Fake news sites often make use of logical fallacies, rhetorical tricks, and other means of misdirection to sway and mislead readers. Be wary of these common techniques:
Logical Fallacies & Rhetorical Tricks
Ad Hominem arguments
These arguments use personal attacks to discredit an individual's stance on an issue, rather than debating the merits of the issue itself.
Example: Crazy pervert Bill Nye claims that he’s a “true” expert, and that anyone who opposes him is a “fake” expert
We could all benefit from a more civil approach to discourse—don't resort to personal attacks.
A common tactic in fake science news is a false "either-or" argument that attempts to negate one finding by claiming that another is instead true, without considering that the two findings may not be mutually exclusive.
Example: News stories, story comments, and Op-Eds regularly state that relative sea-level rise in Hampton Roads, Virginia is of no concern because it is due to land subsidence rather than an increase in the mass of seawater from melting ice or from thermal expansion. For example, in Is Rising Sea Level Threatening Norfolk Naval Base and the Chesapeake Bay Area?, author Calvin Beisner writes "In short, at least at Norfolk, it’s not global sea-level rise that threatens trouble to a naval installation. It’s local land subsidence. And that means that fighting global warming will have no impact on the problem." Likewise, this story from the Heartland Institute states, "the available research indicates water intrusion problems in the area around the Chesapeake Bay are not due to sea-level rise induced by anthropogenic (man-caused) global warming, 'but primarily to land subsidence due to groundwater depletion and, to a lesser extent, subsidence from glacial isostatic adjustment.'”
In fact, both processes contribute (see here and here) to the significant threat that sea-level poses to the region. The latest data indicate that sea level in Hampton Roads is rising at a rate of approximately 6.1 millimeters per year. Subsidence varies from ~ 3.4 mm/year near West Point to ~ 2.4 mm/year around Norfolk.
A red herring argument adds irrelevant information in order to distract and push toward a different conclusion.
Example: In Bombshell science study reveals internal heat from Earth’s hot core is what’s causing Greenland’s ice sheets to slide, author Isabelle Z. writes, “The ice sheet in Greenland is melting, but it turns out that the culprit is not global warming, as some people would like to have you believe. Instead, researchers have now found proof that a hidden heat source deep inside the planet is behind this melting that is pushing glaciers into the ocean.”
This fake new story cites a research article in Scientific Reports titled High geothermal heat flux in close proximity to the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream. Here's how the lead author of that article, Dr. Søren Rysgaard of the Arctic Research Centre at Aarhus University in Denmark, responded when made aware of Isabelle Z.'s story:
"The heat from the Earth (as a geothermal heat source) plays a minor role compared with energy from the Sun in melting the Greenland Ice Sheet. Scientists have had problems modeling the correct ice speed of the glacier streams without adding a little extra heat from below. This has been known as basal melt. What we show is that the Earth delivers exactly the heat that is missing."
This type of argument extends an initially reasonable, minor claim to an improbable extreme.
Example: In All the biggest lies about climate change and global warming DEBUNKED in one astonishing interview, author Mike Adams writes, "Rising carbon dioxide is actually helping "green" the planet, as any legitimate science [sic] already knows. Without CO2 in the atmosphere, nearly all life on the planet would collapse, including both human life and plant life [italics added]."
The fallacy here isn't that removing all carbon dioxide from Earth's atmosphere would have calamitous effects on life; it's the implication that efforts to reduce human emissions of carbon dioxide would remove all CO2 from the atmosphere. Given current emissions trends, it is clear that the most significant threat to humanity and other life is not an atmosphere with too little CO2, but rather an atmosphere with too much.
This type of argument ascribes a false and often extreme view to one party in a debate, then discredits that view to cast aspersion on the party supposedly holding it.
Example: In "Climate change cultists are waking up and starting to realize the Left’s climate fear-mongering was total HYPE," author JD Heyes writes, "Pinker also notes something that the far-Left environmental movement refuses to acknowledge: That modernization has led to substantial, life-changing progress for humanity."
We trust that all rational individuals would agree that very few if any people—regardless of their political leanings—would fail to acknowledge that modernization has benefited humanity. We would also offer that most people would agree that humanity could take steps to lessen the negative impacts that modernization has had on our planet's ecosystems.
Don't believe everything you see
An extremely troubling development in digital communications is the ability to doctor photographs and videos so seamlessly that even an expert would be hard-pressed to tell if the imagery is fake or real. Reputable news sources credit their photos and videos; be wary of images or videos with no or suspicious attribution.
Share an Example
What we show above is but a tiny sample of the regular torrent of fake science news that floods social media and the Internet daily. Do you have an example that you'd like to share? If so, [[v|vimspr,contact us]]. We'd particularly like to see examples submitted by authors of scientific research papers that relate to fake-news treatment of your own work.
A useful compilation of logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks is available here. These tips for improving critical thinking about healthcare stories also provide useful criteria for judging the quality of science news in general.