Today information is everywhere, but what should you trust? Can you spot the difference between well researched articles and stories full of opinion, errors or even lies?
In our final chapter of “Prove It: How to find the facts,” we’ll find out how to think like a fact checker.
CHILD: You're listening to Brains On, where we're serious about being curious.
CHILD: Brains On is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
BARGO: Order. I now call this meeting of Giants to order. For newbies here, I'm Bargo. Good to see you all looking so tall, mighty.
MAN: Yeah, you're so tall.
BARGO: As we all know, Giant City has been rocked by a series of thefts. People are stealing.
MAN: It's the puny human, Jack.
MAN: Oh, he's the worst.
MAN: Dargo's right. Last week he stole my gold coins. I was going to donate those to charity.
MAN: He stole my harp. It was my grandma's.
LARGO: You guys, he stole my golden goose, Glenda.
MAN: Oh, Largo, I'm so sorry.
MAN: Yeah. You loved Glenda.
LARGO: I miss you, Glenny. Mommy won't forget you.
MAN: There, there, Largo.
BARGO: Look, we've all been robbed by that pesky Jack and his terrible beanstalk. The only thing that seems to keep him away is staying up all night gardener stuff.
MAN: But it's so hard. I need my sleep.
TARGO: Yeah. I keep dozing off in the middle of my watch. And when I wake up, bam, Jack strikes again. Man, I'd love to grind him up and make bread out of his bones, I mean, metaphorically speaking. I'd never harm a living thing.
MAN: Oh, we all know you are a vegan, Targo. Do you have to start on this again?
TARGO: It's an important part of my identity and it's really important to me.
BARGO: Focus, Giants, focus. Now, who has some good ideas on how we can all stay up longer?
MAN: Hey, has anyone tried coffee?
TARGO: You can't be serious.
LARGO: What do you mean? It keeps you awake. It's got caffeine.
BARGO: You do know that coffee stunts your growth, right?
LARGO: Wait. It does?
TARGO: Come to think of it, you don't look as tall as you could be, Largo.
LARGO: Oh, no, you guys, being tall is what Giants are all about.
MAN: But, guys, I'm pretty sure the idea that coffee stunts your growth is a myth.
BARGO: Your call, Largo. But better safe than sorry. I always say that. Now, next order up. Hey, where's my gavel? I left it right here.
TARGO: Oh, he did it, again. Jack is the worst.
LARGO: He was here?
LARGO: What a pest.
(SINGING) How can we deflate what we declare?
Through your eyes eyes then test for errors.
What if what we say feels right?
OK, sure, but let's just shine a light.
We can prove it. We can prove it. Let's check the facts and prove it. We can prove it. We can prove it. Let's check the facts and prove it.
MOLLY BLOOM: This is Brains On. I'm host Molly Bloom, and welcome to the final episode of our series, Prove It, How to Find the Facts. My co-host for this series is 12-year-old Katie from Fairfield, Connecticut. Welcome back, Katie.
MOLLY BLOOM: This series is all about getting good information.
KATIE: We've studied science. We've shared about journalism. And today, we're going to help you learn how to spot bogus claims.
MOLLY BLOOM: That's right. Today, tips and tricks of the trade, never be bothered by bad information again. So, Katie, have you heard questionable claims from friends or family? Can you remember any that you've heard?
KATIE: Well, my grandma tells me not to cross my eyes or they'll get stuck that way.
MOLLY BLOOM: Do you that's true?
KATIE: No, because a lot more people would have their eyes stuck.
MOLLY BLOOM: So, Katie, when you are looking at information, do you kind of feel like you get like a gut sense that something is wrong when you see something?
KATIE: Sometimes. If it's really clearly biased, or there's no good sources, then you can kind of tell it's not very true.
MOLLY BLOOM: You mentioned the word bias, and that comes up a lot when you're talking about how to know which facts are facts. So how would you explain what bias is?
KATIE: Well, to me, bias means like if you're writing about something and you have a strong opinion, you sometimes can let that opinion flow into your writing and that way, you only show one part of the story to help your views. And that's not a good thing. That's called bias.
MOLLY BLOOM: Well, today, we're going to learn more about fact checking. But first, let's check in on that claim we just heard. It's one we got from our listeners, Lily and Levi.
LILY: I've heard that coffee can stunt kids growth. Is that true?
MOLLY BLOOM: Back for her final fact check of this series is Linda Qiu from The New York Times. Hi, Linda.
LINDA QIU: Hi.
MOLLY BLOOM: All right. So this is a very important one. Will coffee stunt your growth?
LINDA QIU: No, that's not true. There's a reason why we might think that, because for a lot of years, we thought that caffeine, which is a substance in coffee, causes a disease called osteoporosis. And people with this condition experienced bone loss so people thought, like, if you're losing bone, you're probably getting shorter. Therefore, coffee drinkers must be losing bone mass and getting shorter.
But there's actually a few problems with that theory. So old studies that linked caffeine to this disease, osteoporosis, didn't prove a definite link between the two. They tended to look at people who drank a lot of coffee and other caffeinated beverages, like soda. But these same people didn't really drink milk or other beverages that had calcium, which is what we need to grow bones.
So you can drink coffee, but if you also drink milk and eat spinach or have other things that have calcium in them, your bones will probably be fine and you probably won't get shorter. But more convincing that coffee doesn't stunt growth is a study of 81 teenagers. They found that the teens who drank the most caffeine had no difference in bone density than the teens who drank the least amount of caffeine. So there's really no link at all.
LILY: Well, time to go drink some coffee.
MOLLY BLOOM: We are not endorsing coffee drinking for children.
LINDA QIU: Yeah.
MOLLY BLOOM: Don't go drink coffee.
LILY: It'll make you jittery. Don't do it.
MOLLY BLOOM: So maybe it's just that people who were drinking all that coffee just weren't eating a lot of other good stuff. They were kind of replacing the good stuff with coffee?
LINDA QIU: Exactly. So this is what we call an example of correlation and not causation.
LILY: Why does correlation doesn't equal causation?
LINDA QIU: So causation means that there's a direct link between a cause and effect. So, for example, if you are hit in that spot underneath your knee, your leg is going to go up. That's direct causation.
But correlation means that we think there is a link, but they just happen to be happening at the same time. So, for example, the coffee example that we talked about, right? Coffee doesn't stunt growth, but maybe what's stunting growth is that coffee drinkers aren't also drinking milk.
MOLLY BLOOM: So it's like it's possible it's a coincidence, or maybe it is the cause, we just don't know. It's just they happen at the same time.
LINDA QIU: Yeah.
LILY: How do you tell if there's an opinion or a fact in the news?
LINDA QIU: That's a great question. So, for me, there are a couple of telltale signs. One of the things is, if the statement has a statistic in it. So, for example, if someone says the crime rate is down a certain number, I can verify that by looking at police reports or data from the FBI.
Opinions usually have what we call editorial statements, so things like, I thought, I believe, I want. These statements that we describe for feelings, I usually won't fact check those because those are feelings and not facts.
LILY: Thanks for sharing your facts and knowledge with us, Linda.
LINDA QIU: Yeah, you're welcome. This is fun.
MOLLY BLOOM: The way we get our news is constantly changing. Earlier in our series, we told you the history of newspapers, but that's only part of the story.
LILY: Radio was a big player when it hit the scene about 100 years ago.
CHILD: This is a radio bulletin. We're beaming the news straight into your ear holes. Ears, where news belongs. And now, these headlines.
MOLLY BLOOM: Then a few decades later, TV showed up.
MAN: Welcome to the nightly news where seeing is believing. Now, our top story.
LILY: And news is still changing. After all, now we have the internet.
DAMASO REYES: Today, I can turn on my phone and go online, go on Twitter, or Snapchat, or Instagram, or Facebook, and I'm flooded by information.
MOLLY BLOOM: That's Damaso Reyes. He's a journalist and works for the News Literacy Project.
LILY: It's a group that teaches people how to tell what news is real and what's not.
MOLLY BLOOM: Damaso grew up in the days before the internet, back when there were only a handful of places to get your news, like newspapers, radio, or TV.
DAMASO REYES: What was different then is not only were there fewer channels of information, when something called itself news, I could trust that it had been created by a journalist, it had been checked by an editor, and it had been created for the purpose of informing me.
MOLLY BLOOM: Today on the internet, anyone can write an article and call it news.
LILY: Sometimes those articles are well researched and full of facts.
MOLLY BLOOM: Other times they might have errors or even lies.
LILY: The author might try to be objective to keep his or her opinion out of the story.
MOLLY BLOOM: Or they may try to convince you to think like them. Maybe they do that by only telling one side of the story, or by leaving out important details that would hurt their argument.
LILY: Damaso says it can be really hard to tell who's offering reliable information and who's not.
MOLLY BLOOM: It's always smart to look at the sources in an article. That means look at who is quoted. Are they experts? Do they work for a well-known school, or research institution?
LILY: If there is a statistic or fact, does the article say where they found it?
MOLLY BLOOM: Real journalists try to give you as much information about their sources as they can. So remember in our last episode, we talked about newspapers sensationalizing the news, making a story sound way more exciting or scary than it actually is.
LILY: Sometimes you'll find stories online that do the same thing. Damaso says you can often spot this type of news because it plays on your emotions.
DAMASO REYES: If it makes you really angry, or really sad, or really worried, or makes you laugh really hard, that could be a sign that maybe this information isn't reliable. A lot of people who like to make things up, they do so in a way that makes us react to the information really strongly. They might try to make you scared, or they might try to make you angry, or they might try to make you laugh.
MOLLY BLOOM: One more thing. Damaso says it's important to keep an eye out for something called confirmation bias.
LILY: It's a really technical sounding term, but all it really means is that we tend to believe the information that confirms or agrees with our opinions.
MOLLY BLOOM: And we shrug off, or disbelieve, stuff that disagrees with our worldview.
DAMASO REYES: So say that I really love chocolate cake, which I do. And then I see something on social media that says there's a study that says that people who eat chocolate cake are smarter than other people. Well, I like chocolate cake.
I like to eat chocolate cake. I think of myself as a smart person. I might just believe that just because I already like chocolate cake.
And the opposite is true. People tend to not believe information that contradicts or challenges what they already believe. So if I saw an article that said that eating chocolate cake makes you get bad grades, or makes you not as smart as other people, I might immediately reject that information saying, well, that can't be true because I like chocolate cake.
So confirmation bias is something that kind of works in the background of our brains. It's a way that we sort of unconsciously filter information.
MOLLY BLOOM: Confirmation bias is a very powerful thing. After all, we like being right, so it makes sense that we often believe stuff that agrees with us. But confirmation bias can also be dangerous.
DAMASO REYES: People who create want to incite people to anger, or to violence, also use the same mechanisms of confirmation bias to get us to kind of short circuit our brains and not to explore whether or not the information is true. It feels true, or it looks like other things which are true so that's good enough. And that's really a dangerous thing because that's exactly what people who create misinformation are hoping that we think so that we just share the misinformation, we share the things that are untrue, based on how we feel rather than what we know.
MOLLY BLOOM: One way to get good at spotting bad info is to think like a fact checker. Researchers at the Stanford History Education Group studied how fact checkers go about checking information, and found that most engaged in a similar behavior. The researchers dubbed it lateral reading.
LILY: That means when you are looking at an article, don't just read up and down in the same window. Open up other tabs, too, and look at the claims you are reading.
MOLLY BLOOM: Lateral means sideways. And when you open up new tabs in a browser, they often show up on the sides. To help you strengthen your lateral reading muscles, we're going to drop in on a mental fitness class.
CHILD: All right, everybody, this is lateral reading boot camp. We're going to flex those minds and give your critical thinking a workout. Are we ready?
CHILD: OK. Let's start by opening up an unfamiliar web page. And open, and open, OK, and open. All right, class. Nice job. Do we trust this unfamiliar site?
CHILD: How do we feel about it?
GROUP: Curious, but skeptical.
CHILD: Exactly. Now, we can't just read this website to find out if it's trustworthy. Why is that Marcus?
MARCUS: Because this site will try to make itself sound trustworthy?
CHILD: Correct. Even if it looks professional, it could still be full of bad information. So we need some outside sources. Let's stretch that index finger, people.
And stretch, and stretch, looking good, nice form, and stretch. Now, click open a new tab and click, and click, good form, Jane.
JANE: Thanks. My doctors say I have unusually long fingers.
CHILD: Lucky you. OK. Now, let's see what other sites have to say about this unfamiliar page, shall we? Here we go. And let's search, and search, and search, and search.
BETHANY: OK. What exactly are we searching for?
CHILD: Fantastic question, Bethany. We're searching the name of the site, or an author featured there to see if any other sources have written about them. And search, and search.
MARCUS: Oh, I found a newspaper that mentions my site.
CHILD: That's great, Marcus. What does the article say?
MARCUS: It says my unfamiliar website is a great source of information.
CHILD: Excellent, Marcus. Now, search a few other places to see if they say the same thing. And search, and search. And Jane, I see you searching for pictures of puppies. Not on my time. Here in lateral reading boot camp, we're evaluating websites.
BETHANY: Oh, I found a Wikipedia entry about my site.
CHILD: OK, that's good. What does it say, Bethany?
BETHANY: It says the site is notorious for writing hoaxes.
CHILD: Very good, Bethany. And look at the Wikipedia page. There should be links to the sources of what's written at the bottom of the page. And what do we love, class?
BETHANY: Look, I found an article from a newspaper that says the site I'm evaluating gets a lot of facts wrong
CHILD: Good work, Bethany. So, class, should we trust this site Bethany is evaluating?
CHILD: What should we do instead?
GROUP: Look elsewhere.
JANE: Look at puppies.
CHILD: Jane, seriously, enough with the puppy pictures.
JANE: Wait, I found something. It says my site is run by people who hate dogs.
CHILD: OK. Weird, but OK.
JANE: So that means that all the information on this website I'm evaluating is probably very unfair to our canine companions.
CHILD: That's a good assumption. Very well done, Jane.
JANE: It's probably run by a bunch of cats. They love picking on dogs.
CHILD: Cats may rule the internet, but they can't type, Jane. OK, everyone. That was some great lateral reading. Stick around if you want to be part of my next class, six fact abs. Bye now.
MAN: (SINGING) Brains On.
MOLLY BLOOM: Sometimes it feels like there's a million tabs open in my brain, but let's take a minute to focus on just one thing. It's time for the mystery sound.
CHILD: Mystery sound.
MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is.
MAN: A fact is something that is consistent with objective reality or can be proven with evidence. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is, whether it can be demonstrated, correspond to experience, and reference how it works are often used to check facts. And scientific facts are verified by reputable careful observation by experiments or other means.
MOLLY BLOOM: OK. Any guesses about what was going on there?
LILY: Well, I think it was somebody speaking extremely fast, for one thing. But they were also talking about fact checking and how to find the truth.
MOLLY BLOOM: Yes. Well, we are going to be back with the answer of what exactly was happening there a little later in the show.
Here's a fact. We get tons of emails and letters from you. And here's an opinion. We love the questions, drawings, mystery sounds, and ideas you come up with.
LILY: And the place to send them our way is brainson.org/contact.
MOLLY BLOOM: We read every single note that comes our way, and there are a lot of them. They bring us so much joy and they keep this show bubbling and exploding with your brilliance. Another fact, the questions you send to us are on a super diverse range of topics, like this one.
KEN: My name is Ken. I live in Winchester, England. And my question is, what are freckles made of?
LILY: We'll have an answer to that in a moment-- at the end of the show.
MOLLY BLOOM: Plus, we'll read the latest batch of listener names to be added to the brain's honor roll. And you know, making a fact-filled show for families is a lot of work, but we are happy to do it.
LILY: I have to say, it's pretty fun to be a part of.
MOLLY BLOOM: But we couldn't do any of this without one thing.
MOLLY BLOOM: OK, two things-- snacks and you, our listeners. Your donations make this show happen. Please support us so we can keep it going. Just head to brainson.org/donate, and see the cool thank you gifts we have.
LILY: Thanks, and high five.
KATIE: You're listening to Brains On from American Public Media. I'm Katie, and this is Molly.
MOLLY BLOOM: Hi, there.
KATIE: And today, we're finding out how to keep our facts straight.
MOLLY BLOOM: So what happens when you see two pieces of information that seem to contradict themselves? Like, say you hear about two studies, one that says chocolate is good for you, and one that says it's bad.
KATIE: Chocolate is coming up a lot this episode.
MOLLY BLOOM: People care about chocolate. So is chocolate good for us or bad?
ANNA ROTHSCHILD: By the time the headline goes out there that chocolate is bad for you, that might not really be what the study said.
KATIE: That's Anna Rothschild. She's a science reporter for the Washington Post, and she makes a video series called, Anna's Science Magic Show Hooray.
MOLLY BLOOM: And she says sometimes a shocking headline might misrepresent what a study really found.
KATIE: It might be that the writer is oversimplifying the results, or getting them wrong.
MOLLY BLOOM: Anna says when you see those contradictory headlines, it's a good idea to try to find the study itself through a special search engine, like, Google Scholar. That way you can see if that's really what the study concluded and not just a grabby headline.
ANNA ROTHSCHILD: In essence, the thing about those studies that are totally contradictory is that they might have been very small studies, and so it might have been that they looked at chocolate in 10 people, and they made some conclusions about what chocolate did to those 10 people. But it's very difficult to be able to say in a broader way that what happened to those 10 people is really what would happen to all people because all people are very different.
MOLLY BLOOM: This is important. Not all scientific studies are created equal. Some include lots of data and involve years of research. These often give you more reliable findings.
Other studies may use just a little data and were done fast, or with sloppy experimental techniques. These are more likely to be full of bad information.
KATIE: Remember earlier when Linda talked about correlation and causation? That can be a factor, too. Anna used to be a scientist, and she says being a reporter and a scientist have a lot in common.
ANNA ROTHSCHILD: For one thing, you have to be really curious. You have to want to find answers to all sorts of different questions and never really get bored. I think another part of it is that you're always looking for the truth.
You're looking for not just the surface level layer of understanding, you're trying to dig deep and get to the real kind of core of whatever it is that you're trying to understand.
MOLLY BLOOM: Time to go back to that mystery sound. Let's hear it again.
MAN: A fact is something that is consistent with objective reality or can be proven with evidence. Usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is, whether it can be demonstrated, correspond to experience, and reference how it works are often used to check facts. And scientific facts are verified by repeatable, careful observation, by experiments, or other means.
MOLLY BLOOM: So it sounds like someone talking really fast. Do you have any ideas about who might be-- like, why someone would need to talk that fast?
KATIE: Well, maybe Sanden had a lot of chocolate.
MOLLY BLOOM: That's a good idea. Maybe Sanden just got really excited and ate a lot of chocolate and it made him talk really fast. Well, let's see what the answer is.
BRYCE PIOTROWSKI: My name is Bryce Piotrowski I'm a junior at the University of Minnesota, and I am the Vice President of Minnesota Student Debate, the Parliamentary Debate team. And what you just heard was called spreading, or speed reading, combined into one word.
MOLLY BLOOM: So that guy is a debater. And there's-- so there's like high school debate teams and also college debate teams. He's on a college debate team.
And when he talks really fast, it's a way to cram even more information into the debates that he's doing.
KATIE: Wow. I mean, it sounds good and all, but how are they even going to hear what he's saying?
MOLLY BLOOM: Yeah. I have a question about that, too. How do you understand all those facts? I also think that speed reading should be pronounced spreading. I'm just going to say that.
KATIE: Yes, spreading.
MOLLY BLOOM: Instead of spreading. Even though it's spelled spreading, I feel like we should start a campaign to pronounce it spreading.
MOLLY BLOOM: And Bryce says he loves debate because it lets him see the world differently.
BRYCE PIOTROWSKI: I think people are too quick to dismiss others and won't think about how individuals with different experiences may have different opinions that are shaped by those experiences. The ability to listen to people and engage with them, I think, is what debate teaches. It teaches you to sit down and listen for a little bit more than anything else.
KATIE: We have access to more information than ever before, which can be a great thing.
MOLLY BLOOM: But sometimes, it makes it hard to know which sources of information are reliable.
KATIE: When looking at information, think about where it comes from and how it makes you feel.
MOLLY BLOOM: And watch out for confirmation bias.
KATIE: Yeah. Don't believe something just because it agrees with you. Curiosity can lead to lots of amazing questions.
MOLLY BLOOM: And skepticism can make sure the answers you find are based in facts. That's it for this episode of Brains On.
KATIE: Brains On is produced by Sanden Totten, Molly Bloom, and Marc Sanchez.
MOLLY BLOOM: We had production help from Ned Leebrick-Stryker, and Jackie Kim. Many thanks to Megan Reddy, Joel [INAUDIBLE], Aaron [INAUDIBLE], Hans [INAUDIBLE], Nora McInerney, Hannah Maycock Ross, Marcel [INAUDIBLE], Lisa Brenner, Mike Grow, Brian Frank, Brianna Lee, Libby Denkman, Vicki Kreckler, Koko Sanchez, Kathy Kuhn, Megan Oglesby, Lynne Warfel, Mark [INAUDIBLE] and Sam Choo.
We had engineering help from Julie [INAUDIBLE], Sara [INAUDIBLE], Randy Johnson, and Corey Schreppel.
KATIE: And Brains On is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
MOLLY BLOOM: If you have a question, idea, or mystery sound to share with us, you can head to brainson.org/contact.
KATIE: And you can keep up with us on Instagram and Twitter, we're @brains_on.
MOLLY BLOOM: And, hey, we're a nonprofit public radio podcast. Support from listeners like you helps us keep making new episodes. If you're interested in making a contribution, head to brainson.org/donate.
KATIE: Now, before we go, it's time for a Moment of Um.
CHILD: What are freckles made of?
KRISTEN KELLY: I'm Kristen Kelly, and I'm a Professor of Dermatology and Surgery at the University of California Irvine.
Freckles are tan or brown spots that are found on the skin. They most commonly are found in areas where the sun hits your skin-- for example, the face, and the hands or the arms. But they can appear in lots of different places.
Freckles are formed when the skin increases the amount of melanin. So you might be asking, what is melanin? Melanin is what gives your skin color.
It's also called a pigment. If we didn't have melanin, then your skin would be very white like a piece of paper. Most people have melanin.
And the more melanin your skin makes, the darker your skin. You're born with a certain amount of melanin. But when you go out in the sun, then your skin may make more melanin.
For the most part, freckles are not dangerous. They are a sign that your skin has gotten damaged by the sun. This is why it's important to protect your skin from the sun. You want to wear sunscreen and a hat.
MOLLY BLOOM: My freckles and I are ready to read this list of names. It's the Brain's Honor Roll. These are the amazing listeners who share their incredible ideas and marvelous mystery sounds with us. Here they are.
[LISTING HONOR ROLL]
KATIE: That's a wrap on Prove It, How to Find the Facts.
MOLLY BLOOM: May your curiosity be bountiful--
KATIE: Your skepticism healthy--
MOLLY BLOOM: --and your facts evidence-based. We'll be back next week with more facts and answers to your questions.
KATIE: Thanks for listening.
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