Fake News

A Field Guide to Lies

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

More than a decade since Stephen Colbert popularized the term “truthiness” and it was awarded Word of the Year (in 2005 by the American Dialect Society and in 2006 by Merriam-Webster) American culture has sunk to a new low, awash in “fake news.” 

Fake news goes beyond taking things at face value, going with one’s gut, and not being overly critical about details. Fake news is more than obfuscation, it’s deliberate deceit, often used as propaganda. Its purveyors know that in today’s rapid-fire, sound-bite, 140-characters-at-a-time world, a simple statistic sprinkled here or that makes fake news seem truthy, and the gullible will believe, even if the statistic is completely fabricated.

Thankfully, social scientist Daniel Levitin, a faculty member in the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, has compiled a straightforward, easy-to-grasp primer for critical thinking that can help readers spot erroneous data, question illogical conclusions and see their way clear to more informed decisions. 

Levitin divides A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age into three sections, one for evaluating numbers, one for evaluating words, and one for evaluating the world.

In the first, he gives readers a guide to determining how plausible a statistic may be, then reviews the differences between mean, median and mode when talking about averages. Simple charts and diagrams clarify each point. Levitin shows us how tricksters can manipulate graphs and tables to illustrate “evidence” of certain conditions and how infographics can be very misleading. None of this stuff is new or groundbreaking, but it is clearly presented and Levitin shares interesting examples.

Many people know the phrase, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Mark Twain often attributed this statement to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Funny thing: scholars of Disraeli have not been able to find this quote in any of Disraeli’s writings. So while this quote is about statistics, it also shows that words themselves can deceive.

Levitin walks us through ways to identify expertise (“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”). He shares ways to evaluate websites and encourages readers to look for alternative explanations before making conclusions.

The last section looks at the scientific method; how science works. It also dips a toe into logic and reasoning, then presents four case studies for readers to work through data to come to their own conclusions. In one, Levitin discusses how he and his wife deliberated over medical care for their aging Pomeranian. In another, he looks at conspiracy theories centered around the moon landing. He also spends time investigating the feats of celebrity magician David Blaine.

Levitin includes more than 250 end notes to back up his assertions. Of course, one would need to follow up on each note to make sure that the notes refer to real sources, which are themselves accurate and trustworthy, before believing everything Levitin claims. (I have not done so—reader beware!)

This book, while not a ripping page-turner, is a must-read for anyone who wants to be a savvy media consumer and intelligent human being. Even the less motivated should read it. It’s clear and compelling, and an excellent resource to refer back to when faced with information that seems “off.”

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System. She gets tired of reminding people to check Snopes.com first before reposting anything on Facebook. She’s also heartened by renewed interest in investigative journalism.

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