September 26, 2020

BY JOSH VAN OSTRAND

Josh Vanostrand-Online-Edited

There’s a worrying trend developing in the world today. In the platform of social media, it spreads, growing and growing until it’s just accepted as a part of life. It causes people to make poor decisions, to limit themselves in ways that may be harmful to their mental health and to make poor decisions that impact the people around them. Entire organizations have sprung up to combat these trends.

I am, of course, writing about unsubstantiated information and, particularly, opinions which are passed on as fact. These ideas are often created based off of incomplete or fabricated information. They affect the decisions that we make every day. They have become a cultural norm.

Recently, I once again saw a message being passed around Facebook warning women of $100 bills stuck in the handles of their cars. The bills, as the message claims, are coated with a drug that causes people who touch them to fall unconscious where they are at the mercy of the one who planted the bill.

A simple fact check can prove that this is nothing more than nonsense. Organizations like Snopes.com have sprung up as a means to combat these rumours.

At first this seems harmless and in a way it is. However, some rumours or non-factual rants have dire consequences. While a Facebook post about $100 bills is harmless, a Facebook post about the supposed connection between vaccines and autism could lead to outbreaks of disease and even death.

To decide if a post has any truth to it, all you have to do is weigh the probabilities in your head.

How likely is it that a $100 bill in the handle of your car is drugged? You may say 90 per cent. Then compare it to how many times you’ve seen $100 bills in the handles of cars. As Conestoga students, we see thousands of cars a week. I have never seen one with money in the handle, so zero per cent of cars have been targeted.

Then you compare the numbers – 90 per cent multiplied by zero per cent leaves us with zero per cent.

If you’ve seen 10 cars with money under the handle out of the last 100, it becomes 10 per cent.

The exact numbers are not important, only whether they are large or small matter in most situations. Both zero and 10 are small numbers, indicating you don’t have much to worry about.

This is a simplified version of what is known as the Bayesian method, a way of interpreting evidence rationally. It is not a perfect method and, being imperfect people, it will never be applied perfectly but it can help people to weigh information, and to sort through nonsense as a way of learning.

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