Introduction: How to Fact Check

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These are troubled times. But we can make them a little less troubled if we take the time to fact check before believing the things we hear or that come across our inbox, and before carelessly forwarding and adding to the tinderbox nonsense waiting to spark into a conflagration of foolishness.

We can do our part to alleviate social unrest and public ignorance by not fueling the fires of falsehoods that divide us, and stomping out misinformation and outright lies when we find them. If you've ever seen the film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, you may remember the Fire Stomping Rhino . This Instructable will show you how to be a Falsehood Stomping Reader.

(By the way, one of these headlines is true - you'll know which by the end of this Instructable!)

Step 1: Take the Four Way Test Before You Share

We'll start by taking a page out of the Rotary International playbook.

The Rotary International is a service organization whose mission is bring together business and professional leaders to provide humanitarian services, encourage high ethical standards in all vocations, and to advance goodwill and peace around the world. Rotarians are guided by a nonpartisan and nonsectarian ethical guide for personal and professional relationships called The Four-Way Test. The Four Way Test is also an excellent litmus test for online and off line communications. Before you share anything, simply ask yourself:

  1. Is it True?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Here we're mostly concerned with the first and foremost question: Is it True?

Step 2: Say What?

Let's start with the Fire Stomping Rhino itself. Is there any basis to that story at all? Turns out there may be. The path to the truth starts simply with questioning what you hear: DO rhinos stomp out fires?

Step 3: Google!

Google is your friend here if you use it properly. To do that, type in your question, in this case: do rhinos really stomp out fires?

Scanning through the first few returns, you'll see some interesting stuff: a summary response from the website Mental Floss that pretty much addresses the question directly, hits from How Stuff Works, Yahoo Answers and a species specific site, among others.

I headed over to How Stuff Works first, because that's a known, reliable quantity. There I learned, "In a 1974 survey of scientific literature on the rhinoceros, there is a mention of the Burmese belief that the rhino was attracted to campfires. Once finding them, the rhino would "trample and devour" the fire -- basically becoming a fire-eating legend [source: Van Strien]"

There's one of your first clues to reliability: a cited source. Clicking on Van Strien takes you to a PDF of an extensive Sumatran rhino overview. Searching within the document on the keyword "fire" takes you right to page 48 and the reference on fire eating.

So then I just searched on "Burmese fire eating rhino legend" and found my way to the Fortean Zoology website which helpfully summarized a version of the tale:

"According to the native Burmese the Sumatran rhinos favourite food was fire. The rhinoceroses would favour this food over all others and, according to some stories, would eat nothing else. It simply loved the stuff and couldn’t get enough of its flamey goodness. It was said that Sumatran rhinos would follow the smell of smoke from camp fires for miles until it found the camp, where-upon it would attack in order to get its lips around the burning wood. These stories probably originated from observations of rhinos eating ashes from spent fires, which is something that some animals do in order to get nutrients they maybe missing from their diet or just because the burnt wood and ashes have an interesting texture and taste, with fats or other components of a meal having splashed over the fire when cooking."

Who knew?

Step 4: Ask Questions

We asked questions about the fire stomping rhino to learn more about a possible myth. But you also need to ask some basic questions about questionable news and information, like the news story folks were sharing around about a kid being mugged while playing Pokemon Go.

Given the addictive quality of the game, it really isn't that far fetched a possibility. However, being reported as quickly as it was, like within hours of Pokemon Go becoming a thing, was a hint that it might be a viral rumor which, in fact, it turned out to be.

When you see something iffy, and actually, even just as a matter of habit, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Where's the news source? Is a reliable website? Is there a byline for an author or reporter?
  2. Is there bias? Are there are lot of generalizations or an obvious slant to the piece?
  3. What's the date? Is it an old story being recirculated, or, like the Pokemon Go piece, a way too new story to be credible?
  4. Does it look and smell wrong? If the site design to which your news links stinks - lots of flash and pop ups - that can be a sign that the information from it stinks, too. Although - not always. Some very professional looking sites can be bogus, too. Also, are there are a lot of CAPs and !!!! in the piece? Those are clues, too.
  5. Where's the source site link? Reliable and reputable websites often link to each other. To see what sites link to your source site, go to Google and enter this in the search field---> link: http://www.[sourcesite].com

Also, says Joel Kilpatrick, founder of Lark News, “If it includes the words ‘Obama’ and ‘End times’ in the same headline, it’s probably not true."

And sometimes, when you're sure something is too silly to be true, and you go through the above steps, you may be surprised to find out, as in the case of Chicken Nugget Girl, it's absolutely absurdly true.

Assume nothing.

Step 5: Know Thy Logical Fallacies

Logical fallacies are just that: false arguments in logic and rhetoric that undermine the soundness and validity of an argument. If you want to get technical about it, there are two kinds: formal fallacies and informal fallacies.

More to our purposes though, logical fallacies are at the heart of bloviating political nonsense, quack cures and false advertising. They're the smoke and mirrors of everything from car sales to policy making, and can result in a spectrum of ills from mere ignorance to lightened wallets and from social unrest to civil wars.

Recognizing logical fallacies is key to being critical thinker, and making sound personal, social and civic decisions.

One of the best sites around for helping you identify logical fallacies is Your Logical Fallacy is... which is chock full of useful resources and information about logic, including this Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies.

If the information you're looking at matches up with one or more of the fallacies listed, then you might want to take a step back to the step before this one and ask those questions.

Step 6: Stock Your Fact Checking Tool Box

As with any other Instructables, it's good to use the right tools for the job. For Fact Checking, some of the best tools include:

Plus some from readers I'll add as I learn about them:

  • From xxlauraxx : Google Books filter: Depending on what I'm trying to fact check, one resource I sometimes use is the Google Books filter in a Google search. You can further filter the search to results from 20th century or 19th century books, giving you results from a time when fact checking was more in vogue. :)

Armed with truth, now you can consider those other three questions before you share the news or information you've been given:

  • Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  • Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Because while the Chicken Nugget Girl story may be true, and sufficiently fair to all concerned, does it really build goodwill, improve friendship and is it beneficial in any way? I'll leave that to you. And for what it's worth, HIV was not injected into bananas shipped to the U.S.. But hopefully you fact checked that by now!

Happy Falsehood Stomping!

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