January 2011


Thinking Critically About the News

One thing that constantly amazes me is how people take things that they read or hear as truth without once questioning whether what they are reading or hearing is accurate.

Whether reading the Indianapolis Star, the Indiana Daily Student, the Economist, or The New York Times, I read critically—pondering whether or not what the writers are telling me makes sense. When I listen or watch news—whether from National Public Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or even, dare I say it, the BBC, I listen to what they say with my bullshit detector turned on.

My bullshit detector goes off a lot—especially when I hear ridiculous so-called facts like, oh, “2000 (that’s two thousand) kids disappear every day in the US”, a fact that was apparently reported by the BBC. Facts like this, which apparently originated from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, sound an alarm as they pass through my bullshit detector. Prima facie, the fact looks suspect.

Maybe I’ve been extra fortunate in my educational career and parents, but I learned at a very young age to question what I read, in essence analyzing what I read and trying to tell if it makes sense. The fact is that many (but not all) journalists (especially those who majored specifically in “journalism”) are not especially well educated at anything—many lack the background to understand what it is they are reporting. Back when I harbored fantasies of becoming a journalist, I observed the worth ethic and educational desires of people who were actually studying journalism and, ultimately, came away generally appalled: if I were forced to rank the quality of students by major, journalism students would be pretty far down the list.

So I say this realizing that I might be ahead of many when it comes to realizing that newspapers, radio, television, and bloggers, are not always going to feed me accurate information.

If I were in charge of education in the United States, I would require two things.  First, all students graduating from high school must take at least one course where they tear apart a daily newspaper and find all of the mistakes in it. It would probably take more than a whole semester to dissect a single issue—and it would result in students learning not to trust everything they are told, even if it is the BBC.

Secondly, I would require all students graduating from college to have taken, and passed, an introductory statistics course. The course needed get too far into statistics. It’d be nice if basic regression was covered, but I won’t insist upon it—rather I want everybody to (1) have a basic understanding of probability; (2) learn how many people one needs to survey in order to have a representative sample of the population; and (3) read the book How to Lie With Statistics (or other similar work) in order to be aware of how statistics are misused by the media, lobbyists, the government, and people on the Internet. (For people living in Germany it’s in English at Amazon.de.) If you’ve not read this book, it’s short, inexpensive, fun, and enlightening. I highly recommend it. In fact, I will buy a copy of the book and give it to the person who made the 2,000 kids disappear comment as a gift. If you wrote the original comment, email me.

I believe that good, upright, citizens ought to question what they read and hear, whether it’s the government speaking, a respected source of journalism, or somebody making a claim about something. There is no harm in asking people to explain their sources, and it’s important to point out the flaws in thinking.

It is this cyclical questioning – at the heart of science – that is important for moving society forward.

10 comments to Thinking Critically About the News

  • I’m afraid it’s a lost cause, Adam. It’s like they say, you can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.

  • As a statistician, I can only agree with you 😉 – including the part about reading How To Lie With Statistics. It’s an oldie but goodie.

    I taught three statistics courses before moving to Germany and I regularly brought in newspaper articles for the (college age) students to tear apart. I also made an extra credit project for them to find an article in a respected journal in their field of study and critique what was wrong with the statistics in it. I hope that I have at least influenced 90 people to think critically about what they read.

  • I used to subscribe to http://www.regrettheerror.com/ but there were so many errors to regret, so often, I got tired of reading them.

    Journalists are only human. (sniff, snuffle)

  • Have you ever been caught up in believing something that wasn’t true?

    I think we all have at one point or another.

  • mateo

    Seventy-eight percent of the people commenting on this blog never read the post they were commenting on.

  • I would add taking (AND paying attention) in a basic science class where critical thinking skills are taught. And by critical thinking skills, I mean memorizing and understanding the steps to the Scientific Method. http://ow.ly/3zRSd

    From my limited experience, most teachers do a short lesson in the beginning of the year where they point out the errors in textbooks. Our school librarian even did a short lesson on this topic during the “library introduction” day.

    Sadly, there are just too many people who view science as something not important or valid for their daily lives. And this post just points out the obvious. Good for you Adam remaining skeptical!!!

  • Whoops-that link should be in my 2nd paragraph. The link for the 1st paragraph here – http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_scientific_method.shtml

  • Jul

    68% of your blog readers secretly love it when people lie to them with statistics.

  • It’s now roughly 2 days after I posted my offer of a free book to somebody who I know to be a voracious reader (at least so implied by her blog), but I have yet to receive an email from her accepting my offer for a copy of How to Lie With Statistics. I am disappointed, yet not surprised.

    Instead there is a new blog post on her blog which appears to be squarely aimed at me.

    One of the important new pieces of knowledge that I gained last year is that even individuals that I thought would and should be on the same side of certain issues may not be: that being persecuted doesn’t prevent some individuals and groups from feeling an increased sense of power through persecuting and maligning other minority groups.

    I can only assume that that it’s directed to me, unless there are other people who are trying to discuss with her facts–and I want to make clear that at no time have I ever persecuted or maligned her due to her minority statuses. I’ve never said anything on the basis of gender. I’ve never said anything on the basis of religion. So I’m not quite sure what minority status I’m persecuting or maligning on the basis of. I’m clueless–I’ve only observed that a fact that she knew is patently not actually a fact.

    papascott – I suspect you’re right.

    Christina – when I taught undergraduate introductory statistics, I required the statistics textbook and I required How to Lie With Statistics as the anti-textbook. I like to think that all my students came away with a better sense to think critically about the world around them.

    Ian – realizing reports are human is the first step. There are many great journalists out there — but relatively few of them majored in journalism. The best majored in things like political science, biology, or English — to name a few. Of greater concern are the people who believe everything that comes out of the mouth of a reporter, whether working for the BBC or Fox News.

    Cynical Queer – Naturally I have. And when I am questioned, I think about the basis for what I think and review the evidence. Plenty of times I’ve been proven wrong. I appreciate when people take the time to point out that I’m wrong and I realize that I actually have been wrong. What I find mystifying are people who, when presented evidence that they’re wrong, refuse to accept the fact that they’re ever wrong.

    mateo – I hear that 57.2% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

    Yelli – You’re right – I should have included the scientific method as one of the requirements in education — I’d put the introduction to it in high school — maybe earlier. As for the textbooks — I’ve never had a teacher point out flaws in textbooks, other than my specially selected set in high school, teachers who were far above average in quality. I still remember arguing with my 8th grade social studies teacher who believed everything in the textbook — and I proved to her that the textbook was consistently wrong.

    Jul – I hear that 82.45% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

    • But how do those people who refuse to accept they are wrong view the evidence provided. If it is coming from an “adversary” they may not view it at all, instead of taking what you’ve presented and investigating it and drawing their own conclusion.

      The so-called birthers in the US are an example. I think those folks would refuse to believe the President was born in the US even if they had been present in the delivery room.