Mar 11

How hard is it to spot the truth?

By Andrea Lee, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student

Many people I talk to are convinced that they are not only excellent judges of character but that they can easily spot the difference between fact and fiction, even on the internet.  When challenged, I hear many reasons as to why they have this particular talent but usually it has something to do with their intelligence, education or intuitive grasp on logic.  But, if this were actually the case, how can I know so many people on opposite ends of every ideological spectrum, all claiming these skills?  Well, I decided to put them to the test and find out which of my friends I should be listening to after all.  I gave the following 5 statements to my friends and asked them to tell me which one is false to demonstrate their power.  Care to give it a shot?

  1. There is no gravity in space
  2. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb
  3. Columbus proved the world was round and not flat
  4. Humans are descended from chimpanzees
  5. Vaccines cause autism

Easiest test ever, right?  I knew it wouldn’t be a problem for you.  It’s obvious that all of the answers are false.  Yes, you read that correctly, all of the statements above are false.  I know it might not seem possible that all of these statements are false but I assure you they are and they are prime examples of why we need to be skeptical of everything we hear and especially everything we see on the internet.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s check facts!

The first thing to remember when checking facts, especially in the age of the internet, is that just because something is written down, does not make it true.  UncleBobsBigBlogonSpace.com is not necessarily a trustworthy source for information about physics in space.  However, NASA.gov who has put many astronauts in space will be the first to tell you that gravity is everywhere.  Reputation and history can be very important when trying to decide which of two mutually exclusive statements are true.

I can hear it now, “everyone knows Edison invented the lightbulb!”…    The truth is that Edison does deserve a lot of credit for the success of the commercial light bulb but not for the invention itself.  So how do we know for sure?  The best source to check is a primary source if you can; first hand facts are always better than hearing through the grapevine, right?  For inventions, a good primary source would be the patent office where we can find Edison’s first patent application for “Improvement In Electric Lights” he didn’t make the lightbulb, he made it better.

At this point, I’m guessing that you’re saying something along the lines of “OK, I believe you, I’ll google #3, find a source with a good history and reputation and to make sure you’re right but we both know vaccines don’t cause autism however we are descended from chimps!”  Well, no, we aren’t but the same reason you might believe that is the same reason many people falsely believe that vaccines cause autism.  People don’t check their facts!  We are related to chimpanzees but we did not evolve from them.  Trust me…  Still don’t believe me?  Good, go check and come back!

Fact checking is hard.  We are conditioned from a young age to believe what we read.  Teachers tell us, the answer is in the book.  But now we live in a world were anyone with any background can make outrageous claims unchecked and broadcast them to the world.   The first thing we need to remember is to be skeptical, everything is simply a claim unless there is evidence to back it up (don’t believe everything you read!).  The second thing to remember is to take time to find a source on a claim before you spread the claim as though it were fact.  You would be surprised how often an untested hypothesis turns into a scientific fact the spreads like wildfire from a simple misunderstanding or worst case scenario, intentional fraud.  Finally, judge the credibility of your sources.  You may find 100 sources for and 100 sources against on any particular topic but by looking at track records on previous claims and potential motivations for their current claims, one can usually determine who is backed by fact and who is backed by junk science or financial motivation.  On a final note, be wary of any claim that attempts to make bold, provocative or claims designed to appeal to your emotions.  Emotions override logic and only those who have no logic or fact to stand on tend to use them.

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