Imagine that homey, spicy, warm smell that reminds you how wonderful fall is as you pull out a tray of moist pumpkin cookies. There’s the cinnamon, there’s…no, wait, where’s the pumpkin fragrance?
I should go down in baking infamy for producing pumpkin cookies without pumpkin. No, I didn’t do it on purpose, but I was immensely distracted while mixing ingredients. By not paying attention and double-checking the recipe, I missed the whole point.
Everyone who’s cooked or baked often enough can tell their own disaster stories of when they forgot a crucial ingredient. It’s especially devastating when it’s one of those subtle mistakes that doesn’t show itself until you put the food in your mouth. Looks perfect, tastes awful.
Information can be like that, too. Except all too often, our mental taste buds don’t pick up on the mistakes. Instead of throwing it in the trash, we share it with all of our friends.
So what’s that missing key ingredient? All too often, it’s context.
We all know how it feels when something we have said or written is taken out of context or blown out of proportion. “I didn’t mean it like that, I was talking about ___.” But people will hear or see what they want to hear and see, because finding the truth is not only more labor-intensive, but it’s also annoying if we find that it contradicts what we think or believe.
Still, it’s worth making an extra effort to check the information coming our way, particularly when that information can influence the way we make important decisions, such as which candidate to vote for, what action to take on current issues or what medical treatment to pursue. Bad information often leads to bad decisions with equally bad outcomes, so it’s best to make sure we’re on the right track.
General rule of thumb: if you see or hear a headline, meme or quote, your context antennae should go up. Because all of these snippets are short-and-sweet, they often fail to communicate contextual information that is essential to understanding the real message. For example, a headline may convey the exact opposite of the corresponding article’s or study’s findings. A meme may imply the opposite of the truth through the clever merging of text, graphics and sometimes humor (which puts you off your guard). Quotes are frequently pulled out of the context in which they were given, spinning the meaning into something completely different than the author intended. Sometimes these inaccuracies are due to sloppy research, hasty editing or other normal human errors. Other times, they are planted to persuade through purposeful deception or misrepresentation.
How can you keep from accidentally making the information world’s version of pumpkin cookies without pumpkin? In short, pay attention. Read the whole article. If possible, find the source and see if it matches the “short version.” Use your common sense. Above all, don’t share until you’re sure. You can always ask a librarian for help finding the truth!
Botetourt County Libraries