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Lateral reading: the skill we need to teach everyone

3 min read

People are not good at discerning bullshit. Everyday I lose respect for someone new announcing their belief in something idiotic. Actors are seemingly all either anti-vaxxers or Scientologists. Others believe in far-right conspiracy nonsense. A few serious people even seem to think MMT isn’t nonsense

The response friends of mine have had to this issue is advocating mandatory courses on critical thinking or rhetoric in school. But recently I came across a better, simpler solution in the excellent Crash Course: Navigating Digital Information

Lateral Reading: a habit you should pick up

Lateral reading is cross-checking everything as a matter of habit. It dictates that whenever you come across new information, you should leave the source and cross-check before reading any further. This is the opposite of vertical reading, where you go down a single source’s contents before switching to another source.

Lateral reading is the only technique that seems to work reliably to spot bullshit.

In this study, academic historians, students and professional fact checkers are tested on their skills for assessing online information. Only fact checkers can do it reliably, and they only do it through lateral reading.

You’ll notice this style of reading tends to end up with 20+ internet tabs being constantly opened. This is fine. If you want to change your digital media consumption habits, you need to change a few ingrained habits, which includes opening and closing tabs more aggressively when skimming.

Lateral Reading won’t let you fall for scams

Theranos was an impressive scam. Elizabeth Holmes managed to convince enough investors that you could make blood tests on small devices to raise a few billions of dollars.

The problem with this is that if you ask anyone with a background in blood testing, all the tests couldn’t be done on the quantity of blood sampled.

We’d hope this sort of check would come as due diligence when the founder of the company dropped out at 19 with no medical or science training and claims her breakthrough will revolutionize methods hundreds of PhDs worked on, but apparently investors aren’t always the most careful bunch.

Coda: Debates are just the worst

I cringe whenever pundits want to debate each other to prove one is right. Debates move way too fast for any actual information to be relayed. Debate methods like the gish gallop don’t even care about the factual basis of the things being said, yet are absolutely convincing to most listeners.

The only way to do lateral reading in debates is to constantly pull out your phone and fact check every statement. It makes for terrible television, though, and won’t win you many friends. It’s a decent way to counter gish gallop-style techniques, though: once you focus on a single statement and thoroughly destroy the opponent’s credibility on that issue, the audience can end up on your side.

Also note that if you’re building a narrative, you can build a case for something false without lying per se. By carefully selecting which truths you present and weaving a prepared narrative through it, you can make the case for almost anything. Here’s a good example on global warming – it also exemplifies why debates are so terrible to get to the truth[footnote]Documentaries are just as bad, if not worse, by the way. With a captive audience, you can make a convincing case for anything[/footnote].

Originally published on by Matt Ranger