Chicken Little *

Dave Tutelman  -  January 15, 2012

Every 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],

(Picture from 1943 Disney short)

You need to learn to do research on the Internet if you're going to worry about stuff you receive on the Internet.

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 little"* on everybody, you need to find out or figure out:
  1. The source. Sometimes easy, sometimes hard. If the source's identity is hidden, I view that as several strikes against the credibility of the statement.
  2. The point of view of the source. That is usually pretty easy.
  3. What other points of view are out there, and their sources.
  4. Can you get any actual facts about the issue? (What a concept!)
  5. What does logic and common sense say about the issue?
  6. 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 for more.)
You can get all that with resources like Google, Wikipedia, and Snopes, spending anywhere from five minutes to an hour of effort depending on the 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 happening.

(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 be true." The Internet is even less trustworthy than TV (by a lot) because the threshold to Internet publishing is so low that anybody has a voice.


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:
  1. Is the source better off if they can get you to believe this? ("Better off" usually means financially, but not always.)
  2. Does the source know enough, are they well-enough educated and informed in the subject matter, to know what they are talking about?
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.

Another 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!

* Note: 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.

Last modified  -  March 14, 2019