With how easily misinformation is disseminated nowadays, there is a general sense that it’s easy to get duped. I see it all the time on my social media feeds: friends sharing things that sound like they could, maybe, possibly be true but often aren’t. Or, things that aren’t true but reflect their worldview. Or, things that are true but have a misleading headline they didn’t bother reading past.
There are lots of ways to avoid falling for the bullshit clogging up the tubes that Al Gore claims to have built*. I’m not going to link to lots of scholarly research about logical fallacies or anything like that because I don’t think it’s necessary. I have a pretty finely tuned bullshit detector (as described in my birthday post) that can be summed up in a few simple, common sense steps:
- How true does it sound? This is the first thing that goes through my head. I’m a naturally skeptical person, so when I read a headline on someone’s Facebook or am speaking to someone who is giving me information, I’m constantly gauging how true I find it. As I listen or read the information, I’m looking for logical slip-ups (“Wait, so while skydiving you were able to fly by flapping your arms? Seems like that violates physics.”), contradictions (“A minute ago you said flapping your arms was what made you fly, not swimming through the air by doing a breaststroke.”), or otherwise specious narrative.
- What is the source? This operates on multiple levels. First, who is the source telling me the information? Are they trustworthy? Do they have any actual expertise in the subject area (which isn’t the same as having expertise in a related but separate subject area–that’s an argument from authority and it’s something we fall for all the time)? Secondly, where are they getting their information? Is it a reputable source? Or did they read a headline on their aunt’s Facebook page that linked to an article that summarizes another article from someone who saw another headline about a study done as reported by an actually reputable news source?
- Do I know anything about the subject? If I do, is what I’m being told consistent with what I already know? If not, are there any questions I can ask now that can give me insight into how much the person I’m speaking with actually knows? Leaning on this requires being well-read and curious.
And that’s about it. Using this two-to-three step process will save you from over 90 percent of the bullshit floating around the interwebs**, guaranteed. It takes work to get to a point where you can confidently question the things you hear, but once you’ve primed yourself it becomes a reflex. When you’re ready to actually fact-check claims I recommend factcheck.org, snopes.com, and Politifact. Wikipedia is good to quickly get up to speed with a topic, depending on its popularity and how well the article has been edited.
Misinformation (or, as is the case now, straight up disinformation) is rampant online and in our daily lives. Don’t fall prey to it and don’t pass it along. Please.
**Again, not true.