Evaluating Information and Avoiding Crap
Adapted from the CRAAP Test, Meriam Library, University of California, Chico
You’ve heard of the fake news epidemic, in which made-up news pieces from satire websites, partisan sites, or simply malicious sites are widely clicked, believed, and shared. You might also have heard of some of these incidents:
A guy walks into a pizza parlor and fires three shots, then goes looking for the hidden rooms that a complex internet conspiracy theory claimed were there, hiding abducted and abused children. Forty minutes later he surrenders to police, having found nothing.
A young political leader gets hold of a Russian forged book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and writes that it “disclose[s], with an almost terrifying precision, the mentality and methods of action characteristic of the Jewish people and these writings expound in all their various directions the final aims towards which the Jews are striving. . . . the Jewish peril will be stamped out the moment the general public come into possession of that book and understand it.” The young man’s name is Adolf Hitler.
A man who believes humans never landed on the moon harasses astronaut Buzz Aldrin and calls him "a coward, and a liar, and a thi —“ (At that point he gets . . . interrupted.)
These are extreme examples of the harmful power of bad information. Of course, you probably don’t fall for fake news . . . or fake memes . . . or fake science . . . right?
Quick question: how many animals did Moses take onto the ark?
(Highlight to see answer): None, actually. That was Noah.
Too easy? A plane crashes on the border of the U.S. and Canada. Where do they bury the survivors?
(Highlight to see answer): Nowhere, I hope, given that they’re survivors.
You find a coin stamped with the date 29 B.C. How much is it worth now?
(Highlight to see answer): Nothing; it's a fake.
Here’s the thing: your brain looks for stories and patterns, and it takes shortcuts. The raw data of facts are filtered, matched, and organized into our pre-existing knowledge, ideas, and narratives. This is how we make sense of the world, and it works really well . . . but it also leaves us open to error. So don’t assume that, without any conscious effort, you can spot bad information just by virtue of your own intelligence. Your brain can be fooled without you even knowing it.
It gets even worse when we take personal beliefs into account. When we have a personal stake in something, we are far more likely to favor information that agrees with us, and be suspicious about information that contradicts us. Nowhere is this more evident than in the political divide that plagues our country. Polled in 2013, 72% of Democrats believed President Bush “intentionally misled the public about weapons of mass destruction to promote the Iraq War,” while 58% of Republicans believed that global warming was a hoax, and 20% believed that Obama was the Anti-Christ. Often, knowing that information comes from or favors the other side is enough for us to disbelieve it outright, while information that comes from or favors our own side is accepted without much critical thinking.