In 2017, I gave a TED talk, What to Trust in a Post-Truth World, warning of the dangers of confirmation bias — we accept a claim uncritically because we want it to be true, even if the evidence behind it is flimsy.
Since then, misinformation has arguably become worse. The most pressing issues of our time, such as climate change, public health, and economic prosperity, are steeped in falsehoods. It’s tempting to produce misinformation — politicians can get elected, authors can flog books, and influencers can go viral by saying what people want to hear, rather than what’s true. And it’s tempting to fall for misinformation. To win an argument, Google ‘Why immigration is good’ or ‘Why gun control is bad’ and repeat the claims uncritically; to find an excuse to do something, search for ‘Why chocolate is good’ or ‘Why exercise is bad’ and lap it up.
Fact-checking websites range from simple statements (a tweet that COVID vaccines cause heart problems) to academic papers (a study on cheating actually cheating with its data). They all highlight how a statement is not fact: it may not be accurate.
But a punchline of my TED talk was that checking the facts is not enough. Even if facts are 100% accurate, they may still be misleading.
- A fact is not data: it may not be representative if it’s selectively quoted. Someone could trumpet a smoker who lived to 100, but hide the thousands of others who died from their habit.
- Data is not evidence: it may not be conclusive if it’s correlation without causation. People who eat whole grains are less likely to have heart disease. But people who choose to eat whole grains may lead healthier lives in general, and this could be causing the lower heart disease, rather than whole grains being a superfood.
- Evidence is not proof: it may not be universal if it’s in a different context. The Marshmallow Studies showed that kids who resist eating a marshmallow do better in life. But they focused on Stanford University children. Kids of less wealthy backgrounds may be better off eating whatever food is available, since it may not be there tomorrow.
The word ‘lie’ typically means an outright falsehood. But ‘lie’ is simply the opposite of ‘truth’. Someone can lie by hiding contradictory information, not gathering it in the first place, or drawing invalid conclusions from valid data. Even if books, studies, or talks are filled with facts, they should all carry the same health warning: They may contain lies.
The purpose of this website is to be constructive — it is not to call out authors for spreading lies, but to help readers guard against lies so that they can make better decisions. Societies malfunction, economies stagnate, and companies underperform. If improving performance were as easy as claimed by some viral talks, influential studies, and bestselling books, we wouldn’t have such wasted potential; instead, these lost opportunities may be due to following conclusions that aren’t backed up by evidence. Any elements of this website that appear sharp are only to highlight the danger of biases and the costs of misinformation.