A field guide to lies

Daniel Levitin believes “we have failed an entire generation of children” by not preparing them properly for college. By this Levitin, who is an American cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer, and currently James McGill Professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, means students are increasingly entering tertiary eduction without the necessary critical thinking skills. 

“Words matter”, he told at audience at the RSA today. “Alternative facts” is a dangerous euphemism, he says. “Fake news, alternative truth – these are all euphemisms used by journalists in order not to offend people.” But, he says, truth is not about politics. Politicians should be saying  “these are the facts, what are we going to do about them?” Politicians can have an honest disagreement about the same facts, but they can’t have alternative facts. 

Journalists need to just call “alternative facts” what they are – lies. “Don’t be afraid of offending people. If they are lying they deserve to be offended.” In fact, he would go further. “I’d like to see fact checkers on TV. There should be a ticker running along the bottom of the screen saying “that’s a lie” – perhaps with a Pinocchio nose or a halo!”

He says Barrack Obama made a lot of sense when he said that democracy isn’t free. “We’ve begun to think it is and as soon as you do that you risk democracy itself.” 

The solution is to support the key institutions like law and science. “We’ve got used to thinking all politicians lie.” But it shouldn’t be left at that. 

He has written a book called “A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics” which offers some basic advice. 

“Before you hit like button and share a story think ‘is this true’,” he advises. There are good techniques for evaluating claims. For example, is it plausible?

He cites the example of a recent taxi ride where the taxi driver told him – “Do you know that there are 15bn people in the world who don’t have access to the internet.” What he meant to underline was an emotional point, Levitin says, which was that a large section of people in this unequal world are held back by not having access to the internet. But “numbers matter”, he says. After he explained that there were only about 7bn people in the world in the first place, they went on to have a good conversation about the topic. 

Another critical thinking tennet is that experts are not always what they seem to be. Take the famous Colgate advertisement that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Colgate. 

 There are several issues this throws up. “How many dentists? Five or 500 or 5000? Who are these dentists? Is it likely they would have an incentive to say this?  Is the dentist even the right person ask in any case? I’ve never been asked by my dentist which toothpaste I use in all the years I’ve been going.”

In fact, he says, this is one of the key issues today – picking the right expert. “Experts are too ready to step outside their area of competency.”