Ever worry that you might fall victim to believing a fake news story? And worse--spreading it on social media, as one one in four Americans has already done? Two University of Washington professors are offering an informal online version of their course on how to spot false news and manipulated statistics. It's well worth checking out their materials, even if you think you're sophisticated enough to easily parse between truth and manipulation. Even if you're a journalist like me.

Fake news, usually spread by social media, is a plague that some say influenced the results of the last election. Whether that's true or not, it's certainly true that people across the entire political spectrum fall prey to "news" stories. Like the popular one about Warren Buffett's email on how to fix America that he supposedly wants you to forward. (A friend of mine posted that one on Facebook recently, outraged that "mainstream media" wasn't covering this important story.)

There's nothing new about this: Fake news has been with us, in one form or another, for well over 100 years. If you think it's a recent phenomenon, go re-watch Frank Capra's incomparable "Meet John Doe." But the speed with which fake news travels, fueled by social media, is a phenomenon of the past few years. With many people unable to recognize a fake story when the see it, and nearly everyone eager to pass along everything they find interesting (which fake news always is), stopping the spread of fake news gets to be more difficult every day.

Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, professors at the University of Washington, have had enough. They figure students--who, recent research shows, are surprisingly bad at identifying fake news--and the rest of us need to get better at telling the real from the fake, and they've assembled some impressive tools to help us all learn. They'll be offering their course, titled "Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data" beginning this spring. But in the meantime, they've put together an incredibly informative (and funny) website that contains most of the reading for the course, plus case studies and thoughtful discussions of the different forms unreliable news can take. Using the website, people can "informally" follow the course, the professors told The Seattle Times, and in the future they hope to offer a very affordable online version that anyone can sign up for. They've already seen a huge reaction, they say, with a flood of emails and questions pouring in a few hours after the site first went live.

The professors not only teach how to tell if something is a blatant fake, like that Warren Buffett email, but also how to spot the flaws in some very respected news sources. Here are some of the very eye-opening lessons you can learn at their site:

1. You can't always trust charts and graphs.

"Visualization" of data seems critical in our data-overloaded age--it's a way to quickly grasp trends and other important information that a simple list of numbers wouldn't convey. But as the professors explain, graphs and other graphics can easily be manipulated to mislead, for instance by not including zero in bar graphs (which can make small differences seem much bigger), or by manipulating the message in other ways, such as actually including too wide a range of numbers in order to make climate change seem nonexistent. Or, in one especially silly case, including negative 10 percent corn planted in order to make two lines on a chart match up.

2. You can't always trust academic papers, even if they've been peer reviewed.

There are limits to the trustworthiness even of peer-reviewed research, it turns out. Why? In part because there is often an agenda of one kind or another in play. Often, both the research and the writing of a research paper are funded by a party with a vested interest in the results. For example, Dr. Oz promoted a research paper showing miraculous weight-loss effects from taking green coffee extract. Come to find out, the research and the paper were funded by a company that made the extract and the sample size of people who participated in the study was...16.

3. You can't even always trust TED.

Et tu, TED? In an eloquent talk at--where else?--a TEDx conference, Benjamin Bratton, a professor of at the University of California, San Diego, explains how TED talks often prioritize emotional engagement and a feel-good takeaway for the audience over actual scientific rigor. Well, of course they do--TED is not supposed to be a replacement for academic conferences among experts, it's supposed to do something else altogether, and that something else has a lot to do with arousing emotional reactions.

But there's a problem there too, as fans of Amy Cuddy learned recently when one of he co-authors on her famous research about how using powerful body language can build your own confidence disavowed that research, saying the methods were unreliable and the sample size too small.

You may wind up wondering if there are any sources in the world you can trust. The answer is yes--but you always have to apply your own judgment and your own due diligence even when reading news from the most respected and prestigious sources. That's the most important these two professors can teach.

Published on: Jan 31, 2017
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