Securing a Place for Fact

Societies the world over face a challenge today: How to sift reliable information from the rubbish? How to ensure that public policy debates will start with information rather than remain in paralysis as known information is denied?

Saturn, north view (Nasa-JPL: Cassini)

A Factual Accountability Branch 

Some have proposed an extra branch of government to oversee objective standards. Style-wise this branch would likely remain rather low-profile: not as much engaged with the public directly as with the other branches of government, for whom it provides information and clarifies disputes.

In Taiwan we have something like that fourth branch: the Oversight Yuan. In practice this 'objective standards' oversight branch mainly creates and administers tests. To work for the government in any capacity, applicants must pass standard qualifying exams. No passing score, no joband no well-placed relative can help. This tradition has a long history here. Those who don't know Zimbabwe from New Zealand can't work in the Immigration Office, and those who don't know ozone from dihydrogen monoxide don't get jobs in the Environmental Protection Office. Capable people tend to get government jobs and the jobs have higher pay than average attached to them. The situation contributes to both government work and higher education being held in popular esteem. Both get results.

A similar branch of government with a slightly expanded role could suit other democracies. The goal of this Standards branch would be to give policy makers the means to base policy on objective data. We need to ensure that public policy is rooted in sound science. Such a branch could also take on accounting tasks, such as those we see provided in the US Congress by the Congressional Budget Office. The existence of such a branch could help improve the quality of public debate by squaring public discussions with verifiable factual data.

Saturn, backlit (Nasa-JPL: Cassini)

Accreditation for Reliable Information Suppliers

A compelling case to be made for the accreditation of news providers. We are currently living through the 'wild West' era of the Internet and this would be of enormous help to the homesteaders. It would work something like the accreditation of schools and maybe a bit like the assignment of stars to hotels. News sources would submit to a process and be evaluated for reliability. Those that prove solid are accredited, perhaps with tier levels assigned based on resources and reliability. With such a system in place it becomes easier for public servants to take an approach to the Net rather like the American FCC has always taken with radio and television. The regulating body could require, say, that all social media operating in the country provide X amount of material in every user's news feed from Tier 1 level information sources. Or something.

Accreditation would help to get market pressures working again for the public. Publishers of news will see it as in their best interest to compete for principled journalists, develop news-gathering resources, and hire qualified staff.

An organisation performing this accreditation role would need some government independence. After public discussion we may well feel that the accreditation role is best realised by an international organisation. If international, representation should still be limited only to those representatives of countries that guarantee speech freedoms. The goal of accreditation is not to regulate opinion, and nothing stops the lovers of tabloid rubbish from distributing and consuming what they love. The goal is to meet a public need: to give consumers a solid place to start in determining factual reliability.

Kurt Andersen, in a recent, thoughtful article for The Atlantic, speaks of our 'need to adopt new protocols for information-media hygiene.' Above are some ideas, submitted for the good of the community.

Meanwhile, on another planet...
(Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)