Our ‘fake news’ epidemic reminds us that we all must be mindful of the sources of our information. Obtaining information is essential for the innumerable decisions we make daily including decisions about what to wear, when to cross the street, and whether to put milk in our coffee or tea. We also make more consequential decisions about whom to date and marry, where to go to school, or what car or house to purchase. Information has never been so abundant, but it is not all equally reliable. Yet, reliable information is essential to make rational choices. Can we trust that our milk is fresh and unadulterated? Can we believe the graduation statistics from a college or university? Can we trust the safety statistics about a car? This problem is not uniquely human and I suggest that we can learn effective strategies from other species, including the groundhogs we celebrate each year on Groundhog Day.
Groundhogs are one of 15 species of marmots and I study antipredator behavior in these cat-sized alpine ground squirrels. Like many other species, marmots must trade-off risks versus rewards when they leave the safety of their burrows to go out to forage to avoid terrestrial predators—foxes, coyotes, and mountain lions, as well as aerial predators—hawks and golden eagles. Upon detecting a predator they emit alarm calls—loud chirps that warn other marmots. Marmots hearing those alarm calls cease all activity, look around to detect the predator, and often run back to the safety of their burrows. But, while at their burrows they are not able to eat, and this is a costly situation for marmots must double their weight each summer during a 4-5 month active season to be able to survive a 7-8 month long hibernation.
Fortunately, individuals differ in their propensity to emit alarm calls and there are essentially Nervous Nellies and Cool Hand Lucys! Nervous Nellies call in response to not only predators, but other things as well that are not alarming. We all recall the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. By crying wolf when there was no wolf the villagers learned to ignore the lying shepherd boy, which had disastrous consequences when a real wolf appeared.
From the perspective of a marmot trying to decide whether to keep foraging or run back to their burrows, Nervous Nellies are sending unreliable signals. This is not much different than the problem we all face in determining whether the news we encounter is supported by facts or made up by someone on their kitchen table as click bait. If The Boy Who Cried Wolf explains marmot behavior, then Nervous Nellies—who are unreliable-- would be ignored.
Humans partially solve the problem of information acquisition by relying on trusted sources. If I am going to purchase a car, I poll trusted friends and colleagues about their experiences. By doing so, I’ve saved a lot of time reading each and every review about cars and making hundreds of visits to car dealers. The problem today is that we trust our partisan news aggregators or sites and this makes highly susceptible to fake news that taps into preexisting confirmation biases.
Turns out that marmots also trust reliable but not unreliable marmots. We conducted an experiment and found that marmots hearing alarm calls from reliable callers responded immediately but then resumed their prior behavior more quickly than those hearing unreliable callers, who kept looking for a non-existent predator. In some sense, this is exactly opposite what one would expect from the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but it’s very similar to what we see when we trust, but verify, our news sources.
So what to do? Marmots have it easy—a handful of predators to detect, and only a few individuals to potentially assess the reliability of. This palls in comparison to a 24-hour news and spam cycle churning out vast amounts of potentially contradictory along with some genuinely erroneous information.
We all have an inner marmot; we have evolved mechanisms to believe trusted sources. But now we face an evolutionary mismatch and our evolved evaluation mechanisms have broken down because there’s simply too much potential information to process.
Mindful of this, I suggest that we scrutinize our news sources. If it sounds too ‘good’, perhaps it is. News sources that follow strict journalistic practices and fact check their sources are, without question, going to be more reliable on average than those that simply aggregate information. The rise of fake-news means that we must re-learn to trust but verify. And we must dig deep into our pockets and support reliable journalism that properly fact-checks sources because there simply isn’t enough time for each of us to fact check everything we hear. The truth is out there and we need good information to make informed decisions.