Make checking sources as instinctive as washing our hands

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Tom Stafford, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield

When you wash your hands you affirm one of the great institutions of modern society :  hygiene standards. More than any other scientific innovation, protecting ourselves against infection and contamination extends our lifespans and protects our well being. This didn’t come about by accident, as well as the vast physical infrastructure supplying clean water  and removing sewage, there has also been a massive, quietly democratic, cultural change – we’re taught as children to wash our hands, and – mostly – adopt this habit for our adult lives.

Skepticism is a vital part of science. In the era of fake news, when viral stories and reactions to them can travel with incredible velocity through social media, we need to make checking the sources for news stories as much of a habit as washing hands. Skepticism about what you’re being told is hand washing for the digital age – a basic of informational hygiene. And the nice thing about this is that it makes a habit out of the same instinct that begins all scientific inquiry. When you’re told something, you just need to pause for a moment and ask “How do we know this is true?”.

Tom Stafford is a Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Science and Psychology at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the bestselling popular science book Mind Hacks – Tips and Tricks for Using Your Brain, a collection of do-it-at-home demonstrations which illustrate how your brain works. He has also written for a number of publications including The Conversation, The Guardian and The BBC. 

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