How to Spot Misinformation

There has been a lot of misinformation floating around the internet. This is nothing new: but now, false information may be influencing crucial decisions, and even affecting political policies. The death toll of certain countries and regions seems significantly affected by the early response of its citizens. The misinformation on the web is getting so bad, and the consequences so dangerous, many governments are now seriously considering putting laws in place to limit our freedom of speech.

I do not approve of this solution. But neither do I approve of the problem. Let’s talk about that…

How can you tell, at a glance, if an article is probably rubbish? Listen here, subscribe to my podcast, or keep reading below.

Appeal to Authority

1. If the author’s credentials are in the title, it is probably relying on an appeal to authority. An appeal to authority is a logical fallacy which takes this form: “So-and-so is an expert. So-and-so says x. Therefore, x must be true.” Legitimate sources base their information on studies, published papers, and the conclusions of medical experts, working in the field. No legitimate article will base their conclusions on the credentials of the person making the claim.

Ad Hominem Attack

2. If the author claims to “slam,” “shame,” “expose,” “humiliate,” or “blast” someone then the article is likely making an ad hominem attack. An ad hominem attack takes the form, “So and so says x, but so-and-so is an idiot for y reason. Therefore, x cannot be true.” This is a logical fallacy, because it is illogical to spend you time attacking the person, rather than the idea. It is also suspect because this is not how real academics talk. Real academics, scientists, and doctors talk about ideas. Their conversations may become heated, naturally, but they will always be pursuing truth. Their goal is never to shame someone. Rather, a person who is able to present a bad idea well, and whose ideas are overturned, has actually helped science progress. I go into more detail on this below.

Character Assassination

  1. If the author is attacking the internal motivations of various public figures, this is another form of ad hominem attack. It is doubly faulty because a) if something is true, it is true no matter the character of the person who says it, and b) nobody can truly know the motivations of a person anyways, except for that person (and even they may not know their own motivations). Judging people based on their supposed motivations is a complete waste of time.

Conspiracy Theory

4. If the author claims that big pharma, the WHO, or several governments are colluding together, then the article is making a conspiracy theory claim. A conspiracy theory takes the form, “The whole world is out to misinform you, I have informed you of this, therefore, everything that I say you should trust without question.” It is invalid on several counts. First, the evidence of a conspiracy is usually very lacking. This is a problem, because such a big claim needs some substantial proof: but usually, very little is given. Secondly, it does not follow that just because one is able to spot what they think is a conspiracy, that the next thing that they say will automatically be correct. Obviously, someone can be right about one thing, but wrong about another. But con-artists have long been duping people by pointing out a flaw in others, so that people will trust them implicitly. Many cults have started in just this way.
 I find it very interesting that Christians (rightly) reject “conspiracy theories” regarding the resurrection of Jesus, the authority of Scriptures, etc. as represented in the Da Vinci Code…yet when it comes to the present crisis, they often fall for conspiracy theories that follow the exact same pattern.

Anecdotal Information

5. If the author bases their ideas on the experiences of a few people (as opposed to a scientific study, or a professionally conducted survey) then they are basing their information on anecdotal experience. It has taken several millennia to develop a scientific method which is capable of organizing the complexities of human life down to an objective set of data points. Some of the very important questions to ask about any data shared in such an article are: a) was there a control group? (aka, were there people who received the treatment, and people who did not, so that you can see whether they would have gotten better anyway?) b) was this a “double-blind” test? (meaning, did the people receiving the treatment know they were receiving it? If so, the placebo effect may have temporarily made them feel better) c) how big was the sample-base? (Did you guess how many red jelly beans were in the jar based on the five that you pulled out? Or based on spreading half of the jelly beans on the floor, then putting them back in? Just how big is your sample base? A treatment that works on one person, may kill another. This is why widespread testing is necessary)

Secret Knowledge

  1. If the author claims that a secret agenda is at work to cover up information, they are probably out of touch with how information is actually processed and shared in our Western world. As an academic, I can tell you that it is really really hard to become recognized in a scientific or academic field. First, one must study — often for a decade or so post secondary school, passing very difficult exams and competing with other bright students for scholarships and bursaries. Then get employed in a specialized field, in the highly coveted position of research professor, doctor, professor, or the like. Then, one must find an original idea (a near impossible task). Then, one must study that idea long enough to speak cogently on it. Then, they are at the place of publishing their findings in a research journal. The idea (note: not the person, the idea) will be ruthlessly attacked, picked apart, and dissected by dozens or thousands of others in the field until the idea either falls, or else it stands and becomes part of recognized truth in that field. This is how scientific knowledge grows. What we have produced together is a truly remarkable way of thinking together. It is not perfect. The process works slowly. Some good ideas fall to the wayside because there is insufficient evidence, nobody to champion them, or because there is no way to prove it. But to say that the church or the government or big pharma or Bill Gates or the WHO has some secret agenda to keep knowledge down? Please. There is no force on earth stronger than a graduate student, hungry for a new idea.

This list is not exhaustive,

Nor am I claiming to have exhaustive information about the websites behind the articles I screen-grabbed as examples. I am not claiming to be an expert on this virus.

What I am fairly component on, however is logic and human thought. These are six very good ways that any professor would use to separate the truth from error in any article, research paper, or book.

I hope that highlighting these forms of bad arguments will help you as you continue to search for truth, in this difficult and complex time.