How to Train America's Brains Against Weaponized Fake News

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump is interviewed by Reuters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, February 23. Trump has repeatedly decried what he calls "fake news." Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Updated | We are all being more than a bit too careful in how we refer to falsehoods. Perhaps in an effort to avoid personal confrontations, an effort to "just get along," we have started to use euphemisms to refer to things that are just plain crazy.

For example: The lie that the Washington, D.C., pizza shop Comet Ping Pong was running a sex-slave operation spearheaded by Hillary Clinton led Edgar M. Welch, 28, of Salisbury, North Carolina, to drive 350 miles from his home and fire his semiautomatic weapon inside the pizzeria on Sunday, December 4, 2016—just days after "post-truth" became the word of the year.

The New York Daily News called the lie a "fringe theory." A theory, by the way, is not just an idea—it is an idea based on a careful evaluation of evidence. And not just any evidence—evidence that is relevant to the issue at hand, gathered in an unbiased and rigorous fashion.

Other euphemisms for lies are counterknowledge, half-truths, extreme views, alt truth, conspiracy theories, and, the more recent appellation, "fake news."

The phrase "fake news" sounds too playful, too much like a schoolchild faking illness to get out of a test. These euphemisms obscure the fact that the sex-slave story is a complete lie. The people who wrote it knew that it wasn't true. There are not two sides to a story when one side is a lie.

Of course, most people would not believe Hillary Clinton was running a sex-slave ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. But I'm not primarily interested in such absurdities. Rather, I'd like readers to ask themselves: Do you really need this new drug or is the billion-dollar marketing campaign behind it swaying you with handpicked, biased pseudo-data? How do we know if a celebrity on trial is really guilty? How do we evaluate this investment or that, or a set of contradictory election polls? What things are beyond our ability to know because we aren't given enough information?

The best defense against sly prevaricators, the most reliable one, is for every one of us to learn how to become critical thinkers. We have failed to teach our children to fight the evolutionary tendency toward gullibility.

We are a social species, and on the whole we tend to believe what others tell us. Our brains are great storytelling and confabulation machines: given an outlandish premise, we can generate fanciful explanations for how they might be true. But that is the difference between creative thinking and critical thinking, between lies and the truth: the truth has factual, objective evidence to support it.

A Stanford University study of civic online reasoning tested more than 7,800 students from intermediate school to college for 18 months, ending June 2016. The researchers cite a "stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people's ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak." The students were terrible at distinguishing high quality news from lies. We need to start teaching them to do so now. And while we're at it, the rest of us could do with revisiting how as well.

Fortunately, evidence-based thinking is not beyond the grasp of most 12-year-olds, if only they are shown the way.

Here are four simple examples. First, consider the source. If the only source of information you have about something is from a Facebook post, and it has not been reported anywhere else, that doesn't mean it isn't true, but it makes it far less likely.

During the Brexit campaign, a false claim circulated that it cost Britons £350 million a week to stay in the EU, money that would otherwise go to the National Health Service. An Englishman asked me a few weeks ago, "How could we have known that was a lie?" I asked, "Where did you hear about it?", to which he said: "I read it on the side of a bus". If you are reading it on the side of a bus, and nowhere else, it probably is not true.

Second, check plausibility. When President Trump claimed that the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 42 percent, that's simply not plausible. While there are a lot of people unemployed, the unemployment rate has not been higher than 10 percent in the last 75 years, and is presently hovering around five percent. If it had shot up to 42 percent, you would know it.

Thirdly, statistics. When you hear statistics, ask yourself whether the numbers reported are relevant and meaningful. If you counted every infant and child in the U.S., the retired and infirm, those in prison, and people who are working but "would like to possibly have a different job" than the one they have now, you could generate an unemployment rate as high as 42 percent. However, that's not usually what we mean when we talk about unemployment.

Fourthly, ask yourself if the so-called expert who is pontificating about something is really qualified to discuss that topic. A pediatrician testified to the cause of death of an infant in England, which sent the grieving mother, Sally Clark, to prison for murder. She was later exonerated. You might think a pediatrician is the right expert. But most pediatricians will fortunately never see an infant death. The right expert in this case would be a medical examiner, coroner, or epidemiologist—someone who has seen hundreds or thousands of infant deaths. That pediatrician should never have testified. And a good defense attorney would not have let him.

Belief in some lies can be harmless, such as the belief in Santa Claus. What weaponizes the lies is not the media or Facebook. The danger is in the intensity of our belief—the unquestioning overconfidence that it is true.

Critical thinking trains us to take a step back, evaluate facts and form evidence-based conclusions. What got Welch into a situation of discharging a firearm in a D.C. pizzeria was a complete inability to understand that a view he held might be wrong.

The most important component of the best critical thinking that is lacking in our society today is humility. It is a simple yet profound notion: If we realize we don't know everything, we can learn. If we think we know everything, learning is impossible.

Somehow, our educational system and our reliance on the internet has led to a generation of who are not aware of what they do not know, and who lack humility. If we can accept that truth, we can educate the mind, restore civility, and disarm the plethora of weaponized lies threatening the world. It is the only way democracy can prosper.

Daniel J. Levitin is founding dean of arts and humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI and distinguished faculty fellow at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley. His newest book is Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era. This is an edited extract from the book's introduction.

This piece originally misspelled the author's surname as "Levin."

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