Presentation: How They Reel You In (Part 2)

Note: This is part 2 in a series  for high school students about reading and interpreting science on the internet. Read the intro and get the index here, or go back to part 1 here.

In Part 1, we covered things that fake you out by presenting themselves as real when they are just pretty much made up. While those are some of the most obnoxious issues on the internet, they are not really the most insidious issues. For the remaining parts of this series, we’re going to be covering things that attempt to twist, overstate or otherwise misrepresent themselves to sound more convincing than they really are. For those of us who may be skimming through Facebook/Twitter/whatever new thing the kids are using these days, it’s good to start at the beginning….so I’ve called this section:

Headlines and First Impressions

Okay, so what’s the problem here?

NPR probably put it best when they said it in this article last year…Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?

Did you check it out? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Back yet?

Okay, so if you clicked you see the issue.  If you’re too lazy to click, well that’s part of my point. That was a fake article….but not in the “made up untrue” sense we covered earlier. See the good folks over at NPR started getting the impression that people were just reading the headlines and then freaking out and commenting before they read further. They decided to test this (on April Fool’s Day no less), and posted a story with the headline above paired with an article that said “Happy April Fools Day!” and explained they were performing a test to see how many people read even a few words of the article before reacting. The reaction is chronicled here, but basically they got thousands of comments about what people presumed the article said. Now clearly some portion of those people were trying to be funny, but some of the screenshots taken suggest many really were reacting to just the headline. Interestingly, the worst effect was not on the NPR website (where you’d have to scroll through the article to get to the comment section), but rather on my arch-nemesis Facebook.

Okay, so what kind of things should we be looking out for?

If nothing else, the above prank should convince you to always make sure there’s something attached to whatever article you want to comment on.  Once that’s out of the way, you should be looking for more subtle bias.  Slate Star Codex recently had a really good side by side of a few different headlines that all came out of the same study:

Same results, same press release, four different ways of framing the issue. Unsurprisingly, it’s these subtle issues that are actually bigger problems in real life. The New Yorker did a great piece on the power of headlines to frame perceptions, and the results were a little unnerving. They focused on a recent study that paired articles with different headlines to see how people’s memories and interpretations of information were effected. Some of what they found:

  • Inaccurate headlines skewed what people remembered the article said, but their inferences from the information stayed sound
  • More subtle framing bias changed both people’s memory and their interpretation of information
  •  People have trouble separating visuals from headlines. If the headline talked about a crime perpetrator but the picture was of the victim, people felt less sympathy for the victim later


So why do we fall for this stuff?

Well, because it was designed to make us fall for it. One of the more interesting articles on the topic is this one from Neiman Lab, and it had a quote I loved:

That new environment is, for instance, the main reason headlines have become so much more emotional and evocative. In a print newspaper, a headline is surrounded by lots of other contextual clues that tell you about the story: Is there a photo with it? Do I recognize the byline? Is it blazed across the top of Page 1 or buried on C22? Online, headlines often pop up alone and disembodied amid an endless stream of other content. They have a bigger job to do.

Basically, news sites that can get you to click will thrive, and those that can’t, won’t. More than ever, headlines are essentially mini commercials…and who better than the advertising industry to take advantage of all of our cognitive biases?

So what can we do about it?

When it comes to headlines, especially ones that make claims about science or data, I think it’s important to think of this as a group of concentric circles.  As you move outward, the claims get bolder, brasher, and all caveats get dropped:


It’s also important to remind yourself that it’s frequently editors writing headlines, not journalists. If you view headlines as a commercial and not a piece of information, it may help you spot inconsistencies between the way information was presented and the way the article actually reads. We haven’t progressed far enough in the research to know how much we can negate the impact of headlines by being more aware of them, but it seems reasonable that being a little paranoid couldn’t hurt.

For some specialized and frequently misrepresented fields, it’s also a good idea to read up on what frustrates scientists within the field.  I’ve never looked at headlines about brain function or neuroscience the same way after I watched Molly Crockett’s Ted talk:

On the plus side, the internet makes it easier than ever for people to complain about headlines and actually get them fixed. For example, last year a Washington Post op-ed got published with a headline “One Way to End Violence Against Women? Stop Taking Lovers and Get Married” with a sub-headline that read “the data shows that #yesallwomen would be safer married to their baby daddies”. People were upset, and many took umbrage with the headline for giving the impression that violence against women was women’s fault. Even the author of the piece jumped in and disavowed the headlines, saying the were disappointed in the tone. The paper ended up changing the headline after admitting it was causing a distraction.  Now whatever you think of this particular story, it’s a good sign that this is a type of bias you can actually do something about. It’s a really good example of a place where “see something, say something” might make a difference.

Interestingly, these headline changes are pretty easy to track by checking out the URL at the top of the page:


This almost never gets changed, and sometimes shows some sneaky/unannounced updates. If you’re looking for a place to make a real difference, headline activism may be a good place to start.

We’ll dive more in to the pictures in Part 3.

Presentation: How they Reel You In (Part 1)

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 has a good list to get you started. Some hoax sites are really trying to trick you….for example is a real news site, and is not. For general viral stories 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.

Intro to Internet Science: A Prelude

For the past couple of years I’ve gotten the chance to give a talk to my brother’s high school class about how to read science you encounter “in the wild” and what types of things you should be looking out for.

The basic premise of my talk is that no matter how far you go in life in one particular subject, you will always be bombarded with science stories on Facebook and other social media that fall outside your expertise.  Given that, it’s pretty critical that you have a general schema to sort through popular science reporting, and develop an idea of what to look out for.

Basically, I tell the kids that every time they see something scientific mentioned on Facebook, they should immediately look like this:


Yes, I show this picture. Obviously.

The issue, as far as I can tell, is that most of us get used to two different tracks of scientific thought: one that we encounter when we’re expecting it, and one we encounter when we’re not. When you’re sitting around waiting for a teacher to quiz you, it’s relatively easy to remember to read carefully and think critically.  When you’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter or whatever else is popular these days, it’s not so easy.

I have a lot of fun with this talk, and I’ve started to develop a general 10 point list of things the kids should keep in mind.  For my next series of blog posts, I’m essentially going to blog out the different points of my talk.  This will hopefully serve the dual purpose of helping me improve my points and anecdotes, and helping me go through my archives and start categorizing my old posts around these topics.

Ready? Great! Then here’s what you’re in for:

There’s four main topics,  each with a few subcategories. They are:

Presentation: How They Reel You In

  1. False Information, Memes, and Other Fake Stuff
  2. Headlines and First Impressions

Pictures: Trying to Distract You

  1. Narrative Images: Framing the Story
  2. Graphs: Changing the View

Proof: Using Numbers to Deceive

  1. The Anecdote Effect
  2. Experts and Balances
  3. Crazy Stats Tricks: False Positives, Failure to Replicate, Correlations, Etc

People: Our Own Worst Enemy

  1. Biased Interpretations and Motivated Reasoning
  2. Surveys and Self Reporting
  3. Acknowledging our Limitations

I’ll be attempting to put up one per week, but given life and all, we’ll see how it goes.

Want to go straight to Part 1? Click here.  Want the wrap up with all the links? Click here.