Misinformation

Spotting and Calling Out Big Piles of BS

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation abounds and now there is a class and a Twitter feed aimed at combatting all-pervasive bullshit based on misleading statistics and data.

Misinformation is everywhere. Wary citizens aren’t sure how to combat the misinformation surrounding them. Now there is a class for that.

University of Washington professors Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West have created a course titled “Calling Bullshit” that is designed to identify and call out misinformation “cloaked in data and figures.” For those unable to enroll in college, you can check out @Callin_bull account on Twitter, where you can find videos of course lectures and examples of revealed bullshit.

The core idea Bergstrom and West are pushing is critical thinking, which seems as rare at times as misinformation is abundant. They offer clues for non-mathematicians on how to detect fraudulent and misleading “information,” such as checking sources, looking for logical coherence and testing statistical relevance. The same techniques that require careful scrutiny apply to detecting fake videos.

Their college course has snagged the attention of at least 70 universities that have asked to borrow course materials. Bergstrom, who is a computational biologist, and West, a former graduate student of Bergstrom’s, are working on a public version of the course. “We wanted to show our students that you don’t need a master’s degree in statistics or computer science to call bullshit,” Bergstrom told The Washington Post.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Misinformation can tarnish reputations, slant arguments and influence public opinion. Public affairs professionals need to go to school to learn how to spot, call out and combat BS.

Research indicates the group most likely to be fooled by and share fake news are older adults over 65 who align as political conservatives. 

Bergstrom and West honed their skills of spotting misinformation by reading professional papers and sniffing out statistical flaws and illogic. They realized misinformation – especially when propelled by social media echo chambers, created with artificial intelligence and carried on websites dedicated to conspiracy theories – is a far larger problem. Careless academic research is one thing; intentional efforts to mislead to sell products, push a political candidate or defame someone by deception is quite another.

They aren’t the first crusaders against bullshit, noted Post science writer Ben Guarino. “Journalist Darrell Huff wrote ‘How to Lie With Statistics in 1954. Astronomer Carl Sagan published “The Demon-Haunted World” in 1995, in which he offered to readers a ‘baloney detection kit.’”

In his story, Guarino includes a practical example of how an anti-BS examination works and the results it can produce. A Bates College student challenged claims that Lewiston, Maine’s second largest city with a high percentage of Somali refugees, was “dangerous.”

Using crime statistics provided by Lewiston police, the student generated graphs showing that Lewiston’s crime rate between 1985 and 2017 had actually declined. More than 20 other cities in Maine, she showed, had higher crime rates.

Her findings, which she printed on fliers that were distributed, surprised many in Lewiston, a town that saw its mayor resign after his racists text messages were leaked. Local police asked for a copy of the flier, recognizing a lower crime rate was an unacknowledged compliment for their work.

West called it a “thoughtful correction,” but also an instructive guide on how to combat misinformation, whether intentional, inadvertent, malicious or simply sloppy.

 

 

Half-Truth Closer to a Lie Than Truth

Misinformation and distortion have become commonplace components of advocacy strategies to advance an agenda or block project. They have become a nightmare for issue managers with integrity who stick to the facts.

Misinformation and distortion have become commonplace components of advocacy strategies to advance an agenda or block project. They have become a nightmare for issue managers with integrity who stick to the facts.

Fair and balanced reporting means telling both sides of a story. However, telling both sides of the story can allow one side to traffic in misinformation and get equal or better coverage than a truth-teller.

One of the dirty little secrets in today's public affairs world is that too often the misinformation is intentional. Misinformation doesn't have to be a big lie, just enough indirection to mislead or distort the facts. 

Contentious issues get the adrenalin going, which can lead spokesmen to exaggerate, hype certain facts or even make false claims to win support. This misinformation gets reported without analysis or fact-checking as the "other side of the story," With no barriers on what to say or how to say it, misinformation can be cast in bombastic visual events, which have the habit of sticking in the public's mind more so than good old-fashioned facts.

Even diligent readers are left to sift through the two sides, without any objective guide to discern facts from convenient fictions.

This phenomenon has become a commonplace dimension of public debates. and, as such, has become a nightmare for issue managers who have a job description that requires sticking to the facts.

Admittedly, some misinformation is simply sloppy fact-gathering. Someone misinterpreted data or relied on a flawed source. Other times, misinformation is the heart of a strategy – to advance an agenda or block a project. Such as questionable intelligence data about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or repeated references to a propane export terminal's "blast zone."

Blatant distortions incite rage and social media rants. They can be the perfect fuses for protests, which in turn earn more news coverage, creating an impression of broad opposition.

Sound familiar? It should because misinformation is now viewed by many as a legitimate tool in civic discourse. It's okay to fudge the truth, advocates reassure themselves, because ends justify the means. They have taken Mark Twain's sly comment as a license to lie – "get your facts first, then distort them all you please."

The hyperventilation of public debates tends to lower the bar of what is acceptable. Before long, both sides are stretching the truth. Passions may be aroused, but the real legacy of this kind of discourse are cloudy memories and deepening cynicism. 

Public relations professionals have witnessed this erosion of public conversation, and sometimes contributed to its demise with less than truthful assertions. Now the chickens have come home to roost. With thinner media news staffs and more channels for rogue fact-telling that can be retweeted mindlessly, it has become harder for the public to know what to believe. As a result, they find something better to do than pay attention.

There is no magic elixir to wash away this problem. It is here to stay and, if anything, getting worse. The best approach under the circumstances is to produce credible third-party validation for claims you make, then be unrelenting in pressing those claims and their validation in public venues.

This is painstaking work that involves creativity, discipline and grit. It requires getting out your side of the story first. It may require confronting opponents who deal in slippery arguments and dubious facts. It definitely will require spending patient time working with reporters and editors to tell your story, provide your facts and validate your claims.

And one counterintuitive suggestion: Be able to tell your opponent's story better than your opponent. It's not your job to tell the other side's story, but if you can tell it fairly and accurately, you earn credibility – and a greater chance that people listen to your story and trust it is the truth.