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The Unreliable Brain and Fake News

A common item in our pantry is canned chicken. It’s very similar to canned tuna: chunks of meat, probably the bits that nobody else considered edible, packed in water. It’s best not to think too much about it. [This would be a great place to insert arguments in favor of vegetarianism, but let’s skip that for now.]

The other day I told my partner with the complete authority of sureness that, as I’d always suspected, the ingredient list on the chicken cans included a statement that it also includes a bit of tuna.

“Really?” he asked. “That surprises me.”

“Yep,” I said, clearly picturing the ingredient list with tuna listed. But my confidence instantly started to falter. “Or, I think it does.”

Did I really remember seeing tuna in the ingredient list? Or had I imagined it? I had a life-long history of not trusting my brain, so my surety was slowly fading. What if I was wrong?

I went to the pantry to retrieve a can, read the ingredient list, and verified that my brain was indeed lying to me. I had wondered about the ingredients for a long time, so my brain must have helpfully fabricated a memory of having seen tuna in the list.

Gee thanks, brain!

My brain is a big fat liar.

Is my memory really that unreliable?
Well, yes. Yes, it is.

That I don’t quite trust my own brain is a long story best told another time. This has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It started as a very young child when I was not at all sure whether or not my imaginary friend was real. Later, in my early 20s, I once was pulled over for a traffic violation late at night. I sat in my car at the side of the road for quite a long time before I realized there was no police car on the shoulder of the road behind me, so I drove myself home. (Yes, there’s more to that story, and it does not involve drugs or alcohol.)

These are just two on a long list of mostly trivial stories that add up to me generally believing almost anybody else over my own memory and perception.

But back to the canned chicken: After reading that ingredient list and seeing the rather glaring omission of tuna, my reaction was to say to my husband, “You’re right! There’s no tuna in here. I must have imagined it.”

Other than being [very] disappointed in my brain, that was that. And this brings me to two points.


Lesson 1: Reality is malleable

We all need to be aware that our brains are not perfect, that our memories are malleable, and thus our very reality is subject to misinterpretation and change.

How many times have you heard someone tell an untruth — intentional or not — and then when confronted with the truth, they react with anger or defensiveness? Or worse, they react by “doubling down” on the untruth and insisting on its fidelity, despite all evidence against it?

While this is sometimes a case of a liar not wanting to own up to a lie, I firmly believe that sometimes we’re instead dealing with someone who completely believes their untruth. They are depending too heavily on their unreliable brain and not being gracious or reasonable when proven wrong. Is the person a liar? Or are they someone who is unwilling to bother to verify what he or she is saying? And if the person has a tremendous amount of power (such as, oh I don’t know, a US president, perhaps) which of these options is the worst?

In this age of  “fake news” and conspiracy theories that are an ever-widening gulf away from truth, it’s time for a reminder that our reality is shaped by what we believe and [think] we know. And as our reality is highly governed by what we believe is true, each person’s reality is malleable.

This really matters.

If my tuna-in-the-chicken-can experience tells us anything, it’s that people — some more than others — can be made to believe almost anything.

Sure, it’s cute to convince children that there’s a Santa Claus. But it’s not so cute when people are made to believe something that is false: such as that vaccines are a way to deliver tracking devices, that voting fraud was an issue in the US 2020 election, or that the Holocaust never happened. Untruths such as these present a real danger to everybody. And if enough people believe something that is not true, untruths such as these can literally change the world.

Lesson 2: Always verify everything

For something as unimportant as “tuna is an ingredient in canned chicken,” it would have been reasonable for me to just blindly accept my trusted partner’s word about it. But no, I reached for a can and read that list for myself. I did the research to verify what was the truth, and then I owned up to my inadvertent untruth.

What about things that are a tad more consequential than the ingredients listed on a can?

I confess it’s sometimes hard for me to make myself bother, but it’s important to verify what we hear and read. Make sure it’s true, especially before you repeat it and let it make a liar out of you! Here are some suggestions:

  • Research your assumptions. It’s so easy to just agree with what we hear and move on, but with today’s ubiquitous internet access it’s pretty easy to take a moment to look things up. Bookmark a few fact-checking services like Snopes, FactCheck, Politifact, and others, and get in the habit of checking up on something before you embrace it as truth.
  • Check your biases. If you know you lean toward one way of thinking, you need to be extra careful to look for the truth about something rather than just going with want you want to be true. If your favorite news sources lean a bit to the left or right, try to touch base with a more centrist source from time to time. Consult the Media Bias Chart to find where your regular sources lie on the spectrum.
  • Go to the source. When looking for the truth, get as close to the source of a story as you can. Some media sites intentionally distort the truth for the sake of sensationalism or worse, but sometimes even an innocent editorial accident (or a lazy researcher) can turn a story into a lie. If you want to find the real story, go to the source (as close to it as you can). Is the story about the CDC? Check he CDC website. Is it about your local Mayor’s office? Check that site. And if the story is from somewhere outside of your home country, check out what the source country’s local media says by using the InkDrop English International Newspapers site.*
  • Own up to your untruths. Did you insist on something to a friend and now you’ve realized you were wrong? Swallow your pride and fix your mistake. You’ll be doing the honorable and gracious thing. But even more importantly: you’ll be stopping your accidental untruth from snowballing into something more when your friend passes it along.


* Full disclosure:  Inkdrop English International Newspapers is run by my partner, Dave Miller.