In ancient times, an
was a medium who spoke for a god.
Modern oracles speak for the facts: out of idealism, pride, or habit, some people are devoted to accuracy,
to getting the facts and the details.
This is not a neutral occupation: accurate facts are not welcome among politicians, pundits, and
Authorities have a mixed press.
In ancient times, everyone was supposed to listen to kings and priests, while certain people -- who were
supposed to speak truth to power -- sometimes enjoyed some immunity for what they said or sang: prophets,
minstrels, jesters and sages.
But while prophets and priests pointed fingers at each other, commoners may have asked, who do these people
think they are, anyway?
Nevertheless, we now live in a bureaucratized society overseen by experts, and often those experts are
valuable -- if fallible -- sources of information.
It is no longer possible for a single person to sit down and write a dictionary, or to be the go-to person
for all scientific issues.
It takes a large organization to collect, filter, and present data in an accessible way.
Since these distillations are inevitably distortions of reality, one often winds up having to trust the
competence and integrity of some organization.
That does not mean that one should rely on organizations that one agrees with; in fact, the most
reliable organizations will maintain a staff with diverse perspectives in order to avoid the danger of
groupthink, i.e., of
imposing a harmonious uniformity of opinion.
Remember, caveat emptor.
Where does one turn to get reliable information?
Kings solved that problem by hiring advisors; now that there is vastly more data, there are whole
government agencies serving as advisors.
Meanwhile, private organizations provide information to subscribers and the public at large.
There are two views of information development, as outlined in Eric Raymond's essay on the
Cathedral and the Bazaar.
A cathedral work is produced in isolation, and presented to the public when completed.
A bazaar work is produced in public, with kibbitzing permitted or even encouraged.
These two approaches define the world's two great encyclopedias:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
has fairly broad coverage of the humanities.
Then there are institutes with specific ranges of authority, like:
Governments and inter-governmental organizations maintain a number of agencies of varying reliability:
"facts matter," and the editors and (selected and screened) contributors put enormous effort goes
into getting them right.
As one might expect of a cathedral production, passersby are permitted to look in the windows, but
only subscribers are permitted inside.
Wikipedia relies on
passersby -- often hiding behind pseudonyms -- to correct each other in the most panoramic
intellectual endeavor in human history.
And when election times comes around, it can be useful to check wiki-like authorities like
Project Vote Smart.
And there is a crowd of augurers able to tell us what we think about the politicians, like the
Gallup Center, the
Pew Research Center,
Rasmussen Reports, the
Quinnipiac University Polling Institute; see also the
National Council on Public Polls and the
National Polls overview site.
U. S. Federal Government
collects the facts and statistics necessary to run the government, and makes many of them
available to the public -- some of the more interesting ones via the government's own
Particulary important agencies include:
And of course, this is what the
Library of Congress is for, although there
is also lots of stuff in the
The Library of Congress also runs a
read.gov program to encourage people to
the Congressional Budget Office
conducts "nonpartisan analysis for the U. S. Congress,"
the Federal Elections Commission
administers and enforces federal election laws,
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
studies, monitors, and occasionally nags us about mortality and morbidity,
the Government Accountability Office
watches the rest of the government,
and the National Park Service
has information on events surrounding national parks, which encompass much of our history, and
the GovTrack.us site
tracks the activities of Congress and its creatures,
Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) (within the White House
Office of Management and Budget
(OMB)) reviews and tracks federal regulations.
- Official bodies with controversial missions like the
Department of Labor,
the Environmental Protection Agency,
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and
the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
United Nations Organization
collects information for its members and for non-governmental organizations, as well as carry
out major missions.
Particular important agencies include the
High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR),
International Labor Organization (ILO),
Children's Fund (UNICEF), and the
World Health Organization (WHO).
Some agencies have become controversial because of alleged partiality to cliques within the U. N.,
most notably the
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
High Commission on Human Rights;
United Nations Human Rights Council
is often regarded as an exercise in cynicism.
See also the facts and trends monitored by the
Pew Research Center and
One field where reliable facts are needed -- and often in demand -- is business.
Hence business authorities like
Fitch Ratings, and
Standard & Poor.
Education also needs sources.
Arts & Sciences
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
was allegedly the last person who understood all of (European) science; nowadays, science and the arts
are so vast and complex, with so many practitioners, that whole organizations are dedicated to keeping
up with the flood.
The world is full of technical and popular science publications, and scientific and engineering
And you pay much of this via the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the
National Institutes of Health, the
National Science Foundation -- which puts out the
and the NSF News -- and the
National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
The two top science publications in the world are
Science (published by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science)
Other leading publications include
Cell, the medical journal
New England Journal of Medicine, and the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Learned societies" are also major authorities in themselves, or sources of authority.
Leading societies include invitation-only organizations like the
French Academy of Science, and the
National Academy of Science,
the National Academy of Engineering,
the Royal Society.
Other societies accept all (qualified) applicants, like the
American Association for the Advancement of Science.
More specialized societies include the
American Mathematical Society, the
Mathematical Association of America, the
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; the
American Physical Society; the
American Chemical Society; the
Association for Computing Machinery and the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; the
American Society of Civil Engineers; and the
American Meteorological Society.
More ad hoc groups include
Social Science Space
(a forum for social scientists maintained by
Leading popular science and technology magazines include
the National Geographic,
the Scientific American,
And see the PBS site for
And modern medicine has a shamanesque authority, as reflected by organizations like the
American Dental Association, the
American Medical Association
, and the
Kaiser Family Foundation.
The arts do not have the same kind of mystique, nor the same kind of money, although they do have an Establishment:
But there are only a few organizations with real "authority", like the
Academie francaise, which
tells the world how to speak French ... and that it is bad French to say things like "le hotdog".
Americans are a remarkably insular people.
We know very little about the rest of the world, but we are certain that we are better than anybody else,
and if we're not, we don't want to hear it.
But a healthy instinct for self-preservation would induce us to keep track of what's going on outside our
Simply to know what's going on, one should pay attention to the rest of the world.
That means sources like:
WorldMeets brings the world to
America's doorstep while
Arts & Letters Daily has links to all
the movers and shakers.
- The inability of most Americans to get
on their cable networks is a sign that the alleged left-wing conspiracy is fairly toothless.
Meanwhile, In Israel, The
is popular at home (in Israel) while
is popular abroad, but the recent rise of the tribalist
is evidence of hardening Israeli attitudes.
And an experiment in what we might call academic journalism is the
Arab Studies Institute's
Jadaliyya, which covers the
Middle East for an American audience.
- Probably the most widely used news source in the world is the venerable
British Broadcasting Company.
- To the north is the
Canadian Broadcasting Company.
- Major British newspapers include the conservative
Daily Mail, the businesslike
Financial Times, the liberal
(big tits on page 3) (what else do you need to know?), the conservative
Times (of London)
were purchased -- some would use a more graphic word -- by Australian mountebank Rupert Murdoch
(the shock! the horror!), and the progressive
U. K. Independent.
- Major European continental sources include France's
Le Figaro, (the 'diplomatic' version of)
Le Monde, Germany's
and the Vatican City's
Times of India has
the largest circulation of any English language newspaper in the world.
- The largest newspapers in Japan are the conservative
and the liberal
Voice of America
is your taxpayer dollars at work.
- Xinhua is the official news agency