On Jan. 10, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France would be the first country to shut down alleged fake news websites and social media accounts if they were suspected of interfering with democratic elections.
Dishonest outlets should not be allowed to influence public opinion. But people need to be trained to become critical thinkers. A Stanford University study tested 7,800 students for 18 months and discovered that young people are unable to recognize high-quality news from lies.
Lies have become weapons and they are difficult to detect. “Misinformation is devilishly entwined on the Internet with real information, making the two difficult to separate,” says Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist, cognitive psychologist and bestselling author.
Misinformation passes from one person to another through a range of social media and spreads around the world. However, governments and powerful individuals have used disinformation to serve their own interests for millennia.
This book shows us, on one hand, how to detect problems with data we encounter on the Internet and, on the other, gives us the tools to think critically, evaluate facts and reach evidence-based conclusions. Students are reading increasingly less. Consequently, “children are not developing good learning habits, they’re not interested in bettering themselves, and they are not intellectually engaged,” writes Levitin.
Most of what we know was either told to us or we read about it. In other words we rely on people with expertise. We should analyze the claims we encounter the same way we analyze statistics and graphs. This is taught in law and journalism schools, and sometimes in business schools and graduate science programs, but rarely to those who need it most.
To reach the truth can be quite an ordeal and the human brain often makes decisions based on emotional considerations. “Even the smartest of us can be fooled. Steve Jobs delayed treatment for his pancreatic cancer while he followed the advice (given in books and websites) that a change in diet could provide a cure. By the time he realized the diet wasn’t working the cancer had progressed too far to be treated,” writes Levitin.
Another important factor is to be able to evaluate the reputation and trustworthiness of experts. So many financial authorities make the wrong predictions, while novices or amateurs turn out to be right.
Some sources are more reliable than others: peer-reviewed articles are more accurate than books, and books by major publishers are more reputable than self-published works. Award-winning newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal gained their reputations by striving to be constantly truthful in their news coverage. These outlets maintain their standards on their websites. The same cannot be said of some other websites, which fail to live up to the same standards.
Another form of misrepresenting the truth is “counterknowledge”, a term coined by Damian Thompson, a British journalist, referring to misinformation packaged to resemble real facts. Examples are claims that the Moon landings and 9/11 terror attacks in the United States never took place. Merely asking the question “What if it is true” helps the fake news to spread.
In the final section of the book, Levitin tackles scientific thinking and “that includes seeing how, with our imperfect human brains, even the most rigorous thinkers can fool themselves”.
Some researchers make up data. They often get away with it because their peers are not on their guard. A case of fraud was discovered in 2015 when Dong-Pyou Han, a former biomedical scientist at Iowa State University, was found guilty of fabricating and falsifying data about a potential vaccine. He lost his job at the university and was sentenced to almost five years in prison.
The idea that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine may cause autism was propagated by Andrew Wakefield in an article with falsified data that has now been retracted and yet, even now, millions of people continue to believe the link.
The Internet is a powerful democratizing force that allows everyone to express their opinion and enjoy instant access to the world’s information. But critical thinking and updating our knowledge are needed as new information come in.
“We’re far better off knowing a moderate number of things with certainty than many things that might not be so. True knowledge simplifies our lives, helping us to make choices that increase our happiness and save time,” says Levitin.
“Weaponized Lies” warns us about the logical fallacies, the insidious lies and fake news found on the Internet. It also gives us a set of intellectual tools to uncover inaccurate data, deceptive information, fallacious reports and, finally, differentiate between the real, the unreal and even the surreal.