Our brains are powerful lie detectors, let’s use them.
Knowledge matters now, maybe more than ever. We all have the capacity to see through lies, and protect ourselves from misinformation, but those capacities must be honed, exercised and fortified on a daily basis.
The Internet abounds with fake news and misrepresentations. Here are some suggestions to help wade through the mire and get better information.
First, admit that sometimes we don’t understand. The world is an enormously complex place, and contemporary politics, economics, and social relations can get really complicated. The sheer amount and density of information on the web is overwhelming. We humans have particularly awesome brains, and one of their major functions is to help us identify when things don’t make sense. Being confused or not following an argument is a normal part of brain function, especially when it involves thinking about something outside of, or contradicting with, our experiences. Admitting we don’t fully understand how the stock market works or what gerrymandering is, is a critical first step in challenging fake news. Embracing the fact that we always have more to learn makes us better thinkers—better teachers, too.
Second, start the process of challenging what we read on the web by asking ourselves why we agree or disagree with it on a gut level. Does our reaction stem from our own life experience? What we learned in school? A book or article we’ve read? Statements by a trusted family member, partner, friend or co-worker? It just “seems” right? We often agree or disagree with information not because we’ve thought about it, but because it “fits” with what we believe. Too often we embrace our knee-jerk responses rather than stopping to consider information from a critical point-of-view. When we embrace an idea because it “fits” with our beliefs, we are showing a bias. We all have them. But we can’t learn anything new, or see clearly enough to challenge fake news, until we recognize what our biases are.
Once we’ve figured out our bias towards a bit of info we can tackle the really hard work: figuring out whether or not the information is true.
To determine if a piece of information is reliable, we need to know its origins. Ideally, we want editorially curated or at least vetted content. Information that is controlled via peer review or another form of rigorous oversight is best. Sites that have no evidence of fact-checking or just offer some negligible collection of “experts” for all their backup are sketchy. Whenever someone is labeled an “expert,” check out their credentials and what they’ve said before. A Google search can do wonders in exposing people who pretend to represent more training/skill and less bias than they actually have.
Sources matter. “I know,” “They say,” “lot’s of people are saying,” “everyone knows,” “sources state,” “I have it on good intel,” “those in the know say,” “insiders tell me,” and anything in this vein are NOT valid sources. These phrases are tools used to try and get our gut feelings, our biases, to bypass our brain’s critical thinking capacities. The same goes for certain uses of statistics and numbers. If a site presents statistics, charts, graphs or numbers without stating where they came from, be wary (statistics have to come from research, not out of thin air). This goes for the use of percentages as well. If someone states that “45 percent of people think X or Y or Y” but don’t tell us how that percentage was arrived at, or where the data come from, don’t trust it.
One way to determine if a piece of information is valid is to look for comparable or supporting statements on university and research institute sites, governmental non-partisan agencies (like the Centers for Disease Control or the US Census Bureau) and scholarly organizations (national organizations of Anthropologists, Psychologists, Biologists, Historians, etc.). These sites often recommend high quality suggested readings and links to basic information about the topics on which they focus. They prioritize education and cite their sources. Many private and public foundations have valuable websites too, but one must carefully assess their missions and financial supporters to note what types of biases might be present. Who pays for/supports a site can tell us a lot (though not everything) about the content on that site.
Major newspaper websites and news channel sites can be good jumping off points, but only a few offer in-depth reporting that is not overtly biased. Well-rounded, and thus less biased or less slanted resources, will offer varied opinions, especially in their editorial pages. Also, if coverage of national and world events is in longer essay formats, with multiple sources contributing to their stories, this suggests real journalism, not just pitching a position. A good rule of thumb is to focus on sites where there is more in-depth coverage versus a constant repeating of catch-phrases, brief news blurbs, and flashy, colorful headlines.
For basic histories, definitions and contexts, even Wikipedia can be a decent tool for locating initial information, but it is not wholly reliable as a primary source of data and analyses. Google Scholar is a useful clearinghouse for finding academic articles which can be a valuable tool when we really want to drill down into a topic. Individual websites can be reliable, but too often are not. Without any quality control, assessment or oversight, they should always be treated with a certain amount of skepticism. The best types of private sites run are by folks who document where their information comes from (so we can check it out) and connect the readers to original research or documentation of events that inspired the blogs and stories.
We mustn’t passively accept all the information that is out there, no matter how true we may want it to be. Humans have amazing brains and awesome technology, let’s not let either go to waste. The Truth Is Out There, Let’s do our best to try and find it.