You’ll find this hard to believe, but I have an unfortunate tendency to wisecrack. Sometimes, they get out of hand, becoming the conversational goal. Function – communication – gets lost in the quest for form (and you’ll recall that “Form Follows Function” is one of the three great laws of management).

I victimized a perfectly good argument this way a few columns ago. Comparing the costs of mainframe and client/server computing, I described a small system – few users, low transaction volume, small table size – and then asked which would cost more, the mainframe or client/server version. Instead of just making the point, I tried to be clever (I said, “Hint: the word “COBOL” shouldn’t appear in your answer,”) successfully inverting my meaning.

I hate it when that happens.

This was a minor gaffe. Worse was another recent column in which I Salingered InfoWorld‘s readers. (To Salinger – v. transitive: to state as authoritative knowledge information gleaned from secondary sources, thereby perpetuating unfounded rumor. From Pierre Salinger, who repeated an unfounded Internet rumor as fact, trying to precipitate a major scandal.)

I’d read that the license terms for Microsoft Office 97 only allowed licensees to run it on Microsoft operating systems, and, trusting the source, I used this “fact” in my column.

For the record, the license terms do not – repeat, not – include this restriction. My sources of information were wrong. I should have read the license terms myself instead of relying on secondary sources. With too little time to do so, I took a chance instead.

Usually, when someone makes a mistake in print they run a correction, say, “we regret the error,” and move on.

I got to thinking, though. We all have too little time to absorb too much information, make sense of it, and decide on courses of action. That means we have to take shortcuts, relying on news articles, opinion pieces summarizing news articles, and even opinion pieces summarizing other opinion pieces.

Usually, this amounts to efficiently using limited time. It can, however, lead to embarrassing mistakes.

The Internet magnifies this dilemma greatly. It’s the nature of print media that you can make an informed judgment regarding the trustworthiness of what you read. It’s the nature of the Internet that you can’t. Any damned fool can create Web pages that look just as official and authoritative as InfoWorld Electric. The Internet may be the greatest source of information ever, but figuring out what constitutes information and what constitutes deception, rumor-mongering, or just plain trouble-making isn’t all that easy.

Here’s what’s needed: Some independent authority should establish a certification program for information providers. The program will define minimum standards for news gathering and editorial practice. Sites that qualify will be allowed to display the “TIP” (Trusted Information Provider) logo. Consumers of information can then look for the TIP logo before accepting what they read.

This – the ISO9000 of publishing – would be of awesomely high value for every information consumer on the planet. It wouldn’t guarantee perfection. It would let you know whether your source is worth attending to.

No TIP certification program exists today, and in its absence you have to make your own decisions regarding how to be sure what you’ve read reflects reality. As stated before in this space, you need a finely tuned BS detector.

This isn’t a new problem. There’s a branch of philosophy – epistemology – that deals with how we know what we know. It teaches that there’s no such thing as absolute certainty, just relative confidence.

Which, I guess, means we all have to gather information to the depth we think is appropriate, draw the best conclusions we can, and hope to get it right when it counts.

And to always acknowledge the possibility that we got it wrong.