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Use Caution With Hyper-Confident Sources


“The illusion of explanatory depth.” This is the cognitive term for thinking we are smarter than we really are. Turns out we are limited in our understanding of how limited our understanding is.

That tongue twister sums up a useful bit of knowledge for journalists: When interviewing sources who seem supremely confident about what they know, never fear pressing the point. Ask: How do you know what you know?

Researchers Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 wrote about how people are generally overconfident about their abilities and their knowledge. They also have an overinflated view of how well they understand how things work — from a piano key to a flat tax, it turns out.

A New York Times op-ed piece on Sunday referenced this illusion when people are asked to explain political policies. The column, written by two of the four researchers, asked people to explain how political policies work. The result was that not only do people not understand how the policies work, but that in trying to explain them, “they become more moderate in their political views — either in support of such policies or against them.”

The researchers, Steven Sloman and Philip M. Fernbach, noted that politicians should be driven to explain just how their pet policy will function if put into play, not just why voters should back the policy. “We should demand that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney explain how in addition to why,” they wrote.

It strikes me that this is excellent advice for journalists as well. Demand of our sources and ourselves that we can explain the how behind complex stories and issues.

Rozenblit and Keil also noted that “people grossly overestimate their ability to remember what they have observed in a scene.” Just because a scene is vivid doesn’t mean we remember it vividly.

Again, the science is a useful reminder to careful journalists; this time the point being to be wary about taking eyewitness reports as fact.


Sources: Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). “The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth.” Cognitive Science, 26, 521-562.

Sloman, S. & Fernbach, P.M. (Oct. 19, 2012). “I’m right! (For some reason).” The New York Times. Sunday Review: The Opinion Pages. p.12.

NPR story on black girls and obesity: Cries of Racist Coverage Miss the Evidence

The recent story by Taunya English of WHYY on National Public Radio examined the problem of obesity in African American girls.

NPR photo on black girls and obesity

NPR website photo accompanying story on black girls and obesity

English began her story by noting that Americans in general are fighting the obesity epidemic, but the problem is particularly evident in black women. It stated that the weight gain begins in youth; “among all children, black girls are most likely to report they got no physical activity in the past week,” English reported.

The story by English, a health reporter for WHYY in Philadelphia, ran on NPR as part of a year-long project in which NPR editors and Kaiser Health News train reporters from local public radio stations throughout the U.S.

The listener comments were critical of the coverage, as noted by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos in his column on the story:

“I was once again appalled to hear about an issue that has nothing to do with race framed in a racial context,” wrote Carolyn Casey, of Boston, MA.

Listener Kwende Madu commented: “I would ask that NPR refrain from publishing stories that concern the African-American community as this only gives racist elements an excuse to vent their hatred.”

But here is where evidence-based reporting enters. Overcoming Bias‘ chapter 7 explores biases in judgment and how factual reporting can help combat any inclination toward prejudicial coverage, intended or not.

English’s report wasn’t borne of prejudice, it was rooted in evidence: She cited research that found that about half of African-American women in the U.S. are obese, compared to 30 percent of white women. The problem is more prevalent for blacks than whites, and the reasons are certainly worth exploring and airing. That’s a legitimate story to tell.

NPR story: “For Black Girls, Lack of Exercise Heightens Obesity Risk”

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