Literacy is Power: How to Get Yourself a Kick-Butt BS Detector

We're living in an age where we can access information like never before. Changing technologies and increased interconnectedness with people all over the world means that we have a ton of information at our fingertips. Some of it is incredibly valuable, accurate and sound. Some of it isn't any of those things.

How can you know what information is credible and what isn't? You can develop and hone your information literacy skills. If that concept is unfamiliar to you, here's a handy definition courtesy of the American Library Association:

Information literacy is a person's ability to:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

Information literacy means being able to look at a story or assertion and having the skills to evaluate whether or not it's bunk.  All of those bullet points are important, but this article is going to focus on the one in bold. Something we see Scarleteen users frequently struggling with is how to evaluate the sources of information they encounter and figure out⁠ which information is sound and which is not. We already wrote this piece on how to evaluate sex⁠ education resources online to avoid believing information that is inaccurate. I want to expand on the information there and talk about the ways to examine all sources, not just online ones, and what sort of techniques and approaches signal that there may be more propaganda at play than facts.

Data vs Anecdote
Let's start with a relatively simple one: when evaluating a source, how many of its claims are backed up by data and how many are based upon anecdote (a personal story)?

Say you read a piece in which the author argues that abortion⁠ should be banned because the majority of people who undergo it find it traumatic and regret their choice. As evidence, the author shares two stories by people who discuss how terrible their abortion was and how they wish they'd never done it. Reading their heart-rending accounts could convince you that the author's broad assertion is correct.

But hold up, the author only talked to two people. Way, way more than two people get an abortion every year. Did they all have those same, terrible experiences? Well, no, actually. The broad data -- something always needed for broad assertions -- we have suggests that the vast majority of people who get abortions don't experience trauma⁠ as a result. That's not to say that some people don't (or that the experiences of those who do are invalid) but it means that presenting a traumatic outcome as the most likely or common outcome is simply false.

The reason we do broad studies is so that we have a sense of what the actual likely and unlikely outcomes and experiences of a thing are, instead of having to rely on anecdotes or just the opinions or experiences of a  very small group of people. If we rely too much on anecdotes, we can't accurately predict what will happen if we take a certain action.

So all you need to do is make sure that the story you're reading or hearing is backed up with data right? Well, here's where it gets a little more complicated. Not all data is created equal. Some studies are outright biased, and some have a methodology (how researchers went about doing the study) that is convoluted or flawed.

Let's say I do a study to decide whether cats or dogs are the best pet.  I, a cat lover, assure those reading my study that I kept my biases in check and will let the data speak for itself.  Looking at my results, it appears that cats are superior to dogs.  Hang on, how did my study "prove" this?  When you start to look at it closely, you spot several flaws.  First, the humans I used to evaluate the animals mostly came from cat-fanciers groups.  I did try to get some dog lovers to balance it out, but because I like cats, the organizations I had volunteer connections with were cat based.  I introduced a bias into my study.  I also evaluated "good pet" behavior based upon traits that are more common in cats than in dogs, because in my mind those traits make for the best pet.   In other words, a closer look at my methods reveals that my study was not done well, and so my conclusions are not trustworthy.

It's also important to evaluate the source of the data you're looking at. Was the study funded or performed by a group that had a vested interest in a certain result? For instance, was a study claiming that drinking an energy drink a day is good for your health funded by a company that sells energy drinks? Then you need to look twice at that data. That's not to say that organizations with a specific perspective can't produce valid results, but if you see a potential conflict of interest or source of bias, it's good to approach the results with a critical eye, and to also look for studies done or funded by those who don't have a big vested interest in only one set of results, or aren't doing a study to try and sell people something.

Be aware of over-extrapolation of data from a study. Over-extrapolation happens when you take the results of a study and apply them too broadly. For instance, many studies are performed on college campuses, because the programs in the school are researching a particular phenomenon and students are an easy group of people to have answer surveys or experiment on. However, the students at any given college are not a sample that represents an entire society (they're mostly within a certain age range, more likely to be from certain race and class background, etc). You'll see headlines that say "Americans are having more casual sex than ever!" only to click through and see a single sentence mentioning that the study consisted only of college students. It would be sensible to assume that a) college students may have different sexual⁠ habits than, say, 35 year olds and b) since only some young people attend college, college students are not representative of all young people.

Citation needed
If you're reading an article and it claims that there is data to support its arguments, or watching someone on television say the facts are on their side, it's sound to wonder whether or not that claim is true. You can say you're backed up by research, and many people will take you at your word.  If you're looking to be information savvy though, you want to ask for citations.  What research?  Which scientists?  What organization ran that study?  Those questions help you determine how that person came to the conclusions they did.  If you read or watch something and there are no citations to be found anywhere, or the person can't produce them if asked?  Be wary, that's a sign that there probably isn't much to back up what they say or the person stating what they are probably didn't even bother to do their homework first.

There are times when asking for sources is not helpful.  If someone is describing their personal experience or their feelings, that's probably not the time to ask them what evidence they have for those feelings. Anecdote -- personal experiences or feelings -- is valuable, and when someone is just telling their own story, and isn't making broad claims based only on that personal experience, they don't need any more sources than their own mind and experiences.

Editing:  It's a Thing
The internet, television, and newspapers are great ways of sharing information and ideas. However, they are also places where it's easy to manipulate content to present a picture that may be radically different from reality. Anti-choice groups, for example, have a history of filming visits with doctors inside health clinics, then editing the footage to make it look as though the staff did something illegal or cruel. Plenty of people see these videos and assume they are unedited, leading them to believe that clinics are committing crimes and thus should be shut down. When you watch something online or in the news, remember that even if something claims to be real footage (or unedited footage), those claims may not always be true. Every kind of produced media edits to some degree: that means the people making that media are making very intentional choices about what to show (or tell) and what not to, based on what story they want to tell. Sometimes that story will match the reality and whole context of something.  Other times, it doesn't at all.

Even when someone doesn't mean to be misleading, editing can still create a warped picture of reality. There was an incident last year where a group of activists videotaped a woman as she walked through a large city, documenting how often she was cat-called. When the video was edited for length, the times when white men were catcallers were edited out, making it look as though it was only men of color doing the catcalling. The creators of the video were not trying to claim that men of color are to blame for street harassment, but by editing the way they did they produced a picture of reality that conveyed that message.

Rhetoric to watch out for.
When we talk about rhetoric, we mean different types of arguments or strategies someone might use to convince you that they're right about something. The presence of one or two of these doesn't mean that a person is lying or trying to mislead you, but if the bulk of their argument involves these techniques, look carefully at it.  Let's take a look at some of the techniques you might encounter.

Misleading Language:  Have you ever heard of Dihydrogen Monoxide?  If you haven't, take a moment to visit this page and read about it.  Seems like pretty scary stuff, yeah?  But I'll let you in on a little secret:

Dihydrogen Monoxide is the chemical name for water.

That website (which is a deliberate fake) is beloved by teachers and librarians everywhere because of how well it demonstrates some common issues with encountering and evaluating  information.  The first of those is deliberating choosing misleading or scary sounding terms to refer to something rather than using words that most people would be familiar with.  You can also mislead with language by saying things that aren't technical false, but say them in a way that leads to people to an incorrect understanding of the situation.  Saying that Dihydrogen Monoxide can cause severe burns is not a lie.  Pour hot water on your hand, and you'll get burned.  But phrasing it in the way that the website does deliberately makes that sound way scarier than it is.

Characterizing diverse group as hive-mind:  If you've ever heard a statement like "people with red hair enjoy kicking puppies on the weekends"  then you've already run across this technique.  Treating a group as a hive-mind means acting as though even in that group thinks and acts exactly the same way.  If you encounter this argument, the way to counter it is simple: remember that people, and the world, are complex and varied.  It's ridiculous to say that all members of a group are just copies of each other.

Appeal to authority: This is one of those techniques that's tricky to evaluate, because it can look like someone holding up solid evidence for a claim.  Let's go back to the Dihydrogen Monoxide example.  At various places on that website the authors reference studies or institutes that agree with their claims about this "dangerous chemical."  The reason for this is that they know that people like scientists, researchers, and doctors all carry some kind of authority in people's minds.  We tend to believe that anyone in those professions automatically knows what they're talking about.  Depending on what you value, you may lend other types of people authority.  For instance, someone who's religious might defer to the opinions of the leaders of their church.

The reason this technique is tricky to spot is that sometimes people are authorities for a reason and deserve to be listened to.  If someone has spent their life studying flying squirrels, you can probably trust what they tell you about flying squirrels.  If the flying squirrel expert is giving their opinion on stick insects, you'll want to be more cautious about believing what they say.  Being an expert on one subject doesn't make you an expert on every subject.  You also have to be wary of people who bill themselves as experts but can't back up that claim.  If someone says they're a flying squirrel expert but they've only seen one once (in a zoo), maybe they don't know quite as much as they say they do.

Appeal to emotion: This device is very common in politics and in media. For instance, anti-choice advocates frame abortion as "killing babies" because that image tends to evoke a strong emotion in people.  That emotion can make it harder to talk about the actual data, because emotions tend to bring our biases to the front of our minds.

It's not just negative emotions that can be appealed to.  History is jam-packed full of politicians who came to power because they promised a return to happy, prosperous times (spoiler alert: those promises seldom work, and sometimes they go really, really wrong).  That desire⁠ or hope can be as powerful as fear or anger in getting people to believe something.  In those moments it can help to remember  that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Strawman: A strawman is when you characterize an opposing side of an argument in a way that is super over-the- top⁠ . The goal is to get people to respond to the strawman, rather than to more real, nuanced opinion it is mimicking (in other words, it's acting like a decoy). Think about when you hear statements along the lines of "feminists want to make men their slaves." You may be tempted to argue how that isn't what feminism is about at all, or how it's only a few fringe people who believe that.  You'd be right, but you'd also be going for the decoy by addressing it at all.  Oddly, treating strawmen as legitimate tends to increase their power.  If you ignore or refuse to address them, they cease to serve any purpose.

Confusing Correlation with Causation: Imagine you see a news headline that reads "As Ice Cream Sales Rise, Police Prepare for Increase in Murders!" You're skeptical, but click through and see that the authors have provided a handy graph showing that, as ice cream sales rise and fall, murder rates go along with them. And the data comes from a government source! Clearly, ice cream must cause people to become raging murder machines.

Or, you consider that there might be a third factor at play that is causing both ice cream sales and murder rates to rise. Like heat, for instance. And indeed, that would be a more reasonable conclusion to come to. The headline you read mixed up correlation and causation. Correlation means that two things change in relation to one another (they both go up or down at the same rate, or when one goes down the other goes up). Causation means that the change in one factor is actually causing the shift in the other.  It's easy to mistake one for the other.  The way to avoid this pitfall is to take a moment to think about other reasons why a correlation might be happening.  Coming up with alternative explanations helps you avoid oversimplifying the relationship⁠ between two events.

Lying or ignorance: These aren't formal rhetorical devices, but they still need addressing.  Sometimes, people won't only manipulate the truth to get you to believe something.  They'll just flat-out lie.  Or, they won't know they're lying, but they'll pass on false information that they picked-up somewhere.  In those moments, you can use another cliche to help you out: trust, but verify.  If your abstinence⁠ -only sex ed teacher or a relative tells you that using an IUD⁠ can cause a stomach to burst open, you may want to -- and really should -- get a second opinion from a reliable, truthful source.

What can you do?
You can train yourself to be a information sleuth: think of yourself as the potential Rocky of the boxing match between your mind and the information it takes in.  If an article you're reading cites a study, read it if you're able to. You'd be amazed at how many times someone sites a study as supporting their argument, but if you read the actual content in question it's either being wildly misinterpreted or outright reversed.  Try to also develop a habit of looking for multiple sources for a fact, rather than relying on a single one.  Not only does this help you spot dodgy information, it also helps you get a more nuanced picture of a situation.

Listen to the voice in your head that says "this is too good to be true" or "there's no way that's true." Does an article or study seem to completely and utterly confirm the bias you already had about a topic. Then take a closer look. The world, and the truth, often resist simplicity. When a piece of data seems to conform heavily to a certain world view, it may be that something is being left out.

Finally, I recommend befriending your local librarian. Seriously, they are your ally⁠ in your quest to develop your big baloney detector.  Part of the becoming a librarian involves learning how to help people do research and find credible sources of information.  As author Neil Gaiman puts it "Google can bring you back a million answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one."  Plus, the average librarian will be very excited to help a young person do research.  It's certainly way more interesting than fixing the printer for the 100th time that day, and it's also one of the things most librarians are deeply passionate about.

There's no one hundred percent guaranteed way to make sure you never fall for misinformation: it's going to happen to all of us sometime, even when we're very media literate.  We all have things that we believe without (or in spite of) evidence.  Hopefully, the tools in this article provide you with a starting point for separating the good information from the nonsense, so that most of the time, you can sort out the solid from the shifty.

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