Smart People Fail at ...


Nieman Lab published an article last week, “Even Smart People Are Shockingly Bad at Analyzing Sources Online,” that lives up to the headline.

In one exercise, those in the study — a mix of fact checkers, historians and students — were asked to compare two websites and make a judgment call on the one they deemed more reliable.

One site represented the American Academy of Pediatrics and the other came from the American College of Pediatricians, each looking at the issue of bullying.



At first blush, they look similar. However, the Academy has 64,000 members and a paid staff of 450, while the College has 200 – 500 members, one full-time employee and has been criticized for controversial (super conservative) positions.

Look at how the data plays out.


Nieman Lab, Even Smart People Are Shockingly Bad at Analyzing Sources Online.

Once you get past the fact checkers, the data delivers a sobering indictment. You can chalk up the results from students as impetuous youth, but even 50 percent of the historians perceived the College equal to or better than the Academy.

It goes to show that when it comes to online content, if you look official and “smell” official, a large percent of people will conclude that you are official. Put another way, many people don’t do their homework to figure out the source of content, which in turn provides context for understanding.

I touched on the topic when the world was in an uproar over 20th Century Fox creating a fake news site as part of a marketing campaign for an upcoming movie. The New York Times quoted Susan Credle, global creative officer of FCB, as saying:

Fake news is not a cute or silly subject. When you start to tear down media and question what’s real and what’s not real, our democracy is threatened.”

The core problem isn’t fake news.

The core problem — whether we’re talking two academic websites or democracy — is laziness. When people don’t take the time to figure out the source behind the information and answer the question, “Is that source trustworthy?” the end result is lack of context with the potential for hyperventilation or confirmation bias or both.

Our high schools and universities should be teaching classes on how to frame online information with context. That’s the antidote to this issue.

Of course, I’m assuming folks would take the time to put this expertise to work.

Side note: Since publishing this post, I came across a story in Wired, “In a Fake Fact Era, Schools Teach the ABCs of News Literacy” which shows that at least a group of eighth graders have been pointed in the right direction.


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