred Korzybski
Update, April 2009: This was obviously written before the rise of Wikipedia, and the “one-stop fact shop” culture it has spawned, but I haven’t changed my mind on these basic principles. I still prioritize questions by importance, and find that Wikipedia is a suitable resource for most general questions I encounter. If I’m not satisfied with what I find there, I can look elsewhere, perhaps starting with the links it provides. Yet I still encounter people who dismiss it entirely for cynical reasons, unable to judge when it’s appropriate or not.