Mark Twain once wrote, “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!” Ironically, Twain is also often cited as having said, “It is easier to fool someone than to prove to them that they’ve been fooled,” a claim that is not supported by Twain scholars. People who copy and paste the second quote accept its premise, but in posting it they are effectively fooling themselves and others, while attempting to inform them about the dangers of being fooled. Does that make your head hurt? If so, take heart. This school year, Research and Findings will focus occasional reports on the troubling state of public information, tackling questions such as:
- How does one distinguish reliable information from fake news?
- What are the moral implications of disseminating false information to the public?
- What is required to make a defensible claim about a fact or issue?
- What is critical thinking, and why is it important?
- If everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, does that mean all opinions are equally valid?
- How can one decide which science to believe and which science to ignore?
- How does ignorance (wilful or otherwise) serve to insulate people from troubling knowledge?
Scholars have written libraries full of books and articles on these topics and, much as they disagree on fine points, there is a consensus on what constitutes rational thinking, basic principles of logic, and how to tell an elbow from an ear, as it were. We will endeavour to reduce these tomes to their bare bones, starting with the simplest, yet reasonably effective, strategies for sorting wheat from chaff: checking sources by using online fact-checkers.
Like a reverse magnet, beliefs tend to attract supporting evidence while repelling counter-evidence. Most people are less likely to fact-check what they already believe than the claims with which they disagree. Fact-checking in the digital age needs to become standard practice. When I started this article, I referred to a quote often ascribed to Mark Twain. Before accepting it as fact, I did a quick Snopes check, revealing the errors noted in the first paragraph above. In an object lesson in checking sources, I footnoted these, so that readers could see the sources for themselves. This is standard practice in academia, but I’d encourage wider practice, since it helps answer the question, “Why should I believe what you said/wrote?”
Some will argue that all fact-checking websites are biased or incomplete. No doubt some degree of partiality attaches to all human endeavours, but in general these sites provide a rough primary way of checking sources. Don’t take my word for that claim. Here are some sites and their reviews provided by others:
- International Society for Technology in Education – ISTE reviews ten fact-checking sites, recommended for students. It includes Snopes, which it claims is the go-to site to check “wild fake news claims.” Other sites, such as Allsides, are not dedicated to fact-checking, but in curating “stories from right, center and left-leaning media so that readers can easily compare how bias influences reporting on each topic.”
- Media Bias/Fact Check – Claiming it is the most comprehensive media bias resource, this site lists most of those reviewed by ISTE, above, but it includes several others, such as Hoax Slayer and Truth or Fiction. True to its guiding principle— “A good fact checking service will write with neutral wording and will provide unbiased sources to support their claims”—its menu breaks down content by bias: left bias, left-centre bias; least biased; right-centre bias, right bias, and so on.
- Tech Junkie – Finally, Techjunkie lists its determination of the “most reliable” fact checking websites, and Snopes made this list, as well. Importantly, Techjunkie includes the often-maligned, Wikipedia, justifying its inclusion as a “…very important fact checking website. Sure, it gets things wrong sometimes but it is edited and maintained by the public. This openness prevents bias as multiple editors will have multiple perspectives and will usually settle on the middle ground. So while you do have to double check the accuracy of what is said, you don’t have to worry about political leanings or bias.”
For other Research and Findings topics, please go to: http://classroomedition.ca/research-findings/