Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Hidden truth and lies

It’s not uncommon for us to see a thing that’s true, but misleading. In the Vlog Brothers video above, Hank Green talks about three examples of things that aren’t completely as they seem. Hank calls this a “head lie” because it takes a true thing and makes us believe something that isn’t actually, literally, true, or not completely so. While this isn’t always deliberate, it’s certainly common, and we need to be mindful of that. I certainly try to be.

Hank and John Green have both frequently talked about the lack of reporting or even awareness of good news. That's usually been in the context of the fact that good news often gets buried with so much reporting about things that are bad. Hank’s video is sort of an extension of that, in this case, that the news presented isn’t exactly what it seems to be, maybe not even accurate or true. But, who’s to decide?

Way back in 2014 I decided to try an experiment looking for the good news buried on otherwise negative reporting of a story, and I didn’t have to try hard to find an example of what I was talking about. The thing about that particular example is that it, too, was creating a “head lie”, and most people would have no idea it was happening.

For that 2014 post, I had the time, the resources, and, obviously, the inclination to dig deeper to find out what the wider story was. Most of the time most of us don’t have one or any of those things for most stuff we see in the news or from PR agencies. But if don’t look deeper ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.

This all raises an important question: Who’s to say that the version presented in the news, or even from PR companies, isn’t the best, most accurate version? Ultimately, we have to decide for ourselves. We can look to see who has a vested interest in the way a story or statistic is presented, something I did in that 2014 post. But we can be as limited by our own biases in that regard as are the people packaging the information for our consumption. The problem here is confirmation bias, the human tendency to view all information as confirming what we already believe, and ignoring or discounting all evidence that contradicts our beliefs. This happens most often and predictably on issues we care deeply about and also beliefs that are central to us. That means that, at least sometimes, the information presented may actually be the most accurate version.

Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure is to see all the facts and to know the larger context those facts are part of. If those aren’t given to us, and if for whatever reason we can’t investigate the matter for ourselves, that still leaves one last tool: Scepticism.

I’ve often said that whenever anyone (media or PR company, politicians, whatever) tells us something, especially stuff that results in a strong reaction within us like outrage or indignation in particular, then we should ramp up our scepticism and doubt what we’re being told.

Personally, I try to get the story from multiple sources because that often helps me see if the facts are true as reported. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a headline for a story about an issue I care deeply about (usually about LGBT+issues, but it could be anything, really), and I have a strong reaction to it, only to find out that story doesn’t back up the rhetoric of the headline (clickbait, in other words). If the linked story does back up the headline, then another source often presents a fuller, better context. Either way, I can dial down the outrage meter. This isn’t foolproof—the additional sources may be downplaying something that it’s appropriate to be outraged about—but it’s better than accepting everything presented to us as factual and accurate and outrage-inducing.

As it turns out, Hank talks about this in the description of the video on YouTube, something I don’t normally read, but did this time as I was making my final edits to this post. He made a particularly good point, too:
Once I started thinking about this video, I saw more of these lies at every turn. They're common in political speech, and insidious in their usefulness. Often, once you click on the headline or watch the video, you even find out that you had taken the wrong message from the headline. And then, in that case, you feel like it's your fault that you misunderstood… but let me tell you, no one thinks as much about headlines and titles as the people who write them. They know exactly what they're doing.
And you might think, "But if it's explained in the article.… no one got hurt, right?" Except that the vast majority of people who see a headline do not read the article… the headline IS CONTENT and needs to be treated that way.
He’s absolutely right, and it’s another reason why scepticism is so important. When we remain sceptical about what we’re being told, especially about stuff that reinforces what we already believe to be true, then we’re far more likely to be able to evaluate the information being served to us. That, in turn, makes it much harder for a “head lie” to take up residence in our brains, which, in turn, will make new facts and evidence easier to evaluate fairly.

As always, the power is ours. We just need to use it more.


rogerogreen said...

The birth rate is down, teen birth rates are really going down (but could go up if more abortion clinics close), women over 45 are having more babies (but that's a small percentage of women, and there is more risk to them and the babies, statistically). Of course, some head lies are a result of other lies, such as someone saying America is "full", no more room, which is simply untrue.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

Absolutely. There are two issues, I think. One is the deliberate planting of those "head lies" in order to spread disinformation. Governments, politicians, and corporations are among those who do that. The other kind isn't deliberate, as when an overworked journalist rushes to report the very basics of a story, with no time (or possibly the skills) to look deeper. I think both are difficult for individuals do anything about, apart from being wary and sceptical.