Move 3: Reading laterally (Day 2)

Sources, social media, and a really bad coronavirus

Many of you have been using the current coronavirus crisis to fact-check a number of stories that circulate with suspect statements of fact. So let’s begin today by taking a look at this tweet from @DrEricDing, a Harvard-affiliated researcher who studies epidemics and pandemics.

Now-deleted tweet from @DrEricDing, a Harvard-connected epidemiologist

Now let’s listen to this story from On the Media podcast about the virality of this tweet and why it’s important to read laterally, but also to do so while in concert with the other moves — going upstream and checking previous work (including Wikipedia).

The story, of course, suggests that complex health information — when written or adapted for the attention economy — has the potential to reduce, distort or, become entangled with the problems of their delivery systems. As a result, the public can receive bad information, which can sometimes be dangerous. That’s the focus of today’s lesson.

Recent studies suggest…

Most studies are data points–emerging evidence that lends weight to one conclusion or another but does not resolve questions definitively. What we want as a fact-checker is not data points, but the broad consensus of experts. And the broad consensus of experts is rare.

Mike Caulfield, Chapter 20

Activity: For your third fact-check I am asking you to investigate a statement of fact from a news report by demonstrating all three moves: checking previous work, going upstream, and reading laterally. One way to make that task manageable is to look for a report that cites a recent study. There are a number of news stories to choose from in the headlines.

Let’s look at this one from June, about cell phones causing humans to grow horns, and practice the moves we’ve learned. These include:

1. Looking at previous work via fact-checking sites and Wikipedia.
2. Going upstream on the study (which seems to be misattributed in this news program).
3. Reading laterally about the sources of info cited within.

Run through these moves at your table, trade findings, and be ready to contribute to a whole class discussion.

What does it mean to be an expert?

Often you are not in a position to critically read original scholarly research because it takes many years to develop the knowledge and literacies required to become an expert. That’s one of the reasons you are in college. This expertise can be observed if you try to pick up a journal from any given field. What makes these journals really credible, however, is the process of peer review.

Yet, for all of the credibility peer-reviewed journals muster, sometimes these journals are not even immune to the effects of filter bubbles or the spread of misinformation. Consider the article, “The Case for Colonialism,” which was published in Third World Quarterly in 2017, which argued that our racist, oppressive moments in world history were overall beneficial to humans, or the “Grievance Studies” hoax that was widely reported on in the news in October 2018, which infiltrated identity-based scholarship.

If you do some quick searching to find out about how this was received by the wider academic community, you’ll find some interesting results about these journals and the authors. Although these are a rare cases, they do explain why is it important — for all researchers — to check previous work, go upstream, and read laterally.

Activity: Now search “recent study” in Google News and choose one of the studies to fact-check. Once you check previous work and go upstream on the study, follow Caulfield’s advice and read laterally by googling the journal’s impact factor (Ch 21) and checking Google Scholar for author citations (Ch 22). What do you find? How can you find consensus on this issue (Ch 23-24)?

Homework for next class

Factcheck #3: Investigate a statement of fact from a news report by demonstrating all three moves: checking previous work, going upstream, and reading laterally.

One way to do that is to choose a news report that cites a recent study. You can continue with the one we started in class or choose a new search. Once you find a news story that cites a study or piece of scholarship, go upstream to find that original study. [Note: You may have to log in to Campbell Library to access some of these.]

Even if you cannot find the actual study, use the strategies from the chapters above to check the credibility of the journal and the expertise of the author(s). If you get stuck on one strategy, discuss it in your post, but move to another. Not all journals will have an impact factor and not all authors can be easily found in Google Scholar, but you should seek both. Ultimately your goal is to use these search strategies to “accurately summarize the state of research and the consensus of experts in a given area, taking into account majority and significant minority views.”