How to Detect BS in the Media

Detecting BS is not a hard thing to do.  It only requires a wee bit of mental power.  Once you start practicing you too can have fun posting replies on posts detailing why and how something is not true.  

It needs to be stressed, repeatedly, that the title in news articles, blogs, and opinion pieces, tend to greatly exaggerate the truth to the point of impossible spectacularity.  Although the duty of the title of any piece written is indeed to capture your attention, it is not supposed to mislead the reader.  Most of the time this isn’t detected by the reader of the title, because many don’t go beyond the title and delve into the meat of the piece.  I will start there:

Step 1.  This first step is an important and valuable start to detecting BS.  Knowing that authors will often overstate, misstate, mislead and lie in the title gives you a great first level filter.  When you see a title that says, “Cats Rain Down on Middle East Villiage, Many Killed” you should already be thinking “lol BS”, right?  This one is easy, because we all know cats don’t rain down from the sky.  Sure there is a really, really tiny, non-zero, quantum probability that some weird twist of causality may result in some cats falling down from the sky someplace.  But we can very easily rule this out and move on, finding the piece pretty much worthless.  “But, what if it is true and we miss something valuable?”  If such spectacular events are true many other credible sources (more on credible sources later) would pick up the story and it will go viral… trust me.  If this does happen you can always revisit the story.  This has happened to me a few times.

Step 2.  Reading is a level 2 filter.  The reality of most pieces will become very apparent usually within the introductory paragraph.  With the cats example it should mention in the introduction something like “… villagers have [claimed] that cats have rained from the sky upon them on a number of occasions in the past…”  I have noticed that trend in all forms of media.  Even reputable sources that have mislead people in the title, have shown the title as BS within that first paragraph.  

Step 3.  Sources are an important part of any piece put on the internet, placed in the newspaper or mentioned on the radio/TV.  An alarm bell should instantly sound off in your head if there are no sources mentioned.  That said, it is a good habit to scan through those references with a keen eye for any of them referencing books and other articles.  Meaning that anyone can write an article or book and self-publish.  The real stuff you are looking for are credible sources.  With the case of the raining cats what were looking for are those from science publications and websites (like Nature, or Science).  But we don’t stop there, the investigation is not finished.  This is only a level 3 filter.

Step 4.  By the time you hit this level of investigation, BS or truth may well have been discovered.  But sometimes pseudoscience can look like real science.  This is where you check into the sources themselves.  This is a more involved stage, because now you are looking to find validation for any Dr./PhD prefix/suffix mentioned on any name.  What you are looking for are those who are outside their field.  You don’t necessarily trust that Dr. Blough of the University of Pseudo Research knows anything about cats raining down on villages if Dr. Blough is a chiropractor.  Dr. Blough may well know lots about the topic, I admit, but if he is professing a knowledge outside his area of expertise, this should require more detailed investigation on the source.  Ask questions.  “Has the source been found guilty of misleading the scientific community?”  “How does the rest of his colleagues feel about the source?”  The point here is, now your investigation takes on a life of its own.  The more you discover about this sources the more you’re leaning to believe or disbelieve the article in question.  For instance, if Dr. Blough has written other articles outside his field that are equally insane and unbelievable you know this person is more likely a pseudoscientist.  

Don’t misunderstand, these steps are only to help you think critically, to ask the right questions at the right time.  Anyone can do this, they only have to try.  No person is smarter than another and, unless you’re suffering from a serious chemical imbalance or brain damage anyone can think just as well as Stephen Hawking.  In time your BS detector will stop your belief in an idea as soon as you see the article, or picture, or video.  It takes practice.  So, now that you know, you can be a more effective reader, watcher and listener of media.

Peace and happy researching!