"To Be Verified": Trivia and Critical Thinking

A friend posted a link to the following list of factoids on his Facebook profile: Useless facts, Weird Information, humor. It contains such intriguing statements about biology, language, inventions, etc.

Similar lists abound, often containing the same tidbits:

Several neat pieces of trivial information. Not exactly “useless.” But gratuitous and irrelevant. The type of thing you may wish to plug in a conversation. Especially at the proverbial “cocktail party.” This is, after all, an appropriate context for attention economy. But these lists are also useful as preparation for game shows and barroom competitions. The stuff of erudition.

One of my first reflexes, when I see such lists of trivia online, is to look for ways to evaluate their accuracy. This is partly due to my training in folkloristics, as “netlore” is a prolific medium for verbal folklore (folk beliefs, rumors, urban legends, myths, and jokes). My reflex is also, I think, a common reaction among academics. After all, the detective work of critical thinking is pretty much our “bread and butter.” Sure, we can become bothersome with this. “Don’t be a bore, it’s just trivia.” But many of us may react from a fear of such “trivial” thinking preventing more careful consideration.

An obvious place to start verifying these tidbits is Snopes. In fact, they do debunk several of the statements made in those lists. For instance, the one about an alleged Donald Duck “ban” in Finland found in the list my friend shared through Facebook. Unfortunately, however, many factoids are absent from Snopes, despite that site’s extensive database.

These specific trivia lists are quite interesting. They include some statements which are easy to verify. For instance, the product of two numbers. (However, many calculators are insufficiently precise for the specific example used in those factoid lists.) The ease with which one can verify the accuracy of some statements brings an air of legitimacy to the list in which those easily verified statements are included. The apparent truth-value of those statements is such that a complete list can be perceived as being on unshakable foundations. For full effectiveness, the easily verified statements should not be common knowledge. “Did you know? Two plus two equals four.”

Other statements appear to be based on hypothesis. The plausibility of such statements may be relatively difficult to assess for anyone not familiar with research in that specific field. For instance, the statement about typical life expectancy of currently living humans compared to individual longevity. At first sight, it does seem plausible that today’s extreme longevity would only benefit extremely few individuals in the future. Yet my guess is that those who do research on aging may rebut the statement that “Only one person in two billion will live to be 116 or older.” Because such statements require special training, their effect is a weaker version of the legitimizing effect of easily verifiable statements.

Some of the most difficult statements to assess are the ones which contain quantifiers, especially those for uniqueness. There may, in fact, be “only one” fish which can blink with both eyes. And it seems possible that the English language may include only one word ending in “-mt” (or, to avoid pedantic disclaimers, “only one common word”). To verify these claims, one would need to have access to an exhaustive catalog of fish species or English words. While the dream of “the Web as encyclopedia” may hinge on such claims of exhaustivity, there is a type of “black swan effect” related to the common fallacy about lack of evidence being considered sufficient evidence of lack.

I just noticed, while writing this post, a Google Answers page which not only evaluates the accuracy of several statements found in those trivia lists but also mentions ease of verifiability as a matter of interest. Critical thinking is active in many parts of the online world.

An obvious feature of those factoid lists, found online or in dead-tree print, is the lack of context. Even when those lists are concerned with a single topic (say, snails or sleep), they provide inadequate context for the information they contain. I’m using the term “context” rather loosely as it covers both the text’s internal relationships (the “immediate context,” if you will) and the broader references to the world at large. Without going into details about philosophy of language, these approaches clearly inform my perspective.

A typical academic, especially an English-speaking one, might put the context issue this way: “citation needed.” After all, the Wikipedia approach to truth is close to current academic practice (especially in English-speaking North America) with peer-review replacing audits. Even journalists are trained to cite sources, though they rarely help others apply critical thinking to those sources. In some ways, sources are conceived as the most efficient way to assess accuracy.

My own approach isn’t that far from the citation-happy one. Like most other academics, I’ve learned the value of an appropriate citation. Where I “beg to differ” is on the perceived “weight” of a citation as support. Through an awkward quirk of academic writing, some citation practices amount to fallacious appeal to authority. I’m probably overreacting about this but I’ve heard enough academics make statements equating citations with evidence that I tend to be weary of what I perceive to be excessive referencing. In fact, some of my most link-laden posts could be perceived as attempts to poke fun at citation-happy writing styles. One may even notice my extensive use of Wikipedia links. These are sometimes meant as inside jokes (to my own sorry self). Same thing with many of my blogging tags/categories, actually. Yes, blogging can be playful.

The broad concept is that, regardless of a source’s authority, critical thinking should be applied as much as possible. No more, no less.

5 thoughts on “"To Be Verified": Trivia and Critical Thinking”

  1. I like this line you’re developing about critical thinking developing ‘naturally’ out of feedback loops. I also agree about the tendency even (especially?) in academic work for citation to degenerate into invocation of authority. The question of what counts as evidence is, of course, fundamental.

    The other tendency of the web is to be lots of people shouting idiosyncratically into the void. Fact-checking wouldn’t be the point there, although pure solipsism would be avoided by gravitation toward common depravities.

    Btw I’ve poked at you in . Come play!

  2. @Carl
    Glad this caught your attention. Some of our conversations did serve as a backdrop for part of this. And your post about tenure may have had something to do with it.
    One thing about being an anthropologist is that we frequently get caught up in the “hard” vs. “soft sciences” debate. My contention is that, in ethnographic disciplines like linguistic anthropology and folkloristics, we’ve developed a fairly sophisticated way to deal with factuality, using critical thinking tools such as assessment of bias. Fact-checking is ok but it’s misleading insofar as people get the impression that vetted texts have a very high degree of accuracy and that it should be enough. I didn’t really start ranting about journalism here but I think “J-schools” encourage this kind of thinking through which standard procedures of fact-checking are all that’s needed and little care is taken to determine if anything can followed further (if readers can easily do their own fact-checking). The problem there is that many journalists are trained to think their readers lack intelligence.

  3. Yes. And just to add to that, there are in fact many things that even intelligent writers and readers may ‘lack’, like interpretive flexibility, reflexive self-awareness, a sense of the absurd, or just the time and inclination to dig into a particular question more deeply. ‘Sometimes’ is probably a fairer standard than ‘always’.

    When I was doing a lot of symbolic interactionism, back in the human development days, I toyed with the thesis that “we are what we pay attention to.”

  4. @Carl “the thesis that ‘we are what we pay attention to.'”
    Nice one.
    And maybe I was ranting more than I realized. I mostly meant to talk about the benefits of critical thinking which, to me, may be more important than those other ones writers need to cope with.

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