Note: This is part 1 in a series for high school students about reading and interpreting science on the internet. Read the intro and get the index here.
When I first sat down to write a talk for high school science students about how to read science on the internet, one of my priorities was to immediately establish for the kids why this was different from anything else they were learning. The school I was going to had won awards for their science teaching, and these students were no slackers. I was concerned that given their (probably justifiable) confidence in their skills, many of these kids would assume that they would actually be great at interpreting random articles they stumbled across online. This actually made me think of a totally different study on a completely different topic: sexual harassment. In that study, college aged women were asked what they would do if an interviewer sexually harassed them. All said they would confront/walk out/report. However, when the experimenters actually put women in fake job interview scenarios and had an interview harass them, none of them did any of those things. The general conclusion is that we have the right answers when we know what we’re being tested on, but in real life we often don’t know what is even being asked of us.
I didn’t end up using the harassment study, but I did feel comfortable putting that framing on my introduction. When you read science in a classroom, the teacher is going to be clear what you’re supposed to get out of the lesson. An astute student can be relatively confident what they’ll be tested on. I’ve had plenty of tests where I changed or re-evaluated my answer because I suspected the teacher was doing something a bit different than the initial reading would suggest. On the internet however, no one gives you even the briefest of heads up as to what material is going to be covered. When you encounter an interesting science story or number, you are almost always going to be thinking about something that is not at all related. Because of this, the first impression of a story is important….it may be all you get. Now with that in mind, we have to realize that information can be read and absorbed in a few seconds, so an instantaneous skepticism is key. The first part of this is simple, but critical: make sure whatever you’re seeing is actually true. Like, at all. That’s why Part 1 here is called
False Information, Deceptive Memes and Other Fake Stuff
Okay, so what’s the problem here?
The problem is, some stuff on the internet is fake. I know, total shocker. But seriously, it’s actually pretty stunning how often people take entirely made up news stories, glance at them, and end up believing they’re real. There’s a whole website called Literally Unbelievable that catalogs peoples reactions to fake news stories from well known sites. Like this one:
But the issues don’t end with just satire, sometimes people are making things up just for the heck of it, like the guy who spent a couple weeks putting up fake facts with pictures behind it to see who would call him out on it. This was my favorite:
Sometimes people make things up to push a political agenda, as Abraham Lincoln warned us:
Okay, so what kind of things should we be looking out for?
Well, anything with a picture on it designed to be catchy should be immediately suspect, and that goes double if it’s political or has an agenda. Also, anything that falls in to an area you feel pretty confident about should also be scrutinized. It turns out people who feel confident in their expertise on a topic can be more likely to believe they know the definition of made up terms.
Why do we fall for this stuff?
Well, a couple of reasons. Like I said in the intro, sometimes we just flat out don’t have our skepticism engaged. If you’re scrolling through Facebook thinking about your ex, or your friends, or the awkward political commentary your cousin is making, you might be less likely to even consciously register a meme about lightning and cells phones. You may find yourself believing it later because you really never thought it through to begin with.
Conversely, confirmation bias is a powerful force, and it frequently leads us to apply less scrutiny to things we’d like to believe. That’s why political falsehoods are so easy to pass along….people believe that they have some “truthiness” to them (as Stephen Colbert would say) or that they were “fake but accurate” (as the New York Times would say).
Compounding both of these problems is our own perception of how smart we are. Earlier I linked to this study that showed that people who think they know a lot about a topic can be even more susceptible to accepting fake terms. And lest we think this is just for people who only think they’re smart, I would point you to the Neil Degrasse Tyson/George W Bush quote controversy. Neil Degrasse Tyson is possibly the most famous scientist in the US today, and he was caught quoting George W Bush inaccurately. It took some rather dogged determination by an opposing journalist to get him to admit that he got the quote and it’s context wrong. Now if Neil Degrasse Tyson can get tripped up by wrong information, who are we to claim to be better?
So what can we do about it?
It won’t help you every time, but a good first step is simply to Google the information. If you can’t verify, don’t post. Some items are disputed (we’ll get to that later), and their interpretation may questioned, but completely fake stories should have a pretty good Google history to let you know that. For satirical websites, even taking a look at other stories they post can tip you off. The site fakenewswatch.com has a good list to get you started. Some hoax sites are really trying to trick you….for example MSNBC.com is a real news site, and MSNBC.co is not. For general viral stories snopes.com can point you in the right direction. Again, this won’t help much if the story is disputed, but it should point you in the right direction for completely made up stuff. In future posts, we’ll get in to the nuances, but for now, remember that sometimes there is no nuance. Sometimes things are just fake.
Want more? Click here for Part 2.