On Wednesday 11 January 2017, Mr Donald Trump – you know, the President of the United States of America – pointed at a reporter from CNN (one of the country’s most respected broadcasters) with the damning accusation: “You are fake news”. He was referring to a dossier, reported upon by CNN and released in full by Buzzfeed, that contained many claims about Mr Trump’s relationship with Russia. There was no real evidence to support these claims, hence the indignant response. Later, on Sunday 22 January, White House aide Ms Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press and stated that the White House press secretary Mr Sean Spicer had described audience numbers at Mr Trump’s inauguration with “alternative facts”. NBC anchor Mr Chuck Todd said, “look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods”.
This is where we are right now. Whether we’re calling it fake news, alternative facts, misrepresentations or plain old fibs, we’ve suddenly become aware that not everything we read and see out there, on TV, on the internet, in print, is strictly speaking, 100 per cent… true. Of course, the concept of “fake news” is one that was talked about following the 2016 presidential election – in which credible-looking but ultimately untrue stories about both candidates were circulated by a variety of outlets on social media – but this is not exactly a new problem. In fact, governments, advertisers, journalists and independent voices on the internet have long been twisting the facts to get their messages across, not always in an entirely honest fashion. The difference now, according to neuroscientist Mr Daniel Levitin, is that there’s just so much confusing information out there. “In the current information age, pseudo-facts masquerade as facts, misinformation can be indistinguishable from true information, and numbers are often at the heart of any important claim or decision,” Mr Levitin says. “Bad statistics are everywhere.”
It’s an apt time, then for the re-publication of Mr Levitin’s book A Field Guide To Lies And Statistics, an engrossing volume of advice about how to think critically and scientifically about the things we are told by governments, the media, and even our friends. Covering everything from graphs and diagrams (and how to cheat with them) to probability and logic, to when and how to evaluate the worth of expert opinions, it functions as a helpful toolkit for dissecting news stories and claims, with the aim of finding that ever-elusive quality: the truth. Below, we’ve collected just a few of Mr Levitin’s tips for seeing the facts clearly – if you want a complete dose of his wisdom though we recommend ordering a copy of the whole book, which is out now from Viking.