Who Can You Trust? A Guide To Questioning The Media

The internet is full of numerous people making claims. Whether it be memes with pictures of famous people saying something they clearly didn’t say, or quotes from famous people who actually did say it.

Abraham Lincoln Weighing In On the Internet
Abraham Lincoln Weighing In On the Internet

Point #1 I’d like to make is that a famous person isn’t more credible than any other person, unless said famous person is actually educated in the field of the claim being made. (Think Professor of Physics Brian Cox speaking on the subject of physics or science in general for instance).

Professor Brian Cox
Professor Brian Cox

Before we start, for purposes of this post, it’s important to define opinions, beliefs, and facts, as I believe they are mutually exclusive.

  • Opinion – A statement that has no right nor wrong answer.
  • Belief – A statement that does have a right or wrong answer, but that isn’t substantiated by evidence to know said right and wrong answers.
  • Fact – A statement that does have a right or wrong answer, and is supported wholly by evidence making it a demonstrable truth.

To give an example of these three, let’s look at someone who chooses a vegan diet.

If a person doesn’t want to be someone who exploits animals, or simply doesn’t like the taste; that is a matter of opinion and they should never be questioned on their choice, as there’s no evidence one can put forth to prove them wrong.

However, if they go vegan because they argue it’s healthier, that is a matter-of-fact statement. If they have no evidence supporting it, it’s merely a belief.

To make it fact, they would first have to define “healthy.” It could mean disease free, not obese, longevity of life, low cholesterol…the list is endless. From there, one would have to do or cite a controlled study comparing veganism to omnivorous or carnivorous diets, and prove it to be true. As such, such matter-of-fact statements, unlike matters of opinion, are indeed open to being questioned.

Now that we’ve covered those points, let’s kick this off with some simple thoughts to keep in mind when you read something on the internet, or see an advertisement on TV.

  • A claim sans evidence should be deemed as nothing more than an opinion or belief.
  • A claim sans evidence from an expert, is only an expert opinion or belief.
  • While an unsubstantiated expert opinion should be trusted more than an unsubstantiated non-expert opinion, neither should be deemed as fact.

Exploring the above three points; they often come into play when viewing a celebrity or expert-endorsed advertisement. They often make claims that you feel potentially make sense. But if you practice some critical thinking, you’ll soon notice that they can’t, don’t, or won’t cite any tests, studies, or evidence-based facts to back up their claim.

When watching a science-looking TV program, it’s important to understand that a proper expert would say “I don’t know” until they have actually seen or performed a study and gathered real evidence; not speculate profusely, presenting it as fact. (Think Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, etc.)

Why do some experts speculate like this? Because science is a LOT of work! It involves loads of money, and a myriad of education and testing that can take years or even decades to complete. Not to mention, it also requires something to actually test. How can someone be an expert on Bigfoot if they don’t have an actual Bigfoot to observe and test, right?

Speculation however is easy; you just start talking.

So what are a couple of tell-tale signs you should look for when you see someone making a claim that you suspect might be less than trustworthy?

  • Is it an advertisement? If so, it’s biased, and should be ignored almost unilaterally. On a credibility scale, from zero being pure bullsh*t, and ten being “Take it to the bank;” advertisements are a zero. A celebrity endorsement likely ranks no more than a one, and an expert endorsement maybe a two. Why do endorsements add any value at all if they’re just being paid to say whatever their told to say? Because their credibility is on the line, so you’d like to think they care as much about their credibility as you do yours. But that being said, Dr. Oz proved this is still not that trustworthy.

    Dr. Mehmet Oz
    Dr. Mehmet Oz
  • If the advertisement cites an independent study, look up the study. If it’s legitimately independent, that sends it way up the credibility scale, and such companies should be commended for doing so. Although to be fair, if the independent study hadn’t been favorable, it would not have been in the ad, so it’s still partially comfirmation-biased as you’ll likely not hear any negative portions the study might have reported.
  • If it’s not an advertisement, does it actually give you evidence-based answers versus speculation? These pseudo-science shows, like the aforementioned alien, cryptozoology, or ghost shows are famous for presenting themselves as science, but being anything but. They bring dubious experts on who ask provocative questions, but then never follow it up with evidence-based answers. It makes them seem smart, but most of the time, it’s ridiculous nonsense with big words.

Why is this important? Ignorance is bliss, after all. Right?

If you were building a home, would you cut a framing board at what appears to be six feet to you (Not science)? Or would you measure the board (Science)?

People spouting unsubstantiated nonsense as if it is fact are some of the most dangerous people on the planet. They convince people who don’t know any better, to act on their claims as if they’re fact. Sometimes to grave consequences. Think Steve Jobs being duped to treat his cancer with “alternative,” instead of actual medicine. Such false medicinal advice may have cost him his life; a claim that cannot be proven since we don’t have two different Steve Jobs (one who took a doctors advice versus one who didn’t) to test, as the linked article points out.

At this point, I’m sure you are wondering who exactly you CAN trust. Assuming you don’t know how to, or have the means to carry out a proper controlled study, or do actual research yourself, I’ve prepared a makeshift credibility scale to help you suss out the chaff.

Scientific Journals, such as The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Science, The Journal Nature, etc., are the most credible science sources you will find.  They report controlled and peer-reviewed studies only. They don’t take money to print studies. And they even print retractions if a new peer brings information to light that falsifies a previous claim.

Websites like Snopes, Skeptoid, or Science Based Medicine are largely devoted to debunking false claims, and do a great job of bringing just well-researched facts sans opinion. I would trust them nearly as much as scientific journals.

Skeptoid's Brian Dunning
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning

So what about non-scientific information like politics, human interest stories, etc.?

Unbiased news sources are a very credible venue. Reuters and the Associated Press are two of the most commonly cited news sources by other commercial news outlets, and this speaks to their credibility. They don’t do opinion, so when you read an article from them, it may be somewhat less interesting, but that’s because it’s just the facts.Fox News

News sites with opinion, like MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, ABC News, CBS News, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and more are still fairly credible, despite being laden with opinion—this is mostly due to their market share.

Carl Sagan once said, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.” If these mainstream outlets were consistently delivering false information, or didn’t make an effort to present both sides of an argument, this is exactly what the market would do to them.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

While their ideological counterparts hate such news sources, independent minded people generally understand that while they’re biased, they at least validate sources and make an effort to be accurate and fair. It’s not perfect, but it’s at least reasonably credible.

Openly biased news sources like Drudge Report or The Daily Kos still have a market to answer to, and often break accurate information first due to their aggressive desire to defeat their ideological opponents. But I would avoid citing them as fact, because their information is suspect unless you can corroborate their findings with other news sources as mentioned above.

Blogs like mine are laden with bias. They are so small and rarely ever cited, that you should almost never consider blog claims as reputably truthful. If they cite credible sources along with their opinions (This is why I often do exactly that), it increases their credibility, but you should never treat them with full reverence.

Hopefully, you’ll start to notice that “opinion” is a consistent point to avoid when looking for the truth, but the bottom line is you should question everything. Question people who make claims without providing evidence. Question people who claim to be experts but can’t back up their opinion with fact. If you’re qualified, question proper scientific studies and do your own peer review.

Either way, enjoy the information you gather throughout life, just be skeptical every step of the way. Happy hunting!

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