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July 19, 2009

Why You Should be Skeptical of the News

So far on Scientifica Phenomena we haven't covered any stories about the paranormal or pseudoscience. These topics can be highly controversial, but to understand science I think it's important to understand why some things just don't qualify. If you read a newspaper or watch the news, the reporting on scientific and pseudoscientific issues is often horrible. This is not to say that there are no good reporters out there, but most of them don't have the background knowledge (or don't care enough) to get the story right. The papers and news stations themselves are more worried about profit then content. Unfortunately, this means that most people's understanding of science, and pseudoscience, is skewed.

I found a great example of this inconsistency of modern journalism at Yesterday (July 17th) the examiner had two stories about the paranormal. One was titled "Ghost Hunting 101: How to hire a paranormal investigator" and the other "Skepticism 101: Do psychic powers exist?". This is one news source reporting two very conflicting stories. The reality is that the Examiner doesn't care about the accuracy of what they publish, so how does the reader tell the difference?

The best thing to do is do your own research. Look for evidence from other sources that don't have a financial motivation. See if there have been any good scientific studies done. Unfortunately, most of us just don't have the time to do that.

One thing to look for is a clear explanation of why they hold there position. In their defense, the ghost hunting article is not about the existence of ghosts. In other articles by the same author (Pamela Grundy), she does try to argue for the existence of supernatural creatures. The only evidence presented is anecdotal (which I talk about here). On the other hand Michael Rosch in Skepticism 101 talks about some tests that have been done of psychic powers. Micheal also give many external links where you can find more information; this is always a good sign.

It is often hard to tell if an article is really showing the evidence or is misleading you. Again, the best thing to do is look for more information. The mass media can't be trusted to always get the story right. The best way to prevent yourself from being mislead and deceived is to be skeptical.