21: The necessity of skepticism

The skeptical attitude is our basic navigational tool through a media-saturated society.

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
…Albert Einstein.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
…Carl Sagan.

I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.
…Arthur C. Clarke

What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.
…Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

ONE OF OUR BASIC NEEDS in citizen journalism is critical thinking skills. We need this to understand something, to assess how true it is likely to be and to think about what information might be missing.

This is why citizen journalists, and hopefully other journalists too, are skeptics.

The skeptical attitude is our basic navigational tool through a media-saturated society. It asks for evidence or, where that is lacking, for what is most likely to be true or what is most likely to eventuate. This might be based on similar events as well as on common sense and our own sense of what is likely according to our own knowledge and experience.

The skeptical approach is not foolproof but it is the best tool we have to detect the lies, the misleading, misrepresentation, assumptions and half-truths that would beguile and inveigle.

Skepticism is not cynicism

Let’s be clear that skepticism is not cynicism.

Cynicism is a completely negative attitude. It is a do-nothing, everything-is-bad-and-getting-worse-can’t-fix-it attitude that allows bad people to continue to do bad things and get away with it. It is, in reality, a type of serial hopelessness.

Skepticism is open to possibilities and asks questions. It seeks evidence and where that is not available it looks to the past and to current knowledge to make deductions about what is likely true.

Skeptic questions

Here’s some advice from the Richard Dawkins Foundation on skeptical questions to ask:

  • how reliable is the source of the claim?
  • does the source make similar claims?
  • have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  • does this fit with the way the world works?
  • has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  • where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  • is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  • is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  • does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  • are personal beliefs driving the claim?

While this advice is slanted towards scientific claims it is applicable in other fields too.

Skepticism, then, is an attitude and practice that assesses the truth of something. As citizen journalists, skepticism is a tool we wield to help our readers makes sense of the world and to separate myth, misinformation, erroneous belief and lies from what is real.

…advertisers and marketers have no responsibility to provide verifiable information and they can mislead with incomplete or false claims…

Different types of information

Discerning between the different types of information is a basic skill of the citizen journalist. This includes knowing the difference between:

  • evidence and inference
  • fact and opinion
  • assertion and information
  • fact and marketing/promotion/public relations
  • journalists and others who disseminate information
  • journalism and other kinds of writing.

Knowing when we are reading advertising, marketing or public relations copy dressed up to read like a factual article, what is known as ‘advertorial’, is necessary if we are not to be misled. Reputable media clearly identifies advertorial.

…public relations people are not journalists. They are paid to shape opinion around some person, business, organisation or government…

It is unfortunately true that advertisers and marketers have no responsibility to provide verifiable information and that they can mislead with incomplete or false claims. They are, after all, paid to say good things about a client or a product.

We should also keep in mind that public relations people are not journalists. They are paid to shape opinion around some person, business, organisation or government to influence people’s perception about them. Like marketers, public relations has no ethic about telling the whole truth.

Beware social media claims

Beware taking what we read on social media as fact. While fact is reported there are also misleading claims, misinterpretations of information, fake news, marketing, lies and plain old misunderstanding and misinformation.

Misunderstanding and misinformation was illustrated in the story that accompanied a photo of a pack of wolves in the Canadian wilderness. The photo was posted and reposted on Facebook in 2017 and vent viral, attracting around 23,900 responses. Unfortunately, while the location of the photo was reported correctly, the information purporting to explain the traveling formation of the wolves and leadership of the pack was incorrect and misleading.

The wolf pack image from Snopes.com that went viral on Facebook. The photo was taken by Chadden Hunter and featured in the BBC documentary Frozen Planet in 2011,

False information

The sentiment that concluded the misleading information accompanying the photograph was a good one about leadership, about leadership “not about being out front. It means taking care of the team.”

The rest of the post was erroneous, whether due to error of fact or it being deliberately erroneous is unknown. It claimed:

  • the three wolves leading the pack were old and sick and by walking at the front they set the pace so they were not left behind
  • the next five were the strongest and their role was to “protect the front side if there is an attack”
  • the animals in the middle were “always protected from any attack” while the five following were also among the “strongest and best, they are tasked to protect the back side if there was an attack”
  • the last wolf was claimed to be the leader.

Why did the author make his/her own interpretation of the wolves’ formation? Was it to make his own point about leadership? If so, is he being dishonest?

The realty

As is often the case, the reality was simpler. It was revealed most recently on Facebook when the erroneous photo and accompanying information was again widely shared.

In response to a stream of complementary Facebook comments about the post and the notion of leadership it purported, Larry Lim, an American, provided a reference invalidating the post by pointing to an analysis of the photo on the Snopes.com website.

Snopes is a mythbusting service that deconstructs false claims, urban legend and other spurious information. The ‘about’ page on the website details Snopes’ background, research methodology and other information.

According to Snopes:
A photograph of a wolf pack is commonly shared with an inaccurate description of the behavior of wolves. (It) shows a wolf pack being led by the oldest and weakest members.

This photograph is ‘real’ in the sense that it shows a pack of wolves in Wood Buffalo National Park, but the pack is not being led by the three oldest members and trailed by an ‘alpha’ wolf, as implied by a viral Facebook post. Instead, one of the stronger animals leads the group in order to create a path through the snow for them.

Snopes goes on to report that the term ‘alpha’ in relation to animal pack leadership could also be erroneous, citing a 1999 paper by David Mech, Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs. In the paper, Mech argues that the concept of an alpha wolf asserting dominance and leadership over other pack members “doesn’t actually exist in the wild.”

The lesson

For citizen journalists and people posting to social media there are a few lessons in the repeated posting of misleading information around this photo.

The first lesson is not to take at face value what you see in social media (or on websites and other media as well, though misrepresentation proliferates on social media). The photo the focus of this story was an authentic photograph unaltered by photo editing software. The claim about leadership accompanying it, remembering that ‘leading from behind’ is an accepted form of leadership, was misreprentation.

The second lesson illustrates the value of skepticism in citizen or any other types of journalism and to social media in particular. Skepticism is not cynicism, which is about distrust and often manifests as a ‘no hope’ attitude that sees futility in attempting change. Skepticism asks whether something might be true or false. It looks for evidence or for what is most likely based on knowledge and experience.

The third lesson is that photographs often require captioning to contextualise and give them meaning. They need words to explain what went on, where it went on and when it happened. Citizen journalists and photographers publishing photos will do well to write a succinct caption to describe the image and give it specific meaning. This can take the simple form of who is doing what, where and when.

Without context, a range of meanings can be ascribed to a photo, erroneously or deliberately, and these can reflect the mindset, beliefs, values and political or social agenda of those making the claims.

A photograph can be further validated for viewers by adding to the caption the credit for the photo, such as: ‘Photo: © Kelly Kale’ (and perhaps adding their website so readers can check out their work). That was not done when the wolf pack photo was circulated on social media so there was no way of backtracking to the photographer or the website where the photo might have been used to validate it.

On social media things are not always what they seem or what they claim to be. An open, skeptical approach works best for navigating our way through the deluge of text and image that floods onto our screens.