Two Books on Finding Facts in a Dangerous World

  • Glenn Croston and Loren Collins
  • Prometheus Books

Two authors look at the human tendency to follow our biases and believe what we want to, regardless of pesky facts.

The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World Glenn Croston Prometheus Books 280 pp.

Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation Loren Collins Prometheus Books 275 pp.

Reviewed by Randy Cepuch

Humans tend to believe what they want to believe, regardless of pesky facts. That certainly explains a lot of otherwise inexplicable behavior, and it’s the premise of The Real Story of Risk: Adventures in a Hazardous World and Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation. Fortunately, the authors offer some perspective on what’s real, what isn’t, and how to tell the difference whether or not you want to.

In The Real Story of Risk, Glenn Croston observes that we’re terrified of sharks, “which are mainly a hazard in movies,” even though 600,000 people die of heart disease for every one death from a shark attack. He points out that predator fears — unlike, say, car accidents — have been ingrained since the dawn of time and we’re not likely to get over them soon. Like the proverbial frog in gradually heated water, we’re lousy at recognizing and responding effectively to risks that develop slowly. Take global warming, for example. And the very interconnections that make our lives convenient in today’s world, such as population centers, electrical grids, transit systems and so on, also can make it harder for us to flee from dangers.

Fortunately, denial can work: Croston reports on a 15-year study showing that people who rated their heart risk as low were only a third as likely to suffer a heart attack (with all other risk factors adjusted) than those who rated their risk as high. But it can’t work forever, and sooner or later the 88 percent  of Californians who don’t have earthquake insurance are bound to regret their short-sightedness.

What could make a difference? Croston says he thinks that facts are unlikely to change minds and that the best hope is the influence that individuals can have on  others’ behavior (if you strap your bookshelves to the wall, your neighbors and friends might do that, too, if you tell them about it), as well as repetitive media campaigns (like those pushing Coca-Cola, even though we all know the name and the product).

Loren Collins, in Bullspotting, has a similarly pessimistic take on facts: “we distrust information that’s inconsistent with our personal biases.” He’s a Southerner who long drank the Confederacy Kool-Aid infused with the notion that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery — only to discover that, whoops, it really was.

Collins quickly gets to the heart of why people today are so misinformed. Not surprisingly, it’s because traditional media can’t compete with the Internet and “ideological and agenda-driven websites offer up factually-questionable propaganda posing as news.” In other words, people can find whatever “facts” confirm their religious, political, cultural or other beliefs simply by going online. What’s more, “inexpensive cameras and editing software now permit even the nuttiest conspiracy theorist to produce a polished video presentation that can be visually compelling.”

While there are several sites that exist solely to establish what’s fact and what’s fiction — notably, and — they don’t tend to change minds that are already made up. Indeed, sometimes people become even more convinced their story is right when they confront clear proof that it’s wrong, as Collins says was the case with some who believed that Iraq was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction before President George W. Bush launched the 2003 invasion of that country.

Collins observes that conspiracy theorists tend to favor negative notions rather than positive evidence, and aren’t averse to moving the goalposts. “Birthers” demanded, first, to see President Obama’s long-form birth certificate; but as soon as it was released they decided it must be a forgery. As a measure of how popular conspiracy theories are today, Collins notes that it’s ironic how many people associate just one person, John Wilkes Booth, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, while believing that a group was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when facts show the reverse was true.

Perhaps because he successfully overcame his misunderstanding of the Civil War, Collins believes individuals can help themselves be better informed. He offers helpful suggestions for those who want to try.

Essentially, his advice is: Don’t believe everything you read or hear. He reminds us to consider sources, especially if they lack complete and convincing attribution. Twitter’s character limit ensures that quotes will often be credited to the wrong people, he says, suggesting that readers verify sources using Wikiquote “despite its open-source nature.”

Similarly, Collins warns that if evidence is invisible or obscured (announcing that Bigfoot has been found but is being kept on ice at a secret location, for example), that’s a red flag. Be wary of organizations with seemingly neutral names, such as the National Vaccine Information Center, which is an anti-vaccine advocacy group. Think again before packing the kids into the car to go and see the talent agency that’s advertising auditions of potential clients at a local hotel (for a small fee); it’s a scam. And by all means, be careful not to become publicly outraged at a “news” story that first appeared in the satirical paper The Onion.

It’s all good advice. If Collins is right about verifying what we hear and Croston is right about teaching each other, we just might learn that ominous-looking fins cutting through the surf are often attached to dolphins or porpoises.

As a former newspaper reporter, Randy Cepuch continues to believe that the “mainstream” media try hard to report news objectively. As a former Californian, he continues to carry earthquake insurance while living in Virginia.

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