Fake news and critical thinking in the post-truth world

"Critical thinking and science are too important to be left to the scientists. All of society must actively engage in distinguishing opinion from fact, bluster from evidence, and deception from open honesty in the new, post-truth world we live in." 
October 2022  

Jump to: [Introduction] [Why do we Care?] [Sources and Biases] [Detecting and Debunking Fake News] [Summary] [Review]


In 2016 the Oxford Dictionaries chose "Post-truth" as their word of the year. They define post-truth as an adjective 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'. Another expression of this post-truth phenomenon is the rise of opinion over fact, or "fake news". Oxford says that the concept of post-truth has been in existence for the past decade, but they have seen a spike in frequency of use in 2016 in the context of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom and the presidential election in the United States. It has also become associated with a particular noun, in the phrase post-truth politics.

There is a plethora of phrases or words that help define this new post-truth era, including fake news, lies, falsehoods, opinions, facts, alternative facts, deception, misinformation, disinformation, dishonesty, trickery, cherry-picking, bullshit (BS), and calling BS. They all have specific definitions in dictionaries, and scholars argue over the details of, for example, why certain statements should be called 'falsehoods' rather than 'lies'. However, in the end, what these words and phrases have in common is more important for our discussion. First, they all indicated some level of "truthiness", a term coined by Stephen Colbert in 2005 on his TV show, where he defined it as "the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts". Second, they almost always have an associated agenda, which is an underlying and often ideological plan or program that is not explicitly stated. 

Why do we Care?

Why do we care about this issue of fake news? We all know people who are habitual liars or BS artists, how is this any different? First, the BSers we know are rarely trying to fool us deliberately, they are just bragging, cajoling, or flaunting their own insecurities. But the professionals creating fake news and cherry-picking information are very sophisticated, they are deliberately trying to fool or mislead you, and they have a clear but usually hidden agenda. Second, fake news is becoming dangerous to individuals, societies, and even international government relations. For example, in 2016 a man fired an automatic weapon in a pizzeria in New York that was the target of a fake-news conspiracy. In the same year a Pakistani minister was duped by a fake news story, causing him to threaten Isreal with nuclear war. One can't help but recognize the threats to democracy given the lies that spread rapidly on social media surrounding political campaigns, even including threats from foreign governments, voter misinformation, and disinformation about civic issues. Finally, the trend toward an increasing denial of science, the rise of opinion or alternate facts, and the removal of scientists from science positions in government, are directly threatening both the functioning and accountability of our governments but also the sustainability of our societies and planet. 

Sources and Biases

We are awash in fake news, coming at us from all directions and through all media including traditional print and broadcast outlets as well as social media sites. The crux of the issue is, who can we trust? Friends, Congress members, celebrities, talk-show hosts, professors? There have been several careful studies on "trusting the media", and they tend to reach the same conclusion. The conclusion is that there are distinct patterns of "trust" associated with news outlets that are strongly correlated with political leanings (e.g., liberal, conservative). The left-leaning and right-leaning groups have their own trusted information sources, and unfortunately there is very little overlap in the middle. For example, in a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center on Journalism and Media, there was only one news source (out of 36 "mainstream" outlets) that was considered trustworthy by both conservatives and liberals (article link here ).

What studies like this highlight is the high likelihood that each one of us brings our own inherent, pre-existing "biases" to any news story or bit of information we receive. How do we overcome those biases? Well, the first step always is to recognize our biases as best we can, and try to gauge their impact on how we view news and whether or not we trust it or believe it. A second step is to increase our understanding of biases and their effects by reading the literature on this topic. I know, sounds numbingly dull, but there are some fascinating research articles coming out all the time on e.g., how Facebook, fake news, and friends are warping our memory (Nature article, link here), or how a study found a surprising vulnerability to fake news in more than 7800 students (NPR report, link here).

What if there was an online announcement about class that said, unlike what was printed on the syllabus, the breaking news of the day was 'no first exam in this class, we were just kidding about that, you don't even have to come to class and you will still get an "A" '. Is that fake news? Probably. Do you trust the source of information (the professors)? Probably, meaning you're probably a bit conflicted, but, the real question is what are you going to do? Are you going to blindly trust the online announcement, no questions asked, and not study for the exam, not even come to class? No way, you are going to take matters into your own hands and figure this out for yourself, asking for more evidence of this strange change in the syllabus and most likely just studying and coming to class prepared for the exam. And that is my agenda for this class, to prepare you to take matters into your own hands and regardless of the sources of information, learn to detect and debunk fake news yourself.

Detecting and Debunking Fake News 

In this lecture two general methods, one more simple and one more detailed, are presented to help detect and debunk fake news. Both methods have "critical thinking" (rational, logical thought) and the principles of science at their foundation. Why, exactly, must we rely on words to make arguments, and science to back them up?

A. Why arguments with words? How many people remember November 8th of 2016, the U.S. presidential election, where you were, how you felt, and how it has continued. Across the political spectrum, elections can galvanize people to heightened emotions and calls to action. For some, when their sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, fair and unfair is assaulted, they may feel like taking physical action in return, and of course peaceful protests are one outlet. But as we have seen recently (and throughout history...), expressions of protest can devolve into violence or shouting matches rather than discussions using civil, rational arguments. Note that this need for rational arguments instead of fights applies to the most liberal of you in the audience and the most conservative of you in the audience, it cuts both ways. My job, the job of a university and a college education, is to prepare you to fight for what you believe in with words and arguments. And in this class specifically, we will prepare you to uncover the facts behind dominant issues in today’s world such as climate change and environmental degradation, and all of the attending social and human consequences. But more than just teaching facts, our job is to help you understand how and why these are facts, and how and why science and the laws of nature operate and must be used in decision making and management in our governments and societies.

B. Why science? Why do we use science? Why does science get to be the arbiter of this debate over fact versus opinion, true versus false? Why not popular opinion, put it to a vote like in a democracy? Why not use economics to decide what is true or false - whatever increases profit the most is “true”. The reason we must use science is that its goal is to understand the how and why of any issue, relentlessly, and science forces itself to learn, to change direction, to re-evaluate, to test its assumptions and its methods and its conclusions, over and over again. While it is relatively easy in politics to promise everything but find excuses for not delivering before the next election, science is at the far end of that spectrum of accountability. Consider that Einstein is still being held accountable for his ideas and conclusions he published almost 120 years ago, especially if they are proven incorrect in new papers, and he's been dead since 1955.

In this context, how science operates is illustrated by this example: if everyone in class held out an apple and let go, the apple drops to the floor because of gravitational attraction with the Earth. And if every student in every class in every country in the world were to do the same thing, what would happen? The apple would drop to the floor, every time, and every time this is a test of our understanding, of our “law”, of gravity. But what if we are on the international space station and drop an apple – it just sits there, maybe drifts around a bit. Does this falsify our law of gravity? How does science deal with this new result? Do we invent an alternative fact as evidence that gravity is still real? No, science does experiments and refines theory to show that the strength of gravity decreases with increasing distance between objects (the Earth and the apple), and thus far out in space the reduced microgravity is too small to move the apple. This "objective" approach (remember science has no agenda, it doesn't care what happens to the apple, just as long as we understand why it happened) to provide repeatable evidence for ideas and understanding, for information, is why science and critical thinking need to take the lead in detecting and debunking fake news.

Methods for Detecting and Debunking Fake News

Fortunately there are several agreed upon approaches to the detection of fake news or BS, and several books and even University courses on the topic are now popping up. A simple checklist to work through follows:

A. The Checklist

1. Consider the source - Who are the authors? Is there a date on the article or information, or is it recycled crap from the past?

2. Read past the headline - Is there support for the claim? Many articles cite 'research' - is it from an academic, respected journal, or investigative journalism with citations to reliable sources?

3. Check your biases - Studies suggest that individuals process information in such a way that confirms their existing ideological leanings - in other words, we filter the news through the perspective of our respective social groups or political leanings.

4. Check your emotions - If the news elicits strong emotions, consider that it was probably designed that way...

5. Are other news outlets reporting the same thing? - If so, then go back to step #1 in this checklist for those sources.

6. Do fact-check sites confirm the information? - Is there a notice about the report on a fact-check site such as Snopes, Factcheck, Politicheck, etc.), and can you reverse trace the images to check their authenticity (e.g., lack of photoshop tampering)?


B. The Criteria of Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically and make rational decisions is useful in all walks of life, it is essential for all decision-making aspects of environmental problems or natural hazards, and it is predicted to become even more necessary in the future, especially as automation takes over many jobs (article, link here). We will use the elements of critical thinking described below as a touchstone throughout the course, returning to it in lecture and lab assignments.

1. Clarity - This is the "gateway standard" of critical thinking, meaning that it is the most important aspect of getting started. If you are not clear in the beginning, very little useful will follow. For example, the question "Is global warming sustainable?" is broad and diffuse compared to the clearer question "Can we maintain ecosystem services we need in the face of environmental degradation caused by global warming?"

2. Accuracy - Is the statement true, and how can we find out? A statement can be clear but not accurate.

3. Precision - There are two meanings for precision, one with general information for the public, and one that scientists typically use for describing error. For general information, the statement "There are more SUVs in the U.S. now than ever before" is clear, it is accurate, but it is not precise - how many more SUVs, one or a thousand or a million? For this statement to be useful it really needs more precision.

For scientists, precision is the measure of the error in a statement or a number. Most statements or numbers don't have "absolute accuracy", but there is a qualifier such as the measurement error or an associated "plus or minus". For example, if we predict that the Earth will warm by 5 deg C by the end of this century, and if our precision (+ or -) is 2 deg C, then it might warm by 3 C or by 7 C (5 +/- 2). In either case, it is still warming. However, if the precision on our prediction of 5 deg C warming is also 5 deg C, then it might not warm at all (5 - 5 = 0), and that is a very important part of the statement. Overall, the greater the precision the lower the error, and the more confidence we have in the accuracy of any statement.

4. Relevance - This is how a statement is used in the argument. Let's say we have the responsibility of reducing toxic pollution from an industrial plant. In the public comment period there is a meeting where one of the plant owners says "this plant provides 1000 jobs in this state alone". That is ia clear statement, and we may assume it is accurate, but it is irrelevant to the task of reducing pollution.

5. Logic - Logic can be simply defined as "a series of statements that are internally consistent and without contradictions." If I tell you that to get an A in this class you need to attend lecture and pay attention, ask questions when confused, go to labs and complete the lab assignments, but you don't need to worry about studying for the exams", you see the contradiction in that series of statements right away. As a package, that argument for how to get an A in class is illogical.

Sometimes logic is difficult to spot, and making analogies with other statements can help. For example, consider that the statement "Climate has changed before, therefore it must be natural" implies that PAST climate change wasn't caused by US, therefore WE don't need to worry about it NOW. The apparent logic is that Event A (climate change) can occur without B (us), therefore B (us) can't cause A (climate change). Now let's put that into an analogous form - "People (B) died before cigarettes (A) were invented, therefore people (B) can't be killed by cigarettes (A)". You see when stated in this analogous form the logic of the statement about climate change falls apart. Just because we weren't around in the past when the climate changed, doesn't mean that we can't cause it to change now (which we are...).

6. Breadth and Depth - The breadth and depth of an argument is important, including how it relates to complexities, biases, and especially "assumptions". Assumptions form the underlying basis of an argument and are accepted as fact but often not stated. If I say "this course is easy", what are my underlying assumptions? Well, I'm assuming that you will come to lecture, do the assignments, study for the exams, and so forth. That is a lot of assumptions. Remember that you can have all of the above elements for critical thinking - clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, and logic - but if your assumptions are wrong you will still miss the boat. In my recipe for success in this class I am assuming that a student wants to get an A - but if they only need a C or a D then my argument, my reasoning, is irrelevant because of a wrong assumption.

Finally, consider the realism of a solution, especially in complex problems. A classic example of this came from a former U.S. administration whose only approach and national campaign to the drug problem in America was to "Just Say No". Really? Given the complexities of America's drug problem (illicit and prescription), and its international connections, that is a pathetic and unrealistic solution.

Cherry-picking data - deception at it's finest

One of the most hidden, difficult parts of fake news to detect is when people deliberately "cherry pick" the information they present. This occurs when only part of the information (data) is presented, the part that helps to decieve you and advance someone else's agenda. There are many examples of this ploy of cherry picking data, from presenting data on U.S. carbon emissions to data on sunspots to data on water use in deserts. In all cases, the best defense against cherry picking is to always ask to see all the data. If you are told that there is no more data than what is being presented, and there is a citation for the original data, then it is easy to check the veracity of a claim (back to the Checklist above). If there is no citation or way to access the data, then you've likely uncovered deception.

NewsGuard - There are websites that can help determine what is and isn't fake news. One of these is NewsGuard (https://www.newsguardtech.com/) maintains a set of Criteria that they follow in determining whether other websites are spreading misinformation. 

(a) Does not repeatedly publish false content: The site does not repeatedly and currently produce content that has been found to be clearly and significantly false, and which has not been quickly and prominently corrected. There is a “high bar” for failing this criterion. In practice, it means that on any given day the website is likely to display significantly false content.  

(b) Gathers and presents information responsibly: Content providers are generally fair and accurate in reporting and presenting information. They reference multiple sources, preferably those that present direct, firsthand information on a subject or event or from credible secondhand news sources, and they do not egregiously distort or misrepresent information to make an argument or report on a subject. 

(c) Regularly corrects or clarifies errors: The site has effective practices for identifying errors and for publishing clarifications and corrections, transparently acknowledges errors, and does not regularly leave significant false content uncorrected. 

(d) Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly: Content providers who convey the impression that they report news or a mix of news and opinion distinguish opinion from news reporting, and when reporting news, do not egregiously cherry pick facts or stories to advance opinions. Content providers who advance a particular point of view disclose that point of view. 

(e) Avoids deceptive headlines: The site generally does not publish headlines that include false information, significantly sensationalize, or otherwise do not reflect what is actually in the content under the headline.

Who has the time?

Working through these checklists and applying critical thinking principles is the minimum requirement for assessing the news you hear. I know, I know, who has the time to check everything? The amount of "stuff" we have to do, both our responsibilities and what we want to do in life, keeps increasing, just as the amount of news available keeps increasing. How do we manage it all? First, you will get better and faster at detecting fake news as you practice doing it. Second, it's too important for all of us not to do it, and to leave the decisions regarding our lives, our environment, and our future up to people who most likely don't have our best interest at heart.


  • There are many categories of “fake news” and lies. What they share is having less than more truth, less fact and more opinion, and having an agenda.  
  • Fake news has become a serious issue in today’s world, and threatens individuals, societies, governments, and solutions to our major sustainability challenges involving the environment, equity, and continued life and diversity on this planet.  
  • There are several methods for debunking fake news and untruths – all use critical thinking as a foundation.
  • Debunking fake news isn’t difficult, but it takes time and determination, plus the skills we will practice in this class throughout the semester. 
  • The TAKE HOME MESSAGE of this lecture is: Fake news is here to stay, but we have the tools and the desire to resist.  

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