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ERNEST HEMINGWAY SUGGESTED in The Paris Review, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” I used to suggest to students that readers as well as writers profit from such a gizmo. Alas, neither Hemingway nor I gave explicit instructions on building “crap detectors.”
AAAS Science to the Rescue. Jonathan Osborne and Daniel Pimentel don’t mention Hemingway in “Science, Misinformation, and the Role of Education,” Science, October 21, 2022. However, they do suggest a “fast and frugal heuristic” offering a three-step approach to assessing information.
They say, “Because of the limits to our knowledge and time, we all depend on the expertise of others…. As outsiders to any domain of knowledge, we are forced to make judgements of credibility and expertise. Even being an expert in one scientific domain (e.g., cosmology) does not make one an expert in another (e.g., evolutionary biology). And though there have long been conspiracy theorists and snake-oil salesmen, the internet and social media have provided a much louder megaphone—and the means to avoid traditional gatekeepers.”
Here are tidbits gleaned from the researchers’ Fast and Frugal Three-step Heuristic, which differs from existing media literacy approaches such as the commonly used CRAAP checklist (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose). In particular, it begins by assessing the source’s credibility.
Legitimate sources identify their support or funding (required, for example, in TV pitches for or against ballot measures). And, of course, why expect an unbiased analysis from one of the topic’s proponents?
The researchers note, “Establishing credibility alone—e.g., whether there are conflicts of interest or political bias—however well done, is not sufficient…. Just as one would not trust a plumber to fix an automobile engine, why trust a physicist who claims to know about the effect of tobacco on health? Yet the mantra of being a ‘scientist’ has been shown to endow a generic cloak of respectability.”
Those of us of a certain age remember white-coated guys hyping the cigarette brand that doctors smoked.
Scientific expertise is more reliably identified than, say, political expertise. Nevertheless, track record, reputation among peers, and professional experience are worth noting.
Consensus is a complex matter even in science. Some scientific principles are clear cut and well known; other science is a process, constantly evolving. As an example, Covid masking was and continues to be based on relevant conditions.
There are still means of probing uncertainty: What is the nature of the disagreement? What are the data on each side? And what are the risks of being wrong?
A flawed movie recommendation might cost $20, popcorn included. Following the advice of some talkshow wacko could lead to long-term Covid.
Osborne and Pimentel are at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and their approach is directed “to help competent outsiders evaluate scientific information.” The article is well worth a complete reading. What’s more, I’d say their three steps have application in assessing other than science. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022