Discerning Fake News

Discerning Fake News

Brooke Borel of FiveThirtyEight.com published an article recently titled Fact-Checking Won’t Save Us from Fake News. Headline readers will not be led too far astray by that headline, though they will miss some interesting reasoning on the topic. I agree with Borel that fact-checking won’t save us. It’s useful, but it’s just one element.

A common reason to reject fact checkers is that we don’t agree with them or find inaccurate data in them. In other words, if we can’t trust the fact checkers to check the facts, what good are they?

That is not, however, my concern with fact-checking is this: No amount of care in writing or in fact-checking can save us from readers who do not read with some sort of discernment. “Discernment” is more common in Christian usage. You can translate it to critical thinking if you wish.

The reason fake news can be so successful is simple. Companies have been using the same tendency to build brand loyalty. An advertising slogan like “mothers who love their babies use …” goes a long way. As humans we start our lives depending on known authorities for information and the primary way we learn is through a combination of influence and authority. Once an authority is trusted, we tend to continue trusting it.

So fact-checking sites (and how long will it be until we’re inundated with fake fact-checking?) go the same way that other news media sources have gone, i.e., one accepts them when they affirm what one wants affirmed, and one rejects them otherwise. Truth is a popularity contest. We shouldn’t be shocked at this. It always has been. We just get to see the work in progress more clearly now.

One more thing militates against discerning reading and that’s time pressure. We simply don’t have time to be knowledgeable and informed about every topic, so we trust our health to the doctor, our soul to the pastor, our shelter to the builder, and so forth. And so we must. There’s more information out there than we can absorb and evaluate. Improved communication has made us more aware of competing claims. The pastor might once have been the one spiritual authority in a small community. Now he or she is challenged by hundreds of voices. How do we respond? By trusting the voices of those nearest us. In some ways it’s a survival trait. Often it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So what do you do? Well, let me suggest a couple of simple points about reading anything that might let you quickly figure out what you’re reading. Many people don’t even recognize warning signs.

Here are some of those:

  1. Extraordinary claims.
  2. Faked credentials.
  3. Credentials similar to those of another site. I’ve seen “christiantoday.com” cited as Christianity Today magazine, which is christianitytoday.com. Now christiantoday.com doesn’t make any claim to be christianitytoday.com, but a reader should be sure of which site is actually referenced.
  4. Failure to provide sources.
  5. Sources that could not possibly know what they claim to know.
  6. Authorities cited from the wrong subject matter. One famous “claim-maker” in biblical archeology was actually a nurse by training, for example.

In reading, however, you can save yourself a lot of trouble by observing the difference between data and inferences from data. For example, in my business I might note that sales have increased by 10% for three months in a row. I infer from this that we are growing and that we will likely grow another 10% or so next month. The current growth is a claim of fact. The future growth is an inference from that. Whether my inference is good or bad depends on a number of factors.

It is important to distinguish claims of fact from these inferences or predictions. Note the term “claims.” People often are misled by something that was never even claimed to be a fact. But even more often an inference built on theory is presented as though it is a fact. Let me give a hypothetical example.

Let’s say that a news article says that the budget deficit 10 years from now will be $X trillion if a certain law is passed. If I disagree should I call that claim a lie? False? Or should I just say I disagree with the inference? In such an article the claims of fact will be the spending levels in the law, the revenue sources as stated in the law, and whatever other factors are included that might change the budget deficit. The actual budget deficit 10 years from now can only be determined based on predicting a wide variety of future events and deciding the impact of those events based on economic theory.

I have seen fact checkers take a claim like that and state that it’s false, not because any number was cited incorrectly, but because the theory behind those predictions was not accepted by the majority of economists. It may surprise you to know that the majority of economists can be wrong. So can any minority.

If you read any news article carefully, looking at what are claims of fact, and what are inferences from those facts, you can avoid a great deal of misinformation. I would be delighted if fact checkers limited themselves to determining whether politicians and other news sources cited facts correctly, and did not try to determine whether someone’s theory was valid or not, but again human nature steps in. We want to get to the final answer. We rarely want to take the time to tease out the details.

I’m again reminded of the quote I’ve cited several times recently: “Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook” (Philosophy for Believers, 119).

If you don’t want to be deceived, you will need to start taking “into consideration what people often overlook.” If you don’t do that, no amount of fact-checking will help you.


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