Friday, July 13, 2012

Moral obligations and Lazy Truth

I was going to include this in a Friday link post, but I really felt it deserved it's own spotlight.  

There's a new gmail gadget called "Lazy Truth" that promises to send you a fact check email every time you receive a (forwarded) email it deems to be of dubious content.

I haven't tried it, so I'm not sure what it's set up to flag, or how accurate the "fact check" email is, but I was immediately intrigued.  I've actually been working on a much longer post that covers just this topic, so it's something I've been giving a lot of thought.

I've been mulling over the rise of Facebook/email/Twitter lately, and wondering.....for those of us who value our integrity and our truthfulness, and do not believe ends justify means, what exactly are the moral implications of hitting forward or share on information that we could have easily proven to be false if we'd checked?

I was wondering if I was the only one worried about this, when I came across a blog post from Dr Michael Eades.  He's a pro-low carb physician, who spends much of his time critiquing nutritional research.  In a post about the book "The China Study", he describes finding what he consider a great critique of it on another person's blog.  Then this:
.... I had fallen victim to the confirmation bias.  My bias was that Dr. Campbell was wrong, so I was more than happy to uncritically accept evidence confirming his error without lifting a finger to double check said evidence myself.  I knew that if a blogger somewhere had come out with a long post describing an analysis of the China study demonstrating the validity of all of Dr. Campbell’s notions of the superiority of the plant-based diet, I would’ve been all over it looking for analytical errors.  But since Ms. Minger’s work accorded with my own beliefs, my confirmation bias ensured that I accepted it at face value. 
Once the fact that I had succumbed to my confirmation bias settled in around me, I became suffused with angst.  I had tweeted and retweeted Ms. Minger’s analysis a number of times, giving the impression that I had at least minimally checked it out and had approved it.  I had emailed it to a number of people, many of whom, I’m sure, had forwarded it on.  I’m sure I played a fairly large role in the rapid dissemination of the anti Campbell/China study info.
In the end, he went back and realized that the post was good, but his panic attack was intriguing to me.  How many of us have had this same panic?  How many of us should have?  How many lousy graphs rip through Facebook like wildfire because no one bothers to double check if they're even valid?  Is the liar the person who created the graph, or do those who share it share some blame?

I don't pretend I have an answer for this.  I feel most of the people interested enough to read this blog probably do not fall in the category of those who would easily share skewed information without thinking about it, but I am hoping for some thoughts/feedback from you all.

Are we so used to hearing politicians of all stripes seamlessly repeat bad data that we've come to view it as acceptable?  Is this just a fact of life?  Is it possible that we will be saved by widgets like the one above?   Does religion matter, or is this an overall moral issue? Does confrontation work with this sort of thing?  Or is this something I just have to learn to live with?


  1. I'm thinking of the people forwarding the Sorkin trailer at present...

    I listen to the numbers and go "How many 22-week preemies survive in Thailand, or Cuba, or Egypt?" How do people not get suspicious with obviously-insane numbers?

    1. And I think the question I'm grappling with is what point does this stop being naivete, and start crossing in to actually lying? Is developing a BS detector a nice thing to do or something we should be expecting of people?

  2. Don't forget, a BS detector would filter out your blog!