An Erratic Orbit

A bipolar perspective on the 3rd planet


April 2018

How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 2. Evaluating Sources

For most of us, video and written news are the sources we are most likely to deal with. It is very important to be aware that reporters often do NOT see all of what they report even if they are in the area. It is better to go straight to the horse’s mouth, which we can usually do for documents and expert testimony if not witnesses. It is also important to note that the words that accompany video footage, and how the video is edited, can very easily be misleading.

Picture of Alison Moyet
What has this relatively recent picture of 80s pop icon Alison Moyet (taken from got to do with anything?

A comprehensive article on a subject or event will often reference several other sources. As obvious as it then might be to say Wikipedia can be useful for identifying multiple sources[1] (although we absolutely must check those sources ourselves), many people stick to the sources that tell the story they want to hear. If we want to do better than that, looking at Wikipedia might be a start, since -all other things being equal[2]– each extra source which agrees makes the given information more likely to be true.

A cow in a field
All will be revealed. Image: Dohduhdah (Public Domain)

If one person tells me they’ve seen a cow at the bottom of the high street, they might be lying or mistaken. If two people tell me separately, a few minutes apart, it’s not so likely they would both be mistaken. Perhaps they are in it together, conspiring to make me think there is a cow at the bottom of the high street when there isn’t. If ten people tell me, I’m probably going to think they aren’t all likely to be mistaken. They could ALL be in it together, but the more people involved then generally the more work required to keep up a lie. When it comes to whether there’s a cow in a built up area, why bother going to that much trouble to lie?

Guildford High Street
Guildford High Street. There’s a cow at the bottom. (Image:

It also helps if the person telling us about the cow is known to be trustworthy. The information ideally will not conflict with other knowledge we hold either. If all cows on Earth were killed by nanorobots released by a mad scientist[3] then it wouldn’t be very likely there was a cow anywhere.

Now, what if rather than a big lie deliberately involving many people, one person started a rumour about a cow on the high street and they told someone else, who told someone else, and so on, and then ten or more people told you? Then it doesn’t matter how many people tell you about the cow: It would all be coming from one person, either lying or mistaken. So in the pursuit of truth we need also to make sure that our sources are independent. That is, we need to know if they witnessed the cow for themselves without being influenced by others.

Lastly, if half the people we talk to say there definitely is a cow and the other half say, no, there definitely ISN’T, then who are we to believe? So conflicting accounts -as long as they are trustworthy, independent, and equally direct (e.g. two witnesses to the event)– rightly cause doubt.

To recap the features to look out for:

– First hand accounts and documents. Note that even a news piece contains much that is indirect and checkable.

– Trustworthy sources.
– Multiple sources.
– Independent sources.

– Agrees with what we already know.

– All things being equal, the story is likely.
– Not many independent conflicting accounts.

That’s the basics. Before we go into each of those in detail, it is of the utmost importance to deal with the one person who most gets in the way of finding out the facts. They will be the subject of Part 3.


[1] Wikipedia footnotes are clickable links which bring up citations, themselves usually clickable. If you’re not sure what a citation is or how to read one, here’s an explanation.

[2] All things aren’t equal, but we’ll come to that in good time.

[3] Fortunately, 80s pop icon Alison Moyet foiled the scientist and the only harm done was minor abrasions to two cows in a field in Letchworth.[4]

[4] Citation needed.


Back to the introduction (Part 1)


How To Avoid Fake News, Propaganda, And Downright Nonsense: 1. Introduction

Although it may seem as if truth is ever harder to find, we live at a time when the majority of the (UK) population has easily-searchable, near-instant access to by far the most comprehensive store of knowledge that ever existed. And whereas once all news came through a very few channels, today eyewitnesses can post video to the world within seconds. The flipside of this is that we are exposed to dizzying amounts of stuff.

Person stressing out surrounded by drawing of lots of internet related things

A lot of this stuff, or information, is not actually informative. Some of it is outright propaganda:

All of us grow up believing most of what we are told. This has some survival advantages but of course adults have to be a bit smarter than that. However, adult scepticism, particularly about official or “mainstream” sources, is easily exploited. If we believe one source is biased or downright manipulative then it’s easy, and perhaps comforting, to accept a near opposite version of events wherever it comes from. This is entirely unsatisfactory too, because the world isn’t that neat, baddies aren’t only opposed by goodies, the world isn’t two-dimensional, and even when there is a side who is morally justified (or “in the right”) we are not guaranteed accurate, let alone honest, reporting in support of it.

It’s far too simplistic to dismiss every word of, say, BBC journalists, as a lie. To then swallow an alternative version whole is to retreat into an infantile view of the world.

So we must not only be vigilant but find nuanced ways to evaluate the stories we are exposed to, and even more so if we are initially inclined to believe them, because- as the scientist Richard Feynman said- the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Newspaper with the headline

Luckily there are methods developed by humans to help find which stories are truthful and which are not. They aren’t perfect but if we follow them we will have a lot better idea of what is really going on than if we don’t. They require a bit of effort but that’s the price of admission to an informed discussion. Anyone is welcome to ignore them, and they will find plenty of other people who will agree with the fake news they have no way of avoiding, but generally such voices are not influential outside of their circle. Although there is always a risk of populism and/or ideology overriding rigour. Later in the series we will examine the circumstances surrounding some of the more notable historical examples, such as the persistent Conservative narrative of the “undeserving poor”, drugs policy in most countries, and the ideologically driven pseudoscience that took hold under the Nazis (Aryanism) and Stalin (Lysenkoism).

In Part Two we will look at the first method we can use to help avoid repeating similar historical mistakes. Evaluating sources.

Part 2

Blog at

Up ↑