“You can never get all the facts from just one newspaper, and unless you have all the facts, you cannot make proper judgements about what is going on.”—Harry S. Truman
This a re-post of one of our first blogs. But it seems to become more important with each passing day of polarization in our country, within our social groups and with the media.
As I come across an ever-increasing number of posts from friends with links to media of questionable and occasionally outrageous content (which are proved inaccurate when checked out at www.Snopes.com or www.FactCheck.org) that people of otherwise intelligence believe, I felt it important to send this out again. I try to be careful myself, but sometimes I need to remember my own writings! Of course, part of avoiding deception is to be willing to accept information that is different from our own predetermined opinions. And that’s the hard part.
So, perhaps what’s most important is how you engage your brain when gathering information.
One of my favorite websites is www.factcheck.org. Below I have shared their article, “A Process for Avoiding Deception,” designed to help students learn to think for themselves. I like it so well that we use it as a practice article in our speed reading classes. I especially like the last paragraph about the rooster. I often think of this mistaken cause-and-effect example when reading “facts” in newspapers and even health journals. Enjoy!
A Process for Avoiding Deception 397 words
Keep an open mind. Most of us have biases, and we can easily fool ourselves if we don’t make a conscious effort to keep our minds open to new information. Psychologists have shown over and over again that humans naturally tend to accept any information that supports what they already believe, even if the information isn’t very reliable. And humans also naturally tend to reject information that conflicts with those beliefs, even if the information is solid. These predilections are powerful. Unless we make an active effort to listen to all sides we can become trapped into believing something that isn’t so, and won’t even know it.
- Ask the right questions. Don’t accept claims at face value; test them by asking a few questions. Who is speaking, and where are they getting their information? How can I validate what they’re saying? What facts would prove this claim wrong? Does the evidence presented really back up what’s being said? If an ad says a product is “better,” for instance, what does that mean? Better than what?
- Cross-check. Don’t rely on one source or one study, but look to see what others say. When two or three reliable sources independently report the same facts or conclusions, you can be more confident of them. But when two independent sources contradict each other, you know you need to dig more deeply to discover who’s right.
- Consider the source. Not all sources are equal. As any CSI viewer knows, sometimes physical evidence is a better source than an eyewitness, whose memory can play tricks. And an eyewitness is more credible than somebody telling a story they heard from somebody else. By the same token, an Internet website that offers primary source material is more trustworthy than one that publishes information gained second or third-hand. For example, official vote totals posted by a county clerk or state election board are more authoritative than election returns reported by a political blog or even a newspaper, which can be out of date or mistaken.
- Weigh the evidence. Know the difference between random anecdotes and real scientific data from controlled studies. Know how to avoid common errors of reasoning, such as assuming that one thing causes another simply because the two happen one after the other. Does a rooster’s crowing cause the sun to rise? Only a rooster would think so.