Chicken Little *
Tutelman - January 15, 2012
month or so, I get a panicked email from a relative, with an attachment
that somebody sent her in an email. "Is this true? It's really scary!"
That is an improvement from previous years, when she would pass it
along as gospel. At least now she recognizes the possibility that it is
a lie, a scam, or a joke -- or perhaps just someone's mistake. After
such an email on January 15, 2012, I sent her the following note:
Dear [name withheld],
to learn to do research on the Internet if you're going to
worry about stuff you receive on the Internet.
(Picture from 1943 Disney short)
Everything that hits you from email or the web comes from a person, and
probably an organization. People and organizations have points of view,
biases. Before you go "chicken
on everybody, you need to find out or figure out:
You can get all that with resources like Google, Wikipedia, and Snopes,
spending anywhere from five minutes to an hour of effort depending on
issue. Wikipedia and Snopes tend to be rather reliable in their facts.
No, not perfect, nor perfectly unbiased -- but way better than the
average Internet article.
Google is ecumenical; it throws at you everything anybody ever said
about it, regardless of veracity. You have to dig to get enough so you
can educate yourself on what is really
- The source.
Sometimes easy, sometimes hard. If the source's identity is hidden, I
as several strikes against the credibility of the statement.
- The point
of the source. That is usually pretty easy.
- What other
points of view are out there, and their sources.
- Can you get any actual
about the issue? (What a concept!)
- What does logic
common sense say about the issue?
- If you don't get anything
compelling from (d) or
(e), then which
sources do you trust
the most? The least? Which sources align best with your point of view? (Added
in March 2019: (f) was written in 2012, before social media "echo
chambers" hijacked a lot of discourse. Today, personally trusted
sources often can't be trusted to present unvarnished fact. See below
(Paragraph added in 2019)
If the topic has any possible interpretation as political -- left vs
right -- then even "news sources" are likely to be biased, and
therefore not trustworthy. I never trust a left-biased "fact" from a
left-biased source, nor a right-biased "fact" from a right-biased
source. Fortunately, there is a site available to calibrate many news
sources on the left-right spectrum. I find Media Bias / Fact Check
to be remarkably accurate in where they place sources I am familiar
with. So I'm inclined to believe them when I never heard of the source.
For the [XYZ]
issue you sent
this morning, I thought I had the answer after five minutes, but
continued to check for another ten before I was confident I had it.
You can do this, too. You should practice it whenever you can. Keeps
you sharp, and you get a better view of what's going on in the world.
Remember, just because it's "on the Internet" doesn't mean it's true.
We used to have that problem with television. "But I saw it on TV; it must
true." The Internet is even less trustworthy than TV (by a lot) because
threshold to Internet publishing is so low that anybody
Since I sent the note, it occurred to me that "point of view" may not
just be political, religious, gender, or some other issue of opinion
(e.g., animal rights, or some particular conspiracy theory). There are
two other things to look for when
checking out your source:
The first may be subtle. Sure, advertising, scams, and spams fit this
mold. But sometimes you have to look a little deeper. Perhaps they
espouse a point of view for which they want to recruit supporters; that
would be "better off" as well. Recruiting for religion, politics,
interest group, etc.
- Is the source better off if they can get you to believe
this? ("Better off" usually means financially, but not always.)
the source know enough, are they well-enough educated and informed in
the subject matter, to know what they are talking about?
form of "better off" is even harder to determine, but is real
nonetheless. It is ego, or perhaps reputation. The writer may have
staked out a position early, and is now protecting his or her ego and
reputation by defending the original position. That often occurs long
after the original position is no longer tenable.
As for the second, I see too much of this on the Internet. Someone who
believes "chemicals are icky" really should keep quiet about nutrition
or medicine. Someone who never understood high school
physics and is afraid of calculus is not going to come up with
something useful about how to evaluate "spine" in golf shafts. But I
see statements all the time from these sources on these subjects.
You can still follow steps (a) through (f) above to evaluate what you
are reading, whether the point of view is opinion, advantage, or just
plain fact. And you should!
For those unfamiliar with the "Chicken Little" reference, there is a
children's story by that title. The title character is a barnyard
animal known for
hysterically concluding that the world is about to end. From the Wikipedia
article on the subject,
The phrase 'The
sky is falling!' features prominently in the story,
and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a
hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent.
modified - March 14, 2019