Fake news and critical thinking

Little of what I write about on this blog is based on first-hand knowledge.  It is what the philosopher Bertrand Russell called knowledge by description rather than knowledge by acquaintance.

I write about foreign countries I’ve never visited, whose language I do not speak and whose people I’ve never spoken to.   I write about politicians I’ve never interviewed.

I know from 40 years experience on newspapers that it is hard to be well-informed on a topic, even if you have time to study the subject, and in fact are being paid to be well-informed.

It is even, as now, I depend on second-hand information.  It is easy to be misled and hard to sift the real from the fake.  Here are filters I use to separate news from fake news.

  1.  Who says so?  How do they know?  Is a source of information given for every assertion?  Is the source of the information a person in a position to know?  Is the person trustworthy?  Is the source of the information anonymous?  If so, do they have a good reason for being anonymous?
  2.   Click on the links.  If the source of information is a link on the Internet, follow links as far as you can to the original source, and see whether it supports what is asserted.
  3.   Does the claim make sense?  Does the news item make sense as something somebody could do?  Does it make sense in terms of something somebody would do?  Is it consistent with what else you know?  Is it consistent with itself.
  4.   Does the writer engage in mind-reading?  Other people’s’ motives are unknowable.  You can know what somebody does.  You can’t really know why they do it, and the “why”
  5.   Compare and contrast diverse sources.  If you have time.
  6.   Carry on imaginary conversations in your head.   If you are a progressive, imagine a conservative making their best arguments (or vice versa).   How would you answer?  Could you answer?
  7.   Distrust emotion, but not too much.  Emotion can blind you to facts and logic, but the fact that somebody feels strongly about something doesn’t mean they’re wrong.   There’s nothing wrong with expressing anger, admiration, pity, gratitude or any other normal human emotion; what you should ask is whether the emotion is appropriate to the actual facts.
  8.   Use fact checkers, but skeptically.   Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are useful, but make up your own mind.
  9.   Arithmetic can be your friend.  If the news item is based on statistics, go to the original source, if you can.  Do the calculations yourself.  Always distrust any claim that is based on percentage differences or changes unless the underlying number also is given.  Don’t jump to conclusions about the significance of any number unless there is another number you can meaningfully compare it with.
  10.   Three things to watch out for.  Old news packaged to look like it’s current.  “Sponsored content” packaged to look like journalism.  Satire that isn’t labeled as satire.
  11.   Suspend judgment if you’re not sure.  Better to admit you don’t know something than to think you do when you don’t.
  12.   Admit mistakes, at least to yourself.  It just means you are wiser today than you were yesterday.

Another bit of advice:  Do as I say, don’t do as I do.   I’ve been guilty many time of jumping to conclusions and failing to think critically, both as a reporter and in this web log.


My own sources of news are (1) the Democrat and Chronicle, my local daily newspaper, and City Newspaper, my local alternative weekly, (2) magazines and books and (3) the blogs and web sites with links on my Blogs I Like and Resources pages.

I think reporters for both the Democrat and Chronicle and City Newspaper are highly professional, but, for reasons outside their control, they are stretched thin.  They do a good job of what they do, but the amount they are able do is limited.

I used to watch television regularly.   I’d devote Friday evenings to watching the McNeil-Lehrer Report (now the News Hour), Washington Week, the Bill Moyers show and the McLaughlin Group on PBS.  I hardly ever watch TV or listen to radio news any more—not because there’s nothing worth listening to, but because, as I get older, my memory and attention span grow worse.

If I watch something, I prefer to watch The Real News Network or Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now online because they’re usually accompanied by transcripts that I can review.

My favorite magazines currently are The American Conservative, Harper’s and Mother Jones.  I review my favorite books on this web log.

But I get most of my national and international news sites on the Internet.  I click on every link on the Blogs I Like and Resources pages at least once a week.

My favorite on-line source of news is naked capitalism, both because of the depth of its commentary and because its editors mostly see the world the same way I do.   When I can, I check out its 7 a.m. headline service every day  and its 2 p.m. headline service every weekday.

Doug Muder’s Weekly Sift is a well-written, well-researched weekly news summary from the standpoint of a center-left Democrat.  If you have limited time and are sympathetic to that point of view, I recommend checking him out each Monday afternoon.   I read his posts faithfully myself.

Rod Dreher is a sincere and thoughtful Christian and social conservative whose views I always find interesting.

Tyler Cowen on MARGINAL Revolution is an economic conservative who is also one of the most erudite commentators I’ve ever come across.

Counterpunch is a forum for hard-core left-wing radicals, to whom I’m also growing more sympathetic as I grow older.

I hope and believe nobody regards Phil Ebersole’s Blog as a primary source of news.  I’m pleased if you find it interesting, but I’m not an authority on anything—just a retiree who enjoys reading, writing and conversation, and sharing information and ideas.


How to Fine Tune Your B.S. Detector by Warren Berger for Co.Design.

Can’t Judge Fake News in the Dark by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.

Illustration via Maryvale High School, Phoenix, Arizona.


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2 Responses to “Fake news and critical thinking”

  1. Charles Broming Says:

    Thanks for the guidance, Phil.

    I would change one item from “Admit mistakes, at least to yourself” to “Admit your mistakes publicly.” If the mistake was worth publishing, then it’s correction is worth publishing.

    I would restate number 11 (or add a number “11a”) as “Never jump to Conclusions. That island is almost impossible to leave.” Furthermore, try to avoid drawing conclusions completely. Let the story be the story.

    I would add to number 9, “Be wary of charts and graphs. Make sure that the vertical and horizontal units of measure are proportional and that the entire graph is visible.” (If only the top 5 percentage points of a column chart or histogram is visible, a 2-percentage point increase will be represented as a 40% increase, for example). If the “visual” doesn’t satisfy these two criteria, look for an explanation why it doesn’t.

    We seem to visit many of the same web sites. I miss Bill Moyers a lot.

    Journalists have two crucial obstacles to doing good work: time and editors. There just isn’t enough of the former to become sufficiently expert in some area to have a considered opinion that is developed from a grasp of the context of events and feedback from other experts. Editors are former reporters and, thus, rarely expert at anything other than what the paper needs to publish to get readers to buy it. Sometimes, they remain experts in how to report events, despite the pressures that push that expertise further away from retrievable memory.

    Opinion columnists are not journalists. There are many species of journalist and their corresponding journalism: travel, biographers, war, crime, politics, society, investigative, etc. Their roles in the world are necessary and valuable. Done well, they help make reasonable thought and behavior possible. Because journalists are expert storytellers (they create journals, don’t they?), but not psychologists, political, economic or social scientists, they should confine their efforts to journaling–giving the minimum context for related facts to be intelligible to their readers. The story is the message.

    Journalists should not become opinion columnists. For example, when a television news anchor is interviewed on, say, foreign policy as an expert, I cringe. Reading a lot of news on television from a teleprompter does not constitute acquisition of expertise. Writing a book on a notion of “talent” derived from interviews with experts in various fields does not constitute acquisition of expertise on the origins or development of talent. Nor does it constitute journalism.

    Journalism requires mastery of journaling. Journalists should be satisfied with this mastery, as mastery of telling fact-based stories is a difficult and honorable challenge to meet. Expertise requires mastery of the language and inquiry process inherent in a field of inquiry. Experts should be satisfied with their expertise, too, as developing expertise is also difficult and honorable. Inherent in developing expertise is the need to conclude as well as to communicate such conclusions and the evidence and arguments that support them in ways that are accessible to that audience.

    Keep writing and posting!


  2. philebersole Says:

    Thanks, Charles. Those are good amendments. I’d also add the following.

    13. Respect admissions against interest. If somebody admits a fact that does not support his overall position, that is a good reason for trusting that fact and trusting that person.

    14. Respect admissions of ignorance. Nobody knows everything, but not everybody knows (or is willing to admit) that they don’t know everything.


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