fake news

Consider the Source

About 5 years ago I upset my niece. She was around 20 years old, a college student at the time (I have a much older sister), and adamant that smoking pot was in no way harmful. I suspected her argument was primarily motivated by her own habit, but as a former lawyer I enjoyed the debate. I said that I thought her blanket statement was inaccurate and wondered out loud where she got her information. The conversation petered out and she left the room only to storm back in five minutes later and slam a laptop in front of me. "Here!" she said. "This website says it's natural and perfectly fine for you." I immediately looked at the website's name - it was a site for pot aficionados and started laughing. (She did not appreciate that). "That's your source?" I asked. "Have you considered that they have a vested interest in seeing pot as harmless?"

She looked at me dumb-founded. She had never heard this age old advice: Consider the source.

But it turns out she is not alone. Recent research out of Stanford shows that students, even as digitally savvy as they are, have trouble judging the credibility of information online.

Which also might explain a lot about our recent election results.




Thinking Fast

Remember when the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman was all the rage among certain circles? I laughed when I later discovered that Jordan Ellenberg's Hawking Index showed that only 6.8% of readers actually finished the book. While a decidedly unscientific index, it's more evidence that we have a crisis of critical thinking in these here United States. That is, if the presidential election results, didn't already convince you of that.

The amount of misinformation in this election was epic, but the number of people willing to believe it was absolutely mind boggling.

I know we're not supposed to call these people dumb, but I'm having a difficult time finding a different word for it.

And if you think "dumb" is only reserved for supporters of The Donald, you need to get out more.  Let me give you an example.

I hate to even repeat this, but here we go.

I was talking with a college-educated white woman in San Francisco and she said, "Alicia, I want to read you this amazing quote from Kurt Cobain."

She pulled out her phone and read the following:

"In the end I believe my generation will surprise everyone. We already know that both political parties are playing both sides from the middle and we'll elect a true outsider when we fully mature. I wouldn't be surprised if it's not a business tycoon who can't be bought and who does what's right for the people. Someone like Donald Trump, as crazy as that sounds."

She put her phone down and looked at me for a reaction. My face was crunched up with skepticism.

"Kurt Cobain said this? That doesn't seem right. I'm going to look it up." I said.

I then whipped out my cell phone and typed in "kurt cobain trump quote." The first hit I got back was from Snopes - a website that covers urban legends, rumors, and the like. Snopes immediately claimed it was false and there was no evidence that Kurt Cobain ever said such a thing.

Still, I didn't stop there. I proceeded to reference five other sources and they all concluded the same.

I ticked off each source and told her the result. The reaction on her face told me a few things:

  1. She had not thought to question the validity of the quote
  2. She has horrified that I did
  3. She saw me as capable of killing the Easter Bunny

She didn't even know how to continue the conversation. She fell silent as I tried not to show how dismayed I was that she had actually believed it.

But all I could think was - this is dumb.