Can I trust what you say?


Any decision we make is often built on information we take from other resources – whether that’s people or inanimate objects. For example, my digital watch is telling me I’ve got 3 hours before I can even think about taking a step out of the door to go home from work. I rely on this information being correct.

However, how do you know you can trust the information you are presented with? What you expect to be true, might in fact be wrong. If you are using a source of information that has credentials and is regarded as an expert in the field why would you ever think that information was wrong?

For example, over the past few months I’ve come across the following lies.

Lie: My computer tells me the square root of 25 is not 5. It is 4.999999999998, or something just as daft.

I spent a long time wondering if my basic maths was flawed. Had my maths teachers been lying to me when I was at school? No, apparently it is a computer floating point error. If someone hadn’t told me about this how would I know that this inaccuracy existed? It was lucky that I tested my programme with the number 25, otherwise I wouldn’t have known there was a problem. Now I am wondering how many other of the calculations are wrong? I can get around this problem, but I’d rather be presented with the right information first time. Do I have to check n numbers of every numeric calculation I use in future? Having a computer telling me lies in a situation like this isn’t a major problem, but just think if it was a life critical situation.

Lie: The live train information tells me my train is on time.

No it’s not. It’s late – and your live train information system made me wait in the snow for hours. You know the information is wrong – you know the snow is affecting the network. You know that the live update service for my train has said that the train was cancelled right at the start of the journey (about 10 stations back), so why don’t you just spend some time providing the correct information for my station?

Lie: At £140,000, this 2 bedroom property has no faults at all.

At that price, in this area, I’m not so much of a potato head that I will believe that for more than 2 seconds and because you are trying to fool me into thinking it’s a good deal, Mr Estate Agent, you lose my respect and my custom. It either has a short lease, is in poor condition, has dodgy neighbours, or is in area that has been set aside for a nuclear dumping ground.

Lie: Political Party X can sort out all the problems caused by the Government.

You may have good intentions, but I think you’re all in the same sinking boat.

The situation you then find yourself in, is questioning information that you wouldn’t have questioned in the past. If a source of information is meant to be authoritative how do you know if anything else from that source or any other source of information is correct? The damage is already done.

Well, even though I’m still not sure about all of the above lies, I don’t tend to take things at face value anyway and I back things up with a double check using other information resources. For example, I asked around about the floating point number problem and how to overcome it; I still use the live train update, but check a few of the stations further up the line; I question estate agents about why a property sounds too good to be true; not sure about the answer to the political problem though!

The key for me to getting the right information is not to just making do with the first bit of information I’m presented with. Double checking what I can helps to reassure me that the information is correct and helps me cope with any unforeseen problems or pre-empt them as much as possible. There are so many people/systems out there saying different things, that if you don’t check what you are being told is true, one day you might end up believing that the square root of 25 is, in fact, not 5.

Information Twist Intro


(Image generated at

This blog is about presenting information – whether it’s “here’s a useful thing for you to look at”, doing something different with information, “wouldn’t it be good if?” and also library related ideas. I’m a librarian, computer fiddler (does a bit of programming), amateur musician, fan of retro video games and sci-fi / horror and I imagine that will come across here.

When I talk about information, I’m not just talking about words on a piece of paper or numbers in a spreadsheet. I’m talking about anything that can tell people something about a situation. Words, numbers, images, sounds, etc.

So come with me to No.1 Information-Twist House. What do you mean, “You don’t want to go.” Come on… I’ll pay you a nice shiny farthing if you do.

(edited 15/01/2010)