Friday, January 19, 2018

Media-Induced Ignorance & How to Neutralize It

The Problem: The Truth is Out There, But It Often Takes Time & Effort to Comprehend.

Here's an assertion that some might find irritating: Sometimes there is a right answer -- an accurate, defensibly true description of reality. And despite what bloggers, media talking heads and political candidates would have us believe, not everything is subject to debate!  

Unfortunately, however, that right answer -- that observable, provable truth -- usually isn't as emotionally engaging, as provocative, as fun or as easily packaged into one of those viral memes that get so much attention.  The graphic below illustrates the problem:

Are e-cigarettes safe? The simple, op-ed answer
(pick your favorite!): "Yes" or "No." The scientific,
but boring and hard-on-your-brain,
answer: "It's complicated..."

As you can see, the op-ed quotes above are more appealing than the carefully worded quote from the peer reviewed scientific journal. Why? The op-eds make their points quickly and confidently. They don't attempt to deal with the nuances or subtleties required by the scientists. They also skip over the stuff that we might find boring... or (worse!?)... the stuff that would take us time and effort to think about. And, finally, what may be most compelling about these op-ed quotes is that we can pick our favorite and repeat it (along with the respected brand name of the publisher) to defend our chosen behavior of either smoking or not smoking e-cigarettes.

The sad bottom line: A partial truth is often more easily engaged, accepted and circulated than the more complicated and nuanced whole truth!

The trade-off, of course, is that in exchange for our steady fast-food diet of partial truths and catchy memes we are kept in a perpetual state of media-induced ignorance. This ignorance, in turn, leads us to making bad decisions such as buying semi-useful/semi-harmful products, doing trendy but ineffectual things in the name of our health and beauty, electing semi-ignorant (or ignorance-manipulating) candidates who back half-baked public policies, etc., etc.

Below is a sampling of subjects that trigger blogger- or editorial-driven pseudo-controversies. Typically, the arguments surrounding these are supported by facts carefully "cherry picked" from scientific journals.
  • Vaccinations, immunizations for kids
  • Medical marijuana
  • Milk products & health
  • Corporate tax rates & jobs
  • Anti-aging products & practices
  • Vegetarianism
  • Organic versus chemical-based farming
  • Gun deaths/gun control & violence/crime
  • Causes of & treatments for cancer
  • Death penalty
  • Women's health & abortion
  • Cures for cancer, heart disease, etc.
  • Tablets versus textbooks for students
  • Cell phone safety

With Zillions of Bloggers & Media Outlets, Any Crazy Opinion WILL Be Supported Somewhere!

The gift -- and the curse -- of the world wide web is that you can easily find many more sources of information than you can ever consult. So, depending on how you phrase your search question, you are likely to discover lots of sources to support your preconceived opinion, no matter how inaccurate or outrageous it may be.

So before you begin your search, you might want to ask yourself if you're really looking for truth. And that might take a little soul searching to clarify! However, if you are certain you want to find the truth here's the challenge you face:

You must distinguish the scientific (i.e., genuinely truth-oriented) sources from the sources that are driven by opinions, political agendas, advertising dollars or the need to oversimplify or "dumb down" the message for a lazy, click-happy audience.

Infographic: Scientific Journals versus Blog Posts, News Reports & Editorials

The infographic below illustrates how the neutral findings presented in scientific journal articles can be morphed into the building blocks of blog- or editorial-driven debates. (You can view it here or download the PDF.)

Download the PDF...

As the infographic implies, the age-old advice, "Consider the source!" is critical if you are seeking the truth!

The “How” & “Why” of Scientific Research Reports Versus Blog Posts, News Reports & Editorials

Another way to get at the validity of any media source is to examine the dynamics of its writing or production process. Specifically, we need to ask:

How is this source created and what follow-up actions does it advocate?

The table below (download as PDF) compares scientific research reports, as opposed to blog posts, news reports and editorials, in terms of these characteristics:
  • Overall purpose
  • Creation strategy
  • Who reviews prior to publication
  • Purpose of pre-publication reviews
  • Dealing with bias
  • Follow up actions advocated
Download the PDF as one file.

From Ignorance to Informed Consumption: Questions to Ask of Your Sources

The infographic and the table above show, in broad terms, some of the forces that are pushing and shoving to elbow out the truth. As you can see, bloggers, authors and media producers are spending lots of energy to get your attention and "make a case" for or against ____ [insert topic du jour].

This means that if you want to discover the truth for yourself, you will need to "push back" and spend some energy. And while this might be a bit of a pain, you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of reality and the confidence that you are making more informed choices.
So how can you analyze a specific media source to see if it's going to help you find the truth? The checklist below can help.

Checklist: How to Neutralize Media-Induced Ignorance

Before you begin:

The first step in neutralizing media-inflicted ignorance is to look inward. Ask yourself:  Am I really looking for the truth? Or am I looking to find support for an opinion I already hold or to get ammunition for an argument I want to win?

Then, if you're really seeking the truth, follow these steps to find potentially hidden agendas of any blog post, news article, podcast or media production:

Step 1 -- Ask: Who's the publisher or producer? See the "About" section of the website or the credits at the end of a media production, the author's by-line, etc.

Step 2 -- Ask: What are the credentials of the website owners, the article or blog post authors, the video producers, etc.? Do a quick Google search and check biographical sources for education, professional affiliations, other publications created, etc.

Step 3 -- Ask: What are the political affiliations of the author, publisher or producer? Again, a quick Google search may be all you need. Example search term: "___[person's name]: politics"

Step 4 -- Ask: Who might the publisher be "beholden" to? Is the website or production sponsored entirely or in part by a particular organization? Again, check the "About" section of the website or the credits listed in a media production.

Step 5 -- Ask: What is the publisher/website/producer selling? In other words, follow the money! Who's paying the bills? Who is listed as a sponsor? What are the sponsors selling? What are readers, listeners, or viewers encouraged to buy? Are donations encouraged and who gets these donations?

Step 6 -- Ask: What are the advertisers selling? For example, if a website or media production is laced with advertising for vitamin supplements, the producers may be less likely to publish content that is anti-vitamin supplement. So check out the advertisers and think about how they might influence the content that is released.

Step 7 -- For science-based content, ask: Can I find and review the original scientific journal... or at least the abstract or summary?

Tip: Phrase your Google search like this: "scholarly journal article: [____ (topic)]" or go to Google Scholar. (Tip: Sharpen your analytical skills with suggestions from Kyle Hill:  What is a Good Study?: Guidelines for Evaluating Scientific Studies )

Step 8 -- For controversial social or political content, ask: What do the "fact checking" sources say about the truth of the left/right assertions?
Some good fact checking sources include:


Phony left/right debates and self-aggrandizing echo chambers aside, sometimes there are actual, indisputable facts and bits of undeniable evidence that support an assertion. And despite what our Facebook friends might think, everything is NOT subject to debate -- at least not subject to debate by the ill-informed using unproven assertions that amount to easily-aggregated, single-flavored collections of opinion.

Yes. The truth is out there. And you can discover it for yourself if you are willing to spend a little time and energy.

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