Illustration: Ashley Siebels
The ability to identify misinformation has implications far beyond the current debate about fake news.
The skill of thinking critically about facts is also essential in the workplace, said Daniel J. Levitin, the author of the recently released book, Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era.
Ladders spoke with Levitin about strategies for spotting lies and uncovering the truth at work.
Ladders: What does it mean to be in a ‘post-truth’ era?
Levitin: The average person is unable to figure out what’s true and not true. Some people have given up trying to figure it out.
Then we have some of the highest officials in the country saying thing we know are true are not true and saying that they have “alternative facts.” That’s just the type of Orwellian doubletalk that we should all be afraid of.
A fact exists in the world. It either rained or it didn’t. You can specify the particular time of day and the place, but it’s either a fact or it’s not.
Living in the post-truth era entails a collective shrug of the shoulders when encountering information. People think: “You can say anything. You can find facts to support anything.”
And that’s just not true.
How does this mentality affect us at work?
In most workplaces, we’re called upon in some fashion to use evidence to make a decision about something.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist or a craftsperson, or in banking or in the service industry or in government. Something that you’re doing is based on evidence.
Someone says: “We’ve observed this, and this is what we want you to do about it.”
Critical thinking demands that you should call into question where information came from. But if you’re calling into question what was observed in the first place, that’s a problem.
At some point, you have to agree that it’s knowable, and that it matters.
Then you can disagree about how to approach it.
What are some examples of things that might be misunderstood?
Say you’re going to use unemployment statistics to make a decision. Maybe you’re thinking of hiring people, and the unemployment rate will affect your ability to find new employees or to retain the ones you have.
There are a lot of different ways of calculating unemployment. You have to know what’s going in to the numbers.
Are you counting absolutely everyone who is out of work, including infants and people in the hospital and people who have voluntarily retired and inmates? If someone is working 35 hours a week and they want to work 40, are they unemployed?
All of us need to be asking questions.
Where do these numbers come from? What do they represent? How are they gathered? Who gathered them?
If you have sales numbers from some product that you’re company is selling, there are a lot of valid questions to ask.
Does this represent every sale or is this a sample? Are there some sales that aren’t reported in this number?
What are some ways we can spot lies?
- Ask yourself if the numbers are plausible.
- Look at the source.
- See if you can corroborate it.
These tips can help us in our daily lives in a lot of ways, including making decisions about business relationships and who to hire.
Trust but verify. Give people a chance to speak freely, but look out for signs that something is amiss.
Also look out for vagueness. If a claim is vague, someone may be trying to hide something from you.
I just heard a story about a guy who was interviewing for an executive position, and during the interview, they asked him to tell them about himself. Among other things, he said he was a pilot and that he had flown himself to the interview.
The interview said: “Oh, very interesting, what kind of plane do you fly?”
And he didn’t have an answer.
If you let something like that go, you won’t discover the lie. But when you ask follow up questions, you discover all kinds of interesting information.