Crap detection 101 and social media

Howard Rheingold wrote an interesting essay called Crap Detection 101, which provides both commentary on how to separate fact from fiction on the web as well as some practical advice. He wrote:

I got good strategy advice from John McManus, author of “Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web”, who told me “you have think like a detective.” Think of tools like search engines, the productivity index, hoax debunking sites like, and others I will mention later as forensic instruments, like Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass or the crime scene investigator’s fingerprint kit.

It’s a good essay and it made me realize one thing: the problem of how lazy we are. Most people know they should ask more questions, and take more time to verify sources, but that takes effort. And that effort, if spent well and results in the discovery of a unreliable source, it costs double. We’ve lost not only the time verifying something, but also the time spend finding that now unreliable source, and the kicker is you still don’t have a fact you can use.  Fact checking is a double-whammy against seeming productive to others. We have natural reasons to not want to check that source, even though we know we should. Part of us doesn’t want to know.

When people find a fact that supports their argument, regardless of where it comes from, its incredibly tempting to grab it and run, assuming whoever reads what you write, or listens to what you say, will be as lazy as you were. You can bluff your way into credibility because there’s no one depending on what you say enough to openly challenge what you’re saying.  Often online when people think you are full of shit, they’ll just click away. You have to care to take the time to challenge someone’s facts or sources. And even when people do criticize, they’re in such a rush to prove you wrong for something, it’s common to be criticized for things you didn’t actually say, or with claims that are not supported, sparking a dozen ratholes that have no possibility of convincing anyone of anything. Communication speed makes the downward spiral of miscommunication spin much faster.

I’ve written my own take on detecting bullshit, but the thing I don’t know how to tackle is what to do when our innate desire for efficiency works against us. Being  “productive” online in writing blog posts or frequent tweets, demands spending little time verifying anything, much less seeking out evidence for the opposing view and vetting them against each other in what old school folks used to called thinking. If there is anything I want to promote it’s thinking. Honest, open, generous amounts of critical thinking where people are just as willing to admit when they are wrong as they are to prove they are right.

My gripes about social media, and the future of technology in general, comes around to how we’re increasingly rewarded for volume online, or believe we will be rewarded for volume, rather than quality. Which is strange given how successful the web has been at making volume of information moot. We have more to read, watch and listen to than we can consume in a thousand lifetimes. Volume isn’t the problem. It’s the search for quality and the shortage of critical thinking that we need to solve and this includes the promotion of the kinds of questions Rheingold suggests everyone asks of things they read online.

Critical thinking will always require effort  – and if we’re overwhelmed and stressed by too much information, or feel we’re falling behind and running out of time, the feedback loop works against slowing down to ask good questions. That stress fuels making assumptions and jumping to misguided conclusions.

How do we fix this? Or is it even a problem at all? Let me know what you think.

14 Responses to “Crap detection 101 and social media”

  1. JohnO

    I definitely understand the pressure the feedback loop creates. Playing catch-up is no fun. There is no substitute other than to put your head down and spend lots of time. If there was a shortcut, you’d quickly be spotted once you’re in an arena with people who know what they’re talking about. They can smell BS too.

  2. Scott Berkun

    JohnO: But what is someone supposed to do who wants to slow these negative feedback loops down?

    If I’m critical of twitter, or even blogging, it’s that the tools don’t make it easy to put the brakes on.

    Then again, nothing stops someone from leaving a comment that says: “I think your facts are bogus. Can you back them up please?”

  3. Mike Nitabach

    I disagree. I think that it’s very easy to detect bullshit when you are operating from a position of good faith desire to correctly perceive objective reality.

  4. Scott Berkun

    Mike: That’s easy for you to say because you are super smart :)

    But I know I’m not entirely clear the reality I perceive is objective. In fact when I seem most rational is when I catch myself being unobjective and go out of my way to try and see the opposing view before opening my mouth.

  5. Sammakko

    Checking your own work requires time. Making a gap between typing the words, then re-reading and questioning what is fact and what is opinion or a personal theory. Only the facts can be checked. How much to check, to what level, is a personal decision, but also dependent on the medium. For twitter, perhaps a couple of breaths break between typing, then re-reading and sending. For a reference book, possibly weeks and months and assistance from others to check facts.

    Not sure about checking what I read. I try to read with a certain amount of sceptism or questioning but I’m probably blinkered by my own assumptions and bias.

  6. Joshua Kahn

    Don’t know that I have the answer, but I do have some thoughts on it.

    I guess I liken it to face to face conversations. We all have a built in ability to detect bullshit, its just that in some of us its atrophied. If you really seeking the truth, and tuned in to your gut as you listen, I agree with Mike:, the bullshit is readily apparent.

    Its also critical to not think of yourself as The Expert; even if you are an experienced voice in the field. That old saw, beginners mind applies here.

    This fascination with “being right” is what creates a lot of the problems. Those who are interested in getting to the heart of the matter aren’t concerned about being the source of the solution, but instead the source of the conversation to which they can contribute to discovering the solution.

    A wise bartender I worked with in my salad days said “to go faster, slow down”. This perception of “things moving fast” on the web is really only partly true. The stuff that sticks, that works, that has quality, has depth, moves slowly like it always has. The news about those things might ping around at lightspeed, but the subject of those things doesn’t have to.

    Doesn’t that fact that one is perceiving objective reality introduce the element of subjectivity?

  7. Colin K

    “Which is strange given how successful the web has been at making volume of information moot.”

    Perhaps, but what it definitely hasn’t made moot is the rate of output of information. If anything you could argue that it has increased it.

    When it comes to newsy-type content, people use freshness as a sign of quality–the assumption is that today’s newspaper will have a more accurate take on Story X than yesterday’s newspaper.

    The problem is that while this is often true on the timescale of weeks or days, it breaks down at the level of hours or minutes. An hour can be enough to add useful information, but 5 minutes usually just expands the pool of rumor.

    A more cynical take on this would be that people consume news purely or primarily as entertainment, in which case each additional unit of rumor is enjoyed as much as the one before it.

    Either way, as a media producer trying to obtain and hold a viewer’s attention, the incentive to keep pumping out content is high.

  8. Scott Berkun

    Colin wrote:

    “A more cynical take on this would be that people consume news purely or primarily as entertainment”

    I think this is definitely true. Have you ever read Amusing ourselves to Death?.

    In that book Postman argues that modern television news is entirely designed as entertainment – and since the 70s we’ve been trained away from seeking substantive news. It’s a great book. I don’t agree with all of it, but many of his points work for other media than TV.

  9. Jay Zipursky

    If the problem is fact checking every possible piece of info, then the solution has to be selecting “trusted” sources.

    Figuring out who to trust is a problem itself… For example, journalists would have us believe they and their system are trustworthy. But they are having a tough time getting people to believe that message and, IMO, value it appropriately.

    Personally, I’ll start reading only your blog, Scott. Can you expand your scope to international news? ;)

  10. links of london jewelery

    Critical thinking will always require effort – and if we’re overwhelmed and stressed by too much information, or feel we’re falling behind and running out of time, the feedback loop works against slowing down to ask good questions. That stress fuels making assumptions and jumping to misguided conclusions.



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