Friday, January 27, 2017

How to Spot a Lie

[Science Focus] Is the amount of misinformation in the world increasing?
Absolutely. Not just in raw numbers, but also as a proportion of the [total] information.
I think digital technology and the web have given people a platform who otherwise wouldn’t. It reminds me of my childhood in 1950s America, when every neighbourhood had a nutjob with a hand printing press. They would create their own little newspapers about the terrible conspiracies that were going on, handing them out or leaving them on people’s doormats. You’d know just by looking that they weren’t the work of a mainstream journalist.
Now some teenager in Macedonia can make a website look as real as the BBC. The internet is a double-edged sword: we have access to ideas we wouldn’t otherwise encounter, but that includes fringe theories, fake news and lies.
Isn’t it too ambitious, to prepare readers for any form of deception they might encounter?
Critical thinking is a dynamic process. I can teach you to identify one kind of distorted claim, but there’s an arms race between the liars and the truth-tellers. They’re always coming up with new ways to deceive! This book puts people in a mindset where they ask “How do I know this is true?”. Part of critical thinking is asking “Who’s a reliable source?” and “What makes a source reliable?” It’s a process I’m trying to teach, not a template.
How often are we lied to?
It depends on where you live, what you do and where you get your news. If you get all your news from Facebook, you’ll be lied to a lot more than someone who reads a mainstream newspaper. There are hierarchies of information sources, and we can’t treat all sources as equivalent. If a journalist in Syria says there’s been a gas attack by the Syrian government, I trust that more than someone with no experience of the situation.
Which is more tainted by untruth in our daily lives: words or numbers?
I haven’t done a study to quantify it, but my hunch is that it will vary. Many people think numbers are facts – they’re not. They’re collected by people who have their own biases and limitations, and then interpreted and contextualised; errors can creep in at any stage. The problem is that people encounter a number and think it must be true. I’m fascinated by framing effects – you can get people to believe all kinds of things if you frame them correctly.
What are some examples of framing effects?
In medicine, for example, if you say a procedure has a 70 per cent chance of saving you, people are more likely to choose it than if it has a 30 per cent chance of killing you. That’s framing. Read More