Please note: The video below contains the same information as the article, but in a more conversational form. Choose which format you prefer!
I. Series Introduction: Information and Expertise
Everyday life is filled with decisions. Many of these decisions are made without knowing what the outcome will be. We rely on many things to help us make these decisions, including our own experience, intuition, assumptions how other people will act, and, the subject of this article, information from other people.
Everybody is an expert in something, but nobody, not even the super intelligent, can be an expert in everything. Each person trades the knowledge and skills he has in his own area for the knowledge and skills of other people’s areas. This is the division of labor that makes economies work, but also represents an information exchange. We trust our doctor to give us information about our health, and the doctor in turn trusts us to give him the benefits of our expertise – plumbing, teaching, even food service is an expertise – to meet his needs. Sometimes, money is involved in the trade, but often the information exchange is free and part of our friendships and social interactions. Advice about which wine tastes good or which plumber does the best job, are examples of this.
The members of the media are sort of information specialists, telling us about events that we cannot witness for ourselves. Often, however, media outlets do more than report events. They can move into areas that are well beyond news description, discussing scientific findings, political motivations, or promoting various prescriptions for action. On the internet, many such claims are made and distributed through a variety of networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, but just because something is published or claims to speak from authority, does not make it the truth. There is no media police to enforce honesty and integrity.
The purpose of this article, and the ones that will follow, is to assist the everyday person in figuring out which claims are likely to be true or likely to be false, without having to become an expert in the field. This way, we can spend our time on what matters – our own passions, expertise, and personal lives – and not on determining if a news story is true or not.
II. Three reasons we should all be skeptical
1. Money over truth
News was not always delivered the way it is today. Once upon a time, libel laws (laws that allow someone to sue for publishing false information) struck fear into the hearts of journalists and editors. They were highly motivated, by money, to print the truth. With the rise of the internet, it has become much more difficult to sue for libel. The outlets publishing information have become more anonymous and fluid, able to shut down and restart regularly. For example, a website that existed last year may have disappeared, but the same people might be running a new site elsewhere.
This means that many outlets are less motivated to use good journalistic practices, but they are still motivated by the same thing as newspapers were: money. Journalists often speak of having integrity, but journalism is a business, and big one at that. Websites want your traffic, your clicks, and your attention to generate ad revenue. People may not realize that each click or viewing of a site makes the publisher of that site money through the viewing of ads (this website is no exception). Some of these sites entice visitors with bold claims, exciting headlines, and appeals to already established biases.
This doesn’t mean that they are lying, but it does mean you should be skeptical.
2. Altering your life
Some information we receive is can be used to preserve or enhance our lives. Quitting smoking or increasing our exercise are good examples of these. Both of these examples have a large amount of evidence behind them, but they are also not easily accomplished, as it is with many important lifestyle changes. A Claim that urges you to change your habits, diet, clothing, housing arrangement, technology use, or anything else that is part of your everyday life deserves special consideration. Changing something can be difficult, and if it does not give you any benefit and makes your life harder, it probably isn’t worth the effort.
Demand to be convinced of the truth before you change what works for you.
A person’s vision, or view of how humanity and the world operates, is very important to how they interact with the world. Taking in facts that alter your perceptions can in turn make other outlandish claims seem more plausible. The extreme side of this, the belief in conspiracy theories, can lead to paranoia or fear. This can happen even if you are not convinced to alter your behavior, or the facts presented have no direct bearing on your life and actions. A vision of a reality that is highly distorted, or even fantastical, will prevent you from acting meaningfully in your own life. It will hamper your ability to discern truth from diluted fantasy.
Focus on reality, and what you yourself can do to improve it.
III. Ten situations in which you should be skeptical
The following are just a few modes and means of communication that should make you skeptical, prompting you to at least demand good evidence from those making a claim.
1. Extraordinary claims
Generally, if something seems too crazy to be true, it probably is. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and you’ll find for most extreme claims that evidence is sorely lacking. Under this umbrella are the vast array of conspiracy theories that populate popular culture at the moment.
Anecdotes are stories of individual experiences. People have seen aliens, angels, ghosts, ghost alien-angels… it doesn’t mean any of them are real. Real evidence is gathered objectively, using the scientific method. Also, the plural of anecdote is not data, as my writing partner, Matt Wellman, often says.
3. Articles about other articles
Sometimes an article makes a claim, or discusses a recent study, without linking to the original data or journal article. This represents a lack of evidence. Even when the original article is linked, the facts can be misrepresented by the second writer. If the writer makes an exceptional claim, the source material, with its data sets intact, should be looked at as often as possible by you. Some serious journalism sources have made a business of mis-interpreting scientific articles.
4. “Prove me wrong!” – Claims whose validity relies on lack of contrary evidence
This is a frequently used device in popular debate. It occurs so much, that we are often not aware of its use. The burden of proof is always on the person making a claim (more on this next week), so any person that suggests something is true because nobody can disprove him is committing a logical fallacy. This means it is not your job as a reader to go find contrary evidence; it is the job of the writer to provide evidence of claims.
5. Any claim that demands action from you.
A claim that demands that you do something about your lifestyle should be looked at critically, for the reasons stated above. The same rule applies to something that asks you to share videos, donate to charity, or, perhaps especially, promote political positions.
6. Anything that claims a product can change your life
This should go without saying, but there are no shortcuts to health, wealth, or happiness. Be highly skeptical of anyone trying to sell you a product with supposedly revolutionary or magical properties.
7. Appeals to prejudice or bias
This includes opinion shows on news networks (such as Sean Hannity or Rachael Maddow), but also includes internet sources that promote various causes. Appeals to bias can be political, religious, or even racial. Be critical of sources that seem directed toward your (or any) particular viewpoint or political affiliation.
8. Use of “averages” or statistics
“There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” –Mark Twain
None of us are average. Reports that use “Average American” or similar terminology are probably reducing a highly diverse data set too much. Statistics are often very misused, and statistics are not data. Any source that uses highly reduced or simplified numbers should be looked at with a critical eye.
9. Articles that are poorly written
This usually indicates that there is no editorial staff to check facts for libel or other abuses. Many websites, including this one, are run by individuals, but that is no excuse for inaccuracy. At the very least, lack of effort in the writing suggests that the writer has not put much effort into using accurate data either.
10. People speaking from a place of authority outside of their own area of expertise
The most visible example of this usually takes the form of a celebrity talking about some issue that they care about that is in an area in which they have little or no background (for example, Jenny McCarthy and the vaccine-autism debate). However, academics can fall into this pattern as well. Either way, just because somebody is exceptional in one area does not mean they are exceptional in all areas, and just because somebody has the media spotlight does not mean they are speaking truth about important issues.
Remember, numbers do not lie, but people do.
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