The degree to which fake news influenced the 2016 election is still up for debate, but there’s no denying that the proliferation of inaccurate facts is a disturbing trend. Fake news has a real, psychological effect, and its spread and influence doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Luckily, while Facebook messes around with its algorithms to weed out misinformation and researchers experiment with “inoculating” readers against fake news, there’s a 1995 essay by Carl Sagan we can use to navigate the media. In The Fine Art of Baloney Detection, the famed astrophysicist eloquently explained that people need to be armed with a “good baloney detection kit.” If people remain vigilant against the “fallacies of logic and rhetoric,” he wrote, they’ll be well equipped to evaluate arguments intelligently.
If any bit of fake news survives the following nine-point evaluation, it can be accepted — at least tentatively. A good scientist, he notes, should always be ready to adjust their opinion as new and accurate information arises.
- “Whenever possible, there must be independent confirmation of the ‘facts.’”
- “Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgable proponents of all points of view.”
- Choose the opinions of experts over those of authority figures. “Arguments from authority carry little weight — ‘authorities’ have made mistakes in the past,” he wrote.
- Take time to consider more than one hypothesis.
- Don’t get overly attached to your own hypothesis. “Ask yourself why you like the idea,” writes Sagan. “Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it.”
- Look for the quantifiable answers instead of “vague and qualitative” explanations.
- “If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.”
- Remember the premise of Occam’s Razor: When you’re faced with two hypotheses, the simpler explanation is likely the accurate one.
- Ask whether the hypothesis can be falsified, because untestable propositions are bogus. Sagan asserts that “you must be able to check assertions out” — if you can’t gather information to test out, then that hypothesis isn’t worth very much.
Sagan also warned that these pieces of advice could be “misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking.” Today, we might think of this as gaslighting — the rhetorical twisting of facts that manipulates someone into not trusting anything. What’s important, he writes, is that we methodically and reasonably sort through information to understand the world. While it’s human to want an easy answer, it takes a smart human to question why that answer feels so comforting.
Judging by recent studies on the proliferation of fake news, many of us have become creatures of comfort. In January, a study conducted by Stanford University scientists found that, during the election, 115 pro-Donald Trump fake news stories were shared on Facebook 300 million times. Meanwhile, 41 pro-Hillary Clinton stories were shared 7.6 million times. The top 20 fake news articles regarding the election got more engagement than the top 20 articles from credited news organizations, according to a 2016 analysis by Buzzfeed. That’s a lot of fake news.
Since Sagan’s time, we’ve learned that the repercussions of consuming it are serious. In 2016, psychologists found that repeated exposure to false information changes a person’s beliefs over time through a phenomenon called the “illusory truth effect.” In the same year, Stanford University researchers also found that middle school, high school, and college students are so bad at identifying fake news that they classified the students’ inability to correctly assess information a “threat to democracy.” What’s a fake news-plagued society to do?
Perhaps addressing why fake news arises to begin with is the place to start. Sagan can help with that too: “A deception arises, sometimes innocently but collaboratively, sometimes with cynical premeditation,” he wrote on the origin of baloney. “Usually the victim is caught up in a powerful emotion. But it can be much more dangerous than that, and when governments and societies lose the capacity for critical thinking, the results can be catastrophic — however sympathetic we may be to those who have bought the baloney.”