Fact check ranking: kind of true

In my previous posts, I’ve been fact checking claims made by news sources by using tools such as going upstream, reading laterally, and using counter technologies and tools to detect and check sketchy sources. In a digital world where anything is possible, being able to spot fake news and unreliable sources is crucial now more than ever.

For this blog, I will demonstrate specific fact checking moves in detail, and I will also explain the significance of the move.

My previous blog post was my way of brainstorming three possible topics to use for my final fact check, the Truth-o-meter post. I conducted preliminary research on each topic, and chose the one most worth writing about.

I decided to use my third option, which was an article posted on Medical News Today: “Children at risk of psychopathy respond differently to laughter.”

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The article’s driving claim is mentioned almost halfway through the article: “It was found that children who exhibited both risk factors for psychopathy reported a much weaker desire to join in with the laughter.”

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First, let’s start by look at the original source to see if it’s reliable, that is usually a good place to start. Luckily the Medical News Today article links to its reference, which makes finding the original source very easy. This is called going upstream to find the original source. 

The reference is a study that was published by Current Biology, very recently, on September 28, 217. The study is called “Reduced Laughter Contagion in Boys at Risk for Psychopathy.”

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At first glance, the journal and the article itself looks legitimate. However, it’s important to remember that in today’s digital world, just about anyone can make something online look credible. We need to have a counter technologies that protects us from falsified information circulating the web.

One counter technology that we can use in this situation is reading laterally about the source. We can do this by checking up on the source by the means of another source. In this situation, we could check Wikipedia for information about Current Biology.

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The Wikipedia entry does not help us in this situation since it doesn’t cite any sources. Even though the information presented on Wikipedia sounds accurate, it doesn’t seem reliable or credible enough. Trying out another counter technology might be a better route.

Since the claim we are looking into came from a journal, we can use a helpful tool in this situation called checking the journal’s impact factor.

In his online book, Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, Michael A. Caulfield says that an impact factor is “a measure of the journal’s influence in the academic community” (chapter 21). He also says “it is a useful tool for quickly identifying journals which are not part of a known circle of academic discourse, or which are not peer-reviewed” (chapter 21).

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As I understand it, the impact factor is a mathematical formula that calculates a journal’s ranking of importance and credibility in a given discourse community. It considers aspects such as how many times a journal was cited and mentioned by other scholars in that community within a given year. Finding out Current Biology’s impact factor will help us determine if the claim made in the journal is reliable or not.

To find the journal’s impact factor, we can easily search “current biology impact factor” on Google, and this is what we get:

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Caulfield says “impact factors can go into the 30s, but we’re using this as a quick elimination test, not a ranking, so we’re happy with anything over 1” (chapter 21).

Drawing from Current Biology’s impact factor of 8.851, we know that this journal has been cited in other scholarly research at least more than once. This is definitely a lot more than the journal in another previous post. After considering the journal’s impact factor, we can assume that the claim made in the journal article is reliable and credible.  

If the original source is credible, why am I saying that the claim is only kind of true? Well, that’s because the language used in the Medical News Today article varies and even contradicts what the original Current Biology study claimed. I think the claim presented by Medical News Today reshapes the meaning of the original source’s claim.

When I was doing preliminary research for the last blog post, I immediately noticed that the language used in the Medical News Today article title is contradicting to the title used for the original study. If you refer back to the first two images above, the title from the Medical News Today article states “Psychopathy: Children at risk respond differently to laughter.” While the original study’s title published by Current Biology clearly states: “Reduced Laughter Contagion in Boys at Risk for Psychopathy.”

The driving claim in the Medical News Today article is somewhat contradicting in itself too. Here it is again:

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Notice the use of the word “children” in the beginning of the claim, and then the use of the word “boys” at the end of the claim.  It is also strange that the Medical News Today article features an image with mostly girls, all sitting in the front row accompanying the article. Here’s the image:

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The original study from Current Biology specifically conducted research on boys. There were absolutely no female children in their data description.

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In fact, there is no comment in the original study about females at all. Sometimes in academic research, authors will mention the limitations of their study, or they will include suggestions for further research. I personally think it’s strange that the authors of the article did not mention females at all. They did not include females in the study group, and they did not explain why females are absent from the study.

After all, it appears that Medical News Today used contradicting language in their article which ended up twisting the information a bit. It could have been a simple mistake. Maybe the author misinterpreted the Current Biology article. The most important thing to remember is that information can be misinterpreted, and it’s critical to check up on claims, especially if you are not already involved with a given conversation or community.

The passing of information in today’s digital world is like the childhood game of Whisper Down The Lane: as each source interprets another, various meanings will be made. Generating your own understanding of the topic isn’t a bad thing, but you want to try to get the original message first!