Tag Archives: Misleading headlines

Framing and Perception: Using Skepticism to Avoid Being Deceived

We’ve all heard the expression there’s two sides to every story. It implies that one side is the truth, and the other side is lying. While that can be true, it can also be that both sides are right, and are both just leaving out crucial factors. It could be that neither side is right, and the truth is something else entirely. It could be that one side is right, and the other believes they’re right, but are simply mistaken. And most commonly, it could be a matter of opinion, and there simply isn’t a right or wrong in the first place.

The point of skepticism, is to be able to consume information in such a way that you are least likely to be deceived, or make bad assumptions. Thus leading to more intelligent decisions, and typically better outcomes for you. Let’s look at some examples.

In April of 2019, it was reported in several news outlets that just eating one slice of bacon can increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 20%. You can see one instance of this report from CNN here. CNN was not dishonest in this reporting, that data is true.

But when you click the actual study, and apply a little skepticism (and some math), you might look at it a little differently.

There were 475,581 participants in the study, and a mere 2609 case of cancer reported among all participants. So if one group is 20% higher than the other, that means it’s approximately 45.4/54.6 split (45.4/54.6 = 120.2%, or 20% more).

54.6% of 2,609 = 1,425 (0.29% of the total group)

45.4% of 2609 = 1,184  (0.24% of the total group)

So while 1,425 is indeed 20% more than 1184, out of the total group or people observed (475,581) a mere 0.55% contracted colorectal cancer. A total of 241 more were the bacon eaters, or a mere 0.05% overall increase (0.29% vs 0.24%).

An almost entirely insignificant 0.05% or 241 out of 475,581 people doesn’t sound nearly as scary as 20%, does it? But scary sells news media, and journalists are rarely scientists.

This problem isn’t entirely about science, because you can apply these same skills to a myriad of things you’ll read or see in the media.

Imagine a news story we’ll call statement A with a headline that reads, “Woman courageously does all that is needed to put food on the plate for her child.”

Female Shoplifter

But then imagine a different news outlet runs a different headline we’ll call Statement B that reads, “Woman fired for drinking while at work, stole unhealthy snacks and booze from a grocery store.”

Statement A makes her sound like a hero, but Statement B tells a very different story. Both can be 100% true, but the context changes how you feel about the story entirely.

The point of all this are to make you think about any news story you read, and maybe think about changing the way you consume information. So here’s a couple of ideas on how to improve how you consume information.

  • Avoid click-bait headlines from sources you’ve never heard of, or that you know are openly biased. You know they’re all almost entirely bullshit. So why waste your time on them? The good ones will link to credibly sources, and you should click on those to read the whole story, if you do go down that road. But in general, if people stop clicking on clickbait, the people doing it will respond to the lack of demand for it, by ceasing to make it.
  • Read the article and not just the headline. Even reputable sources have resorted to click-bait headlines just so you’ll read their stories over the nonsense from non-reputable sites. You’re missing a lot of context and nuance if you don’t read the story. Not to mention, you look silly when you add your own comment that clearly shows you didn’t read the article.
  • Any story that says something like, “The such-and-such that such-and-such doesn’t want you to know” or “Person A destroys person B” is bullshit. All of it. Like every single one of them.” Stop sharing that nonsense. Seriously.
  • If you see a story and it seems pretty amazing, but you aren’t seeing it on reputable sources, I assure you, some podunk website did not scoop Reuters or AP. It’s bullshit that they didn’t vet properly, or worse, that they just made up.
  • Check a second source. This one is huge. If you see a story on a site that’s kinda reputable but not great, look for it on a site like Reuters or AP. If you confirm from multiple reputable sources, then it’s probably true. But if it’s multiple sources with the same bias, you should probably still avoid it.
  • Think about what’s being said in the story, and could there possibly be another way of looking at it.  For instance, if I told you France gets 75% of its energy from nuclear, where the United States only gets 20%, you could easily assume that France is a leader in nuclear energy compared to the United States. But if I told you France has 58 nuclear power facilities whereas the United States has 98, you’d think the US is the leader. Both are true, but both tell a different story. So it pays to dig into the data when you can, and form your own opinion based on all the information.

    Nuclear Power Plant Emits Only Water Vapor

Hopefully this helps you think about how to consume news differently, and prevents you from being that embarrassing friend on social media always sharing bullshit articles everyone but you seems to know isn’t true. You’ll thank me later. 🙂

 

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