Spin has become art, and one we are subjected to daily. Brook Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book, UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, will provide you with the tools for separating fact from fiction. The authors warn you, “this book will challenge you to cast the same critical eye on your own beliefs as you do on the other’s side.”
The authors identify seven warning signs that you are encountering spin. The first is, if it is scary, be wary. When there is an appeal to fear it is often to cover a lack of evidence. This is a warning sign to take a hard look at the facts. The second is, a story that’s “too good.” The authors say that, “when a claim seems ‘to good,’ it should be a warning to withhold judgment until we get a closer look at the evidence.” The third is, the dangling comparative. “More,” “higher,” these are dangling comparative terms. When you hear them, you should ask ‘Compared to what?’ The fourth is, the superlatives swindle. “Most,” “highest,” are superlative terms. You should approach claims that contain superlatives with care so you are not enticed into a shallow decision. The fifth is, the ‘pay you Tuesday’ con. The authors tell you that, “Wimpy, a friend of Popeye, was an unscrupulous glutton who tried to snag a free meal with the classic line: ‘I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.’ That ‘pay you Tuesday’ element should raise suspicions…When ‘Tuesday’ arrives somebody is going to be stuck with a large tab.” The Sixth is, the blame game. When employing the blame game, one points a finger at an unpopular group hoping that will divert attention from the weakness of their own evidence. When you see the blame game, ask yourself, what would the other side say in defense? The seventh warning sign is glittering generalities. Glittering generalities are terms like “middle class,” “affordable housing,” “right to privacy.” When you hear a glittering generality you should ask, what exactly do you mean by that?
The authors identify eight tricks of the deception trade. The first trick is misnomers. Is the “tall” coffee you just ordered really tall, or is it their small coffee? Is an “environmental fund” to protect, or to exploit the environment? You should ask yourself if the name reflects what they are trying to sell you. The second trick is, frame it and claim it. When you frame a debate, you choosing names that will evoke a response before the facts have been looked at. You call the estate tax, a death tax; most of don’t have estates but we all die. Only the richest 1.3 percent of the population paid the estate tax in 1992. There was not much support to repeal it, but by framing it as a death tax, the issue gained more support. Just as you wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t judge an issue by its name. The third trick is weasel words. When you don’t know the facts you can use words to disguise that. “Largely” can mean anything up to half. “Most” means more than half. “Several” is more than two, but less than “many.” Weasel words are a sign they aren’t giving you the facts. The fourth trick is eye candy. The authors tell us that, “Propagandists know that when words say one thing and pictures say another, it’s the pictures that count.” Remember to focus on what they are saying, not just the images. The fifth trick is the average bear. Remember the average is not the median. The average refund from the tax cuts was $1,586, but half of Americans received $470 or less. The median is the midpoint where half are above and half below. Remember when you hear average, it may not mean “typical.” The sixth trick is the baseline bluff. This is when a someone accuses their of opponent of wanting to cut spending when what they actually wanting to do, is not increase or increase at a smaller rate than their opponent. When you hear that someone wants to cut a program, ask yourself, a cut compared to what? The seventh trick is the literally true falsehood. When the director of the CIA was asked, he told reporters that the CIA had never assassinated a foreign leader, what he didn’t say was that they had tried, but never succeeded. Ask yourself, what are they leaving out? The eighth trick is the implied falsehood. When something is implied but not stated outright, you need to ask your self, why are they not saying it directly?
Having shown us how to spot spin, the authors proceed to explain why we fall for spin. They explain the psychological concepts of spin, such as, cognitive dissidence, confirmation bias, third person effect, and spreading the alternatives. The authors tell you that research has shown these psychological effects can be overcome, “when people are forced to ‘counter-argue’—to express the other side’s point of view as well as their own—they are more likely to accept new evidence rather than reject it.” They then illustrate why is important to have accurate information and how to find it. They provide you with five lessons in finding the best evidence. Lesson one is don’t confuse anecdotes with evidence. The authors assert that one or two interesting stories do not prove anything. Lesson two is to remember the blind man and the elephant. In the ancient fable, six blind men feel different parts of an elephant and mistakenly identify it as a snake, a wall, a tree, a fan, a spear, and a rope. The lesson of this fable is we cannot always trust our own experience; that the full picture might be something more. Lesson three is not all studies are equal. When presented with a study you need to ask yourself is, who stands behind the information, does the source have an agenda, what method was used to gather the information, how old is the data, what assumptions were made in collecting the data, and how much guesswork was involved. Lesson four is, saying it, doesn’t make it so. False claims that are frequently repeated cause people to believe them, but it does not make them true. Just because you see something repeated frequently, don’t accept it as fact. Lesson five, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. If a claim seems extraordinary, look for information from another source to confirm it.
How do you know the source of your information is valid? The authors provide eight rules for avoiding faulty information. Rule number one is, you can’t be completely certain. No matter how good your source is, information changes, new discoveries are made, new things are learned. Rule number two is that you can be certain enough. You can know beyond a reasonable doubt, but the more important the decision, and the more difficult it is to reverse; the more careful you have to be. Rule number three is to look for general agreement among experts. While consensus is not fact, we can accept that we are on the right track when something is widely accepted by the authorities. Rule number four is to check primary sources. Like the childhood game of telephone, when something is repeated it can become distorted. Always check the original source. Rule number five is to know what counts. When you see a statistic makes sure you know what they were counting. Rule number six is to know who is talking. Is he an authority? Does he have a vested interest in convincing you of the data? Rule number seven is that seeing, shouldn’t necessarily be believing. Our perceptions are not always accurate. Rule number eight is to cross check everything that matters. Relying on a single source is a good way to be wrong.
Following the advice in this book will keep you from being the victim of spin. It would be an excellent gift for a high school or college student.