Detecting Bullshit on the Internet

It's amazing what people will believe. At least once a week, I'm forwarded a piece of information from a seemingly reasonable friend or family member that seems ridiculous. Obama is a Muslim! The Department of Homeland Security is setting up death camps! Eat whatever you want and still lose weight! Cancer cured by prayer! Etc., etc., etc.

It is usually easy to debunk such claims:

  • Has the story been reported or repeated by any reputable news sources? If not, be skeptical.
  • Try Googling the first sentence or two of the story. This often brings up pages that demonstrate the story to be a hoax.
  • Try searching websites like http://snopes.com/, http://www.factcheck.org/, and http://skeptoid.com/ that have smart people who investigate suspicious claims.

For some stories, the tiniest bits of critical thinking and research and should quickly lead to the conclusion that they are bogus. But it amazes me that people accept these stories without even considering that they may be untrue. Their "bullshit detectors" just don't work. They accept any negative story about people they don't like, and any positive story about people they do like. They reject mainstream media and other reputable sources in favor of quacks, cranks, and conspiracy theorists.

It is very easy to accept stories without question if they fit your existing beliefs, but we must always be on guard against such acceptance.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.
Richard Feynman

Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World, presented what he called his "Baloney Detection Kit". It's a simple set of guidelines for testing the believability of assertions and arguments. If you haven't read it, please do, and apply it both to new stories and to your existing beliefs.

And, please, stop sending me this crap.