How to beat fake news and faulty statistics

In a sea of ‘alternative facts’, Daniel Levitin wants to help people get to the truth

 

Daniel Levitin wants one minute of your time. “Democracy is this great thing, but it is not free,” says the neuroscientist, author and musician, who’s on a mission to combat misinformation and fake news by enabling news producers and consumers to become critical thinkers.

Next time you’re about to like or share something on the internet, Levitin says, take 60 seconds and “a few moderate steps to validate it. If you get in the habit of thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ you can quickly develop four questions that eviscerate the claim.”

To do that, he says, we should ask these questions: “Who operates this web page? Might there be biases in the way they structure and present the information? Is it current? Who else links to it? What do authorities and experts say about it?”

Levitin’s interest in combating fake news is not merely a passing one inspired by recent events. He recently published the book he has been working on since 2001, entitled A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics. Despite the off-puttingly dry title it is a cool-headed and witty guide to thinking clearly and rationally, and a deconstruction of sloppy information and what he calls “counterknowledge” – the phenomenon we have come to think of as fake news.

Trump and Clinton

The book makes only passing reference to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the context of misinformation. Yet its publication, at a moment when truth is partisan and reality slippery, couldn’t be more timely.

This week alone the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, stated despite photographic evidence to the contrary that “this was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration”; President Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts”; and Trump himself announced an investigation into his claim that up to five million illegal votes were cast in November’s US presidential election – a claim with no apparent evidence.

With this book, Levitin – who is from California and is currently based at McGill University, in Montreal – joins a chorus of experts, from journalists and academics to technologists and politicians, proposing ways of combating misinformation, whether it’s the fake news being disseminated on social media or the lies being promulgated by the new US administration.

Many see weeding out the truth as the sole responsibility of news publishers, both new-media publishers like Facebook and more traditional publishers. Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post recently wrote a column that could be seen as a manifesto for a new kind of journalism in the Trump era, under the headline “The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it”.

But Levitin takes a slightly different perspective, putting an onus on all of us to support the institutions that are crucial to the functioning of democracy and, as news consumers, to take personal responsibility not just for validating the news we share but also for taking a more critical approach to the news we consume.

“There are three institutions that are crucial to the functioning of a democracy. And all of us need to reflect on them and give them our support, either financially or physically, by working for them.” Those institutions are the scientific method, the legal system and the independent media.

“We need to support the media by subscribing to newspapers and magazines and supporting their advertisers to stay in business. And we need to be less greedy and allow journalists to take the time to pull the story together. We’ve become conditioned to getting that dopamine squirt in the brain when some breaking news comes in. Most of the time we can wait until the paper is published tomorrow.”

Levitin, whose book delves into the complexity of polling accurately, admits that he was taken by surprise by the outcomes of both the US election and the Brexit vote. “Pollsters had become complacent, and they’re going to have to up their game. There were flaws in the system,” he says.

“It seems to me as an average citizen – sorry, a typical citizen,” he says, grinning at the statistician’s joke, “that people weren’t always honest with the pollsters. Then the pollsters were not able to get a random selection of respondents. People changed their minds. And, finally, there were these huge disinformation campaigns: the £350 million the UK was going to get back from the EU every week; Hillary Clinton running a child-sex-slave operation out of a pizza parlour; the ballot boxes discovered in an old warehouse in Ohio stuffed full of Clinton ballots. None of it was true, but it all got passed on hundreds of millions of times, and by the time legitimate journalists investigated, the damage was done.”

Why is fake news so sticky? Are we being bombarded with so much information that our critical sense can no longer function? Or are we just lazy? It turns out that a number of factors are at play.

Assumption of truth

Part of it is how our brains are programmed. “As soon as you hear a proposition, the creative brain in humans assumes for the moment that it’s true, and starts trying to find evidence. It’s what computer scientists in the old days used to call ‘Fifo’: first in, first out. The first piece of information that gets in has a privileged position, even if it’s misinformation.”

In addition, “We’re a social species, and we want to get along with the people we like and who are like us. That’s just good adaptive behaviour. We’re more likely to accept something if we hear it from a friend, whereas we’re sceptical of people who are not like us – which is what leads to racism, nationalism, sexism and all forms of bigotry.”

Information overload is another factor. “We throw up our hands and say, ‘It must be true, or if it isn’t it’s not my problem.’ But it is our problem. It is collectively our problem.”

First, he says, we must not “accept that lies are a normal part of public discourse. We can’t just say, ‘Oh well, people have always lied, and politicians are always going to lie.’ No. That’s not acceptable. We can’t put up with it.”

He says that we should be starting to teach critical-thinking skills to students as young as 10. “I believe we’ve failed an entire generation of kids by allowing them to go to the internet and think that was the end of the research enterprise, not just the beginning. We haven’t taught them basic infoliteracy. We no longer need to spend so much time teaching facts: as Adam Gopnick of the New Yorker says, by the time an English teacher explains the difference between ‘elegy’ and ‘eulogy’ everybody in the class has already Googled it.

“So the teacher has more time to teach how to venerate experts and how to discriminate science from pseudoscience; truth from lies; statements and claims that are vague from those that are precise; and how to use that information to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”

Included in the category of pseudoscience are homeopathy and alternative medicine. “Alternative medicine is a fake category. It’s not like there’s two kinds of medicine,” he says, adding that he shares the view of the well-known debunker of bad science Ben Goldacre. “There’s medicine, and then there’s a bunch of stuff for which there is no evidence. As soon as get evidence that stuff becomes medicine. Alternative medicine is simply something for which there’s no evidence.”

Source hierarchies

When Levitin embarked on what he thought might be a useful textbook for students in 2001, showing how pseudofacts can masquerade as facts, and reminding us that there are hierarchies in source quality, there was no inkling that we would one day be living in a world in which the New York Times would be using the words “lie” and “falsehoods” in reference to statements by a US president just days after his inauguration.

Despite all that has happened since, and despite his concerns about the creeping erosion of reality and science, Levitin retains a lot of optimism for the future. “Humans are resilient, and most of us want to do the right thing, for its own rewards. There’s less violence than there has been at any time in history. I’m optimistic about democracy. I’m optimistic about science solving a number of medical diseases and finding new cures,” he says.

Aside from the new US administration, the things that makes him most pessimistic is our acceptance that lies are the new normal. “I reject the notion of a post-truth area. I don’t believe there is such a thing, and we shouldn’t accept that.”

He adds that although he’s arguing for a new era of rationality and critical thinking, it cannot be at the expense of emotion. “I’m a musician and an artist as well. I’m not envisioning a world of Mr Spock-like automatons. Emotion can be put into service to help us feel outrage once the facts have come in – or delight, or joy, or concern. But let’s not lead with emotion, because that can lead to faulty decision-making.”

A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics is published by Viking

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