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Too Bad To Be True: Red Flags for Critical Thinking Part 2

Andrew Badham 2023-05-09 10:39:45

a scray podcast bro warning someone, digital art

We’re continuing our series on Critical Thinking Red Flags, where we look at ways you can more easily spot dodgy content. In Part, we looked at people who make something seem too good to be true, so – fittingly, we’re going to dive into things that seem too bad to be true.


Making something appear too bad to be true can be summed up by a single word, fearmongering. The speaker is trying to create as much fear in her audience as possible to get as much attention as possible. You’ve probably seen many examples of this like, “Why Drinking Coffee in the Morning is Killing Your Productivity!” That’s a far catchier title than, “It’s possible that drinking caffeine in the morning may have a slightly adverse effect on your productivity, but there are actually many factors involved, so we’re not really sure.”

In short, fear grabs our attention. We are biologically programmed to notice things that could cause harm to us, and notice them quickly. If you think something might be dangerous and you don’t respond immediately, it might be too late to respond at all. Imagine you’re walking through long grass, and you hear a hissing sound. You would leap back immediately or freeze on the spot. Either way, you certainly wouldn’t keep walking and think, well there are many things that could make hissing sounds. Let me think deeply on what they could all be. No, we’d rather assume it’s a dangerous snake and risk being wrong but unbitten.

How Fear Hacks Your Brain

Fearmongering taps into this same quick-fire response. If someone makes a subject seem scary, we’d rather follow their advice and be wrong than suffer some worse consequence. Fear also has a great way of switching off our rationality. When we're in a state of fear or anxiety, our brain's amygdala - the part of the brain responsible for assessing danger - becomes more active, while the prefrontal cortex - the area responsible for rational thought - becomes less active. In other words, the part of your brain that could look at the information and say, hmmm, this seems slightly misleading, is not working as well as it could.

How To Stop It

So, how can we protect ourselves from fearmongering and think more critically when fear directly makes us less critical? We need to train our brains to throw up a red flag whenever we see claims that sound exaggerated. For example, imagine you see an article on a news site with the heading Sugar More Addictive Than Cocaine, Study Finds. Your first thought should be, that sounds very extreme, so I should be sceptical until I see very convincing evidence. If your first thought is, OMG, I’m going on a sugar fast this week. No, I won’t bother to read the article fully and check out the study itself, then you have fallen into the trap. But don’t worry, we all do. It’s only through practice that we train our brain to be suspicious of the right things.

So, what do you want to practice? Look for the following to identify fearmongering:

  1. Exaggerated language: Fearmongering often involves the use of exaggerated or inflammatory language, such as "disaster," "catastrophic," or "apocalyptic."
  2. Emotional appeals: Fearmongering relies heavily on emotional appeals, such as playing on people's fears or anxieties, rather than presenting objective facts or evidence.
  3. Appeals to authority: Fearmongers often cite authorities or experts to support their claims, but may use quotes or sources out of context, or present them as definitive when they are actually just one perspective.
  4. Cherry-picked evidence: Fearmongers often use selective evidence that supports their claims, while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts their message.
  5. Unsubstantiated claims: Fearmongers may make claims that are not backed up by evidence or are based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
  6. Conspiracy theories: Fearmongering can often involve the promotion of conspiracy theories or the suggestion of hidden agendas by those who oppose their message.
  7. Calls to action: Fearmongers may urge immediate action or create a sense of urgency without providing a clear or logical basis for their recommendations.

Now, the next time you’re listening to a speaker or reading an article, you’ll be a little bit better prepared to be sceptical of what they say.