Bursting Bubbles

How to be less bubbly

Of late, there has been a lot of discussion of both information bubbles and the role that “fake news” plays in creating and perpetuating an individual’s private information sensorium, otherwise known as an info-bubble.

The general idea seems to be that we all want to read news and social posts that confirm and support our own views, that we deliberately avoid news and information that does not agree with our belief systems and that social networking websites are largely to blame for magnifying what is apparently an in-born trait we all possess.

Me, I want to blame our educational system for having failed to teach the importance of critical thinking (and for failing to give students a good enough grounding in civics to be able to recognize a rum deal when they see one), but that’s largely beside the point. The thing to do when one discovers a problem is to identify that problem, articulate a solution, implement the solution and then move on, not to get mired in blame-calling.

I’ve been reading and listening to a fair amount of advice on how one goes about identifying faux news and eliminating the walls of bubbles; much of the advice is useful, but it doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is this pesky confirmation bias that we’re all subject to. NOTE: We are ALL subject to making these kinds of mistakes. It’s hard-wired into our brains, an evolutionary trait that helped us survive at some time in the distant past (that tree limb had a smilodon on it before, therefore all tree limbs like it must have smilodons as well), but that is now greatly interfering with the basic communication necessary to a properly functioning society.

A functioning society MUST be able to agree on facts. Further, because none of us has the time to individually check and verify every fact that comes our way, we HAVE to be able to rely on “reliable” sources.

This appears to be where things are breaking down. In almost every case where an individual does not like the facts surrounding a particular argument, the very next thing they do to counter those facts is to attack, belittle and undermine the source, which deliberately leads to an unwinnable argument.

Climate science is a perfect example of this. I’m not a climate scientist. I don’t understand all of the science that they apply to their research – but I can distinguish good science from bad. I’m capable of understanding the concept of peer reviewed articles, of publications that have a long history of publishing reliable papers. I’m equally capable of determining what ulterior motives someone might have in publishing a paper that comes to certain conclusions, and dismissing such when those claims make no sense.

But apparently others are not so well versed.

Most of the advice I’ve read that’s designed to help folks figure out the reliability of information they receive says something like “you need to use the same tools the experts use”. Right. Who the hell has the time to become an expert in climate science, political discourse, military affairs, race relations, and every other damn subject that is tearing us all apart? No one.

So I’m going to offer a few suggestions on ways that individuals can suss out fake news and evaluate, with little effort, whether or not something they are reading or listening to or watching passes the smell test. I don’t expect that this will cause anyone to change their minds on those beliefs they hold dear, but I can hope that everyone will at least be aware that they are in a bubble and, as they say, the first step towards solving a problem is recognizing that you have one.

Are you smart enough to pick up on the “slant” in a news story? I bet you think you are*. Assuming that’s true – read and watch the mainstream press. They still fact check, provide first sources for the information they publish and have a legal department that keeps them from publishing information that could get them sued. If you agree with an outlets perceived slant, well, you’re getting the confirmation you are looking for. If not, you are, at the very least, finding out what kinds of arguments those with opposing views are going to try to work you with.  In other words, don’t just read and accept – evaluate.  There may be a slant (less frequently than you probably believe) but if you approach every news story you read with a healthy dose of skepticism, that read can still provide valuable insight, whether there is a “slant” or not.

Does the information make logical, plausible sense? What is more likely – that thousands of individuals the world over are engaged in a conspiracy to foist bad data on the world and that somehow they’ve managed to keep that secret for decades, or that the information being provided is accurate to a large degree? A secret with more than one person involved is not a secret for long.  Further, if you find yourself continually denying the same information from numerous and disparate sources, there’s a good chance that you are wrong, not all of those other people.  If the subject really concerns you – dig deeper.  Look for primary sources, learn the lingo, read the studies.  You may still disagree, but at least your disagreement will come from an informed position.

Do you easily fall for being distracted?  Given the tactics used by pundits these days, chances are very good that you are falling for the false-equivalency ploy.  One pundit raises criticism of, say, a political individual and another pundit responds, not by addressing the subject at hand, but by deflection, mentioning that an individual holding opposing views engages in similar activity, but to a much greater degree.  What that boils down to is something you heard and probably used as a child:  “Billy, did you take a cookie from the cookie jar?”  “Tommy took more than me!”.  That may be true, Tommy may be the worst cookie thief on planet Earth, but what Tommy might have done has absolutely no bearing on what Billy may have done.  Tommy’s actions do not in any way affect what Billy may or may not have done.  The conclusion to draw is not to ignore Billy’s actions.  It may be that there are two cookie thieves in the house.  Don’t fall for this increasingly common tactic.  What one politician does or doesn’t do, what one scientist said or didn’t say is a separate issue.

Does it smack of conspiracy theory logic? That is, are you required to accept that since information to the contrary does not exist, the conclusion being made is therefore true? Since no one has proved that UFOs do not exist, they must therefore be spacecraft piloted by alien intelligences (who want to steal our water while incessantly probing us). This is the logical fallacy used by all conspiracy theories, designed to allow them to become persistent memes. If information that comes to you requires that you accept it because it hasn’t been dis-proven, be wary and look for the data that HAS been proven before making conclusions. “Hillary had Vince Foster Killed – and no one has dis-proven it, so it must be true” is false thinking. If that particular case really concerns you, go dig into reliable sources; the police investigation is public record.

Where are you getting this from? “Some people say” is not a reliable source. A website or blog or book or television show may or may not be reliable, but any claims made by non-professional sources ought to be fact checked at least a couple of layers down. It usually doesn’t take all that long. If its a web page, follow the links or google the “facts”. DON’T just read the links that are promoted to the top for advertising purposes.

Do I agree wholeheartedly with whatever is being said? Does reading that article make me feel good about myself? Does it confirm my hate for something or agree with everything I’ve ever thought on the subject? If so, you’re just stroking yourself. It may be true – your belief may actually be correct – but simply getting it confirmed hasn’t taught you anything. What’s the counter-argument? Is it valid? Do I have to change MY thinking? Am I right about this? Are all questions you should be asking yourself, all of the time.

After you watch a film or read a book that you didn’t like, do you go to Amazon or RottenTomatoes and only read the bad reviews? If so, you’ve got a problem. The reviews that disagree with your impression won’t hurt you. Force yourself to read the good reviews.

One final word: If you are going to spout off on something you believe to be a fact, please take the time to make sure it IS a fact. If you can’t or don’t have the wherewithal to make that determination, present yourself as having an opinion, and be willing to accept that the facts might not be what you think they are.

Homework:  if you are really interested in being able to evaluate the veracity of the fire hose of information we are subjected to daily, one good place to start is to become familiar with the common logical fallacies used every day – deliberately by pundits and those with agendas, and accidentally by every day people (sometimes deliberately but more often out of ignorance).  Wikipedia can give you a good start.

Advanced Homework:  Most of us are daily subjected to propaganda, as opposed to “news”.  (In case you were wondering, “news” used to be objectively delivered information with nary a touch of opinion-making attached.  “There was a one alarm fire at the pub.  It destroyed the entire building.  It is believed to have been started accidentally, though a full investigation is pending.  According to the fire chief no one was hurt.  It is estimated that property damage exceeds several thousand dollars.”  As opposed to “The pub burned down and several shady individuals were reported to have been in the area who may be responsible.  Given the recent unrest among the minority community…”

Learn the techniques made famous by Goebbels.  You can get a good start here.

Last Word:  One should always consider the source, tempered by the actual information beng transmitted.  After all, the Boy who cried wolf was right, once….(The village should have hired another sheepherd….)

*As a practicing journalist, both in school (HS and College papers) and later professionally, I can personally attest to the fact that the test of having written a truly unbiased report is receiving an equal number of objections from both sides of a contested subject.  It is absolutely true that news readers focus on the things that agree with their belief system and – despite reading the actual words – reject anything that doesn’t agree.  I’ve had letters to the editor make claims about pieces I’ve written that were contradicted by the actual words contained in the piece, words requiring no speculation as to their meaning; literally, the article said something like “Tommy did not steal any cookies” and the letter accused me of libeling Tommy with the theft of cookies.  You can’t make this stuff up.

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