Spotting BS

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Yesterday’s rant was on the need to check out facts before finalizing opinions. A great example of this is in today’s NY Times piece on last night’s debate – it simply states what the candidate said and what multiple sources say on the same subjects to back up or question what was said. Hopefully the paper and many others will continue to do this right through the election next year.
But what happens when you do try to verify facts and find that there are multiple, conflicting data points? Could it be because some of them are fake?
Hell yes, it could.  A team at Cornell has been working on algorithms to spot fake reviews based on language cues and found out that humans are pretty bad at spotting the fakes, which they called “opinion spam”:

…we find deceptive opinion spam detection to be well beyond the capabilities of most human judges, who perform roughly at-chance—a finding that is consistent with decades of traditional deception detection research

You can click-through to read the paper yourself (see – not afraid to show you the source!).  Kind of depressing but obviously online reviews may not be the best place to look for facts unless you know the author. One supposes that we can extend that principle to blogs that offer statements of “fact” unless they can document their findings via reputable sources (meaning NOT other bloggers!).

Even then, there’s an awful lot of human-authored crap out there.  There are sites that will write you positive reviews for a fee and post them.  There are places that offer discounts on your next visit if you’ll post a positive review.  So what can one do to spot the truth?

Look for professional reviews or news sources, for starters.  Do they provide links to sources or is everything unnamed?  Are the organizations cited verifiable (you can’t believe how many fancy names are cover groups for political action committees – obviously folks with an axe to grind one way or another).  Check the volume of reviews – popular items obviously have more and in theory should have more variation in the feedback.  See if all the positive reviews came in at once.  Look to see if there are any negative reviews – some companies will contact folks and offer something in return for deleting a bad review.

Spotting BS in news articles, those chain emails you get, or in reviews isn’t easy but you owe it to yourself to try.  I’m convinced we’d all be a lot better off if we spent time looking for the facts instead of screaming about stuff that just isn’t true but seems to be.


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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

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