Why We’re Bad at Fact-Checking Those April Fools’ Day Stories

(Editor’s note: This article from the Winter 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


We might live in the Information Age — but this doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve become smarter. Instead, we end up finding ourselves bombarded daily with more information than the human brain can possibly hope to process.

It’s just a matter of checking your iPhone to look things up, as if we no longer have to commit facts to memory, as if our brains need only to remember where we keep the information vaulted up. This sort of thinking comes with a price, however.

I’ve spent perhaps way too much time arguing on Facebook — where I’ve come to observe that the arguments with the most weight are those that document their sources, or at least are worth the trouble of a response.

It’s not necessarily hard to find something to post — a little bit more trouble to read it — but the real challenge comes in deciphering what’s true. While technology and media have somehow been given an equal voice, the same can’t necessarily be said about the quality of the information.

Add to it that as we grow, we tend to form our own selective bias for what’s true and what we want to believe as true, and you’ve got a problem.

Overcoming illiteracy may remain a challenge for much of the developing world, but in the developed world, you’ve still got the issue of making people more info-literate, as Daniel J. Levitin describes it. The new election — and really any presidential election might probably make this even more of a concern — a time when biased and poorly investigated stories are plentiful in supply, and when the time for fact-checking is often not rapid enough. In “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age,” Levitin puts the misinformation into two separate categories:

  1. mishandled statistics, which can often be manipulated to mislead arguments in just about any way, given without context, or cherrypicked to fit conclusions; and
  2. logical fallacies, which are all too common when arguing online, sometimes simply stirred out of our desire to be right and to best our opponent. The source itself has to be assessed, and most times we need to determine whether or not the messenger is the expert they purport themselves to be.

Levitin offers the scientific method, the basis of critical reasoning as the remedy — with an effective guide to weighing the evidence, something that he argues is always time well-spent. While we may not always be getting the most-accurate information from each other, perhaps these arguments are the inevitable exchanges we most often need in order to learn and allow the brain to grow.

(Editor’s note: This article from the Winter 2017 issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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