People Don’t Read, and Why It Matters to Skepticism

April 30, 2012

A lot of the time people simply don't read; it's sad but true. (Feel free to skip to the last paragraph if you don't have time to read this.)

I'm not talking about functional literacy, which is quite high in America. Nearly everyone can read bus schedules, menus, and everyday e-mails. But when it comes to essays or news analysis the fact is that most people outside of scholarly or academic professions don't spend much time reading non-fiction for content. It's just not something they do, and it's not surprising. Television and podcasts provide easy, passive, one-way communication that demands little attention or cognitive engagement from their audiences.

As a writer I've noticed for years that while some people take the time to carefully read and analyze what they're reading, they are very much in the minority. Many people are either not reading what they claim to have read, or are badly misunderstanding what they're reading. Two recent examples brought this issue into sharp focus for me.

About a month ago, I wrote a short column for the Web site Life's Little Mysteries about a plant that is claimed to be able to walk. (I wrote a somewhat different piece on the same topic for my "Skeptical Inquiree" column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine a few years ago.) Here's 

an excerpt of what I wrote:

 

"Many people believe the so-called walking palm tree (Socratea exorrhiza) found in Latin America can literally walk around the forest floor.... Alas, it's also not true; the tree is real enough, but it doesn't walk - or even stumble. It sits where it sprouted, not moving except under the force of wind (or an axe)..." I then quoted Biologist Gerardo Avalos and his article on the topic, who said "My paper proves that the belief of the walking palm is just a myth."

Throughout the piece, I explicitly stated at least four times that the story was not true, and quoted a published, peer-reviewed journal article and a scientist:

1) "[the story] is not true..."
2) "it doesn't walk..."
3) "it sits where it sprouted, not moving..."
4) expert: "the walking palm is a myth."

After presumably reading this short piece whose thesis could not be clearer, what did readers reply on the Comment boards?

The first person, Veenaga Bhushan, wrote, "The walking tree walks from shade to sunlight. The survival is the most individual nature of living things." Another person, Violette Lilly Rose Patrick, wrote, "I'd like to see a time lapsed video of this!" Finally another person, Miriah Williams, replied with, "did you read it?? they don't move."

So what happened? One possibility is that the first two posters didn't actually read the piece, but instead looked at the headline and/or the accompanying photo, and assumed they knew what the story said. Another possibility is that they did read the piece but didn't understand it, and somehow came to think that it concluded that the "walking tree" story was true, despite clear and repeated statements and evidence to the contrary. Still another possibility is that they read and understood the piece, but disagreed with it (though there's no evidence for this, since they didn't refute anything contained in the piece).

In another example, I wrote about a strange creature that washed up on a beach that was ultimately identified as an opossum. Sure enough "readers" soon chimed in to add their two cents, one of them writing on Facebook that "'They *assume* it's an Opossum, never say outright that it is." I gamely replied, "Did you read it? It says: ‘Darren Naish, a science writer and paleozoologist based at the University of Southampton who writes for Scientific American, identified it as a Virginia Opossum. ‘The oposum identity is obvious.'"

How can someone say that the experts assumed (but never said outright) that the animal was identified as an opossum when the piece states explicitly and repeatedly that it was identified? Clearly people aren't reading what's in front of them. As skeptics we encounter this all the time; paranormal claimants ignore important (and in some cases mystery-solving) details in stories and accounts of mysterious phenomena. If you ignore, don't read, or don't understand important information in the claims then it's easy to create a mystery. If you read a person's ghost report but fail to notice that she said it happened while she was in bed sleeping-or read a person's UFO report but miss the part where the eyewitness said it looked like a planet and was in the same area of the sky as Venus-you're not going to solve the mystery.

I also encountered this earlier this year in responses to my blog on Riley, the four-year-old girl complaining about dolls in a viral video. As I noted here in a previous CFI blog, I bear responsibility for some reader misunderstandings, as some of the points I made were poorly written and unclear. In other cases, however, the problem was not that I was being unclear; in fact I was being crystal clear. It's that people didn't carefully read what I wrote (instead relying on other people's characterizations, or just jumping in and replying to other reader's comments and replies), concluding in many cases that I disagreed with them when in fact we were in close agreement.

There are many more examples I could give, but this gives a fairly representative sampling. As a professional writer, it's amazing to me how often people simply don't read-or, if they read, they don't understand what they read. As any teacher can tell you, simply reading words does not mean you are comprehending those words or understanding what's being communicated. Comprehension takes skill and effort; no matter how clear or strong the writing is, the reader must do his or her part to make an effort to understand it.

It's easy in this modern, fast-paced world to skim over information. We're inundated with blogs, articles, news stories, social media messages, e-mails, tweets, and countless other pieces of information throughout the day. We like our information simple, clear, and sound-bite short. We glance at headlines and assume we know what the story says, what it's about. We make split-second decisions and reactions about whether a given piece of information is relevant or interesting to us. We sometimes "Like" Facebook posts within seconds of them being posted, when it's clear we haven't had a chance to actually read more than the title or a one-sentence abstract; we are supporting not what the piece actually says but instead what we assume it says, or might say. We all do it to some extent, and we all do it at least some of the time whether we know (or admit) it or not.

It's not wrong or unethical. But it is pervasive, and it partly explains why many people simply don't read things. When confronted with a 3,000 word article or blog (or even a much shorter one-my piece on the walking tree is less than 400 words), it's much easier to jump in to the comments are reply to other posters than to take the time to carefully read what the author wrote.

This is nothing new; I'm sure we've all come across the social experiment (probably in school or college) where the instructor hands out a multiple-page worksheet and states explicitly that students should read all of the instructions before beginning the work. Of course, the final instruction on the last page is to lay down your pencil and not begin any work until further instructed. And of course about 90% of people don't bother to read the explicit, clear instructions, thinking they know better and begin working right away.

What are the consequences of this? Wasted time, wasted effort, and futile flame wars fueled by people of whom it's likely that less than half actually read and understood what they're commenting on. Of course some of us read things carefully, and despite our best efforts even the most diligent of us sometimes cuts corners as writers and readers. Sometimes there's an honest misunderstanding, or the words are unclear. But much of the time the only plausible explanation is that people simply aren't reading, and literally don't know what they're talking about. By the way, thanks for reading this-if you got this far.

Comments:

#1 Mike from Shreveport (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:00am

You’re welcome! 

#2 Kenneth Biddle (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:06am

You’re welcome.

#3 Hilary M Nelson (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:14am

It was my pleasure.

#4 Ross Blocher (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:18am

You’re welcome! The term “cognitive miser” comes to mind. In the light of so much abundant information, we kind of have to be cognitive misers.

#5 Rick Smathers (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:29am

Great first and last paragraph!  Now I guess I should read the part in the middle. 

#6 Earl Newton (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:38am

I agree there needs to be greater discipline on the part of the reader.  But I would propose that the first step is brevity from the author, with a respectful acknowledgment of the precious nature of his/her reader’s time.

Certainly, a 3,000 word essay would be easy reading, if I was only presented with one a day.  But on any given day, I might be presented with 30-40 essays or articles.  That’s the equivalent of reading a novel every day during your lunch hour.

Newspapers once exercised word discipline for sake of space and printing costs. I put forth that on the web that discipline should be redoubled, in light of the sheer amount of material out there.

#7 Ben Radford on Monday April 30, 2012 at 11:56am

Thanks for the comments; I think the issue is not that people aren’t reading everything (after all, there’s far too much for anyone to read), but that people are pretending or claiming to have read (and maybe even believing they *have* read) pieces, and offering their opinions and comments on them. If you don’t want to read any given article or essay or blog, then don’t read it—but don’t comment or offer your opinions on that article, essay, or blog if you have put in little or no effort into trying to understand it.

#8 gray1 on Monday April 30, 2012 at 12:04pm

Good timing.  A co-worker was just stating on his Facebook page that he was glad to find the “blocker button” because he was tired of reading so much crap sent across by friends such as myself.  My response to him was “You read?” which of course he doesn’t but still, there’s all that crap he has to look at (print). 

As you’ve noted, comprehension is also a lost art. Perhaps the prevailing attitude is that the reader figures he or she already knows more than anything the writer would have to say.  Truths are apparently relative and biases being what they are, items of agreement manage to find a much larger audience than items of opposition.  Memes rule!

I love that type of social experiment test you mentioned and yes, it does sucker in just about everyone.

#9 Dorion on Monday April 30, 2012 at 12:04pm

If it’s any consolation, I’m regularly baffled by this sort of thing in every day, face-to-face interactions. It’s become a surprisingly regular occurrence for someone to either repeat back to me the exact opposite of what I’ve said, or to repeatedly ask me for, and receive, the same information. We’re not just not reading, we’re not listening. Or paying attention.

#10 Wesley Harding (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 12:24pm

Walking trees?

“Run, forest! Run!”

#11 Sean (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 12:46pm

You are very welcome. I’m glad someone took the time to write about this. I’m not an expert, but here are my two cents. I feel that the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine has led to what we see today. Fox News has shown everyone this, whether they realize it or not. Too many people have taken opinions and have equated them with facts. Once they read something they agree/disagree with, they tend to jump to conclusions and interject their very own opinion, factual or not.

#12 Jim (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 1:04pm

I see this quite often as well.  Especially when someone tries to relate a news story to me.  I usually have to ask a few questions, then consult the original article (if they know it.)  “A car accident, right?  Now you’re saying two people died or just went to the hospital?  Oh, two people were in the car but no one died.  Oh, it was a motorcycle and not a car?  A scooter?  Where did you read this exactly?”

#13 JimG (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 1:38pm

I wonder if this problem isn’t nearly insoluble. In “Ancient Literacy,” William Harris argues that during the height of Greek and Roman culture, a large percentage of the population possessed what he called “craftsman’s literacy,” more or less the same as modern functional literacy; but only 10 to 15 percent were really part of literary culture. Perhaps while functional literacy is now nearly universal, full literacy probably still lags. I wonder if the ability to easily assimilate written info on a large scale isn’t a fairly unusual skill. Maybe the news cycle isn’t to blame, and maybe further educational efforts would bring diminishing returns.

#14 Martin Hackworth (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 1:58pm

Amen, brother. I acutely feel your pain.

#15 MarkHB (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 2:20pm

tl;dr and you’re completely wrong there is no walking tree.

OK, yeah, I couldn’t resist that.  Good article as ever, Ben.  It’s a pity that “rigorous” seems to be a dirty word these days.

#16 kittynh (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 2:43pm

How did they know the possum was a virgin?

#17 Jurjen S. (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 3:09pm

Isn’t it odd how someone will take the time to comment on an article without having first taken the time to actually read it? One would think the time taken to do the former would have been more fruitfully used to do the latter.

#18 edmann (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 3:24pm

I believe the broken family system in America has produced offspring that has been left wanting. Mother & Fathers leave kids to pre-schools also are too tired to engauge their childern in meaningful exchange. All types of problems follow. I posted on a cell phone developers site my sucess with SDXC mini micro 64gb memory on my smartphone. Instead of questions about the memory card a member choose to wonder why I need so much memory. When I responded I use larger flac files which are 3-4 times bigger than mp3, therefore finer detailed music, he promply told me that it wasn’t true. Other members chimed in with detailed fact, but the person wouldn’t budge. My point is I believe people just want to right, to be heard, even though what their saying doesn’t mean anything. Or is off the mark, whatever subject that maybe.

#19 TheBlueCoyote (Guest) on Monday April 30, 2012 at 4:56pm

I couldn’t find the last paragraph.

#20 Dorion on Monday April 30, 2012 at 5:26pm

@17 Jurjen: Not really odd… Most people prefer to talk than to listen.

#21 ShadowSot on Monday April 30, 2012 at 7:28pm

I see this all of the time on web forums. At times it can be hilarious, like when Edzard Ernst wrote his recent article on Homeopathy.

#22 Randy (Guest) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 at 1:37am

Your first mistake was reading the comments.  I’ve seen many a good blogger derailed, and some destroyed, by reading comments.  Avoid at all costs.

#23 James (Guest) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 at 9:28am

TL;DR

What was this article about?

#24 Maggie Clark (Guest) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 at 10:10am

I’d like to posit that this has a lot to do with the expectation sets people are trained in—particularly but not exclusively online. Journalism has a bizarre fealty to the “inverted pyramid” approach to news writing, which holds that the most important facts of the story (the “who, what, where, when, why, and how”) need to be at the fore of the article, with the value of information included tapering off as the article progresses.

Now, there’s a very pragmatic reason why this was first used: when stories needed to be literally cut and pasted, this technique was a great way to handily cut off the last paragraph of a new story to make the paper fit the column length allotted. (Similar to the use of two spaces between sentences at the height of typewriter use, when kerned fonts weren’t feasible or even standardized: a functional adaptation to a technological limitation.)

However, we don’t cut-and-paste articles for publication anymore. Technology has changed, but the adaptive rituals have not—and indeed, we’ve come up with new, tautological defence for our continued adherence to the old ways. People don’t have time to read the whole article, it’s said; people want the soundbite.

Do they really? Or is that just an expectation set from repeated use of the form, retroactively being used to justify the form itself?

Media outlets have approached the problem of long articles (in terms of reader attention spans) in different ways; Salon.com lets readers read a page’s worth of the content, then offer a link that shifts to a page view that gives the article in full, one long stream of text down the page. NYTimes.com cuts its large articles into many small pages, so while the text itself may be extensive, it’s still provided in less intimidating chunks, “hopefully” tricking the reader into thinking they’re reading less than they actually are.

Either way, the issue remains that most of the news should not be placing “who”, “what”, “when”, where”, and “why” on an equal footing. Rather, for each the “why” (or perhaps the “so what”) angle matters immensely—and to convey that, a journalistic form that encourages readers to approach the world with more caution and appreciation for nuance is required.

Specifically, by making longer essays more standard in our media interactions—both by maintaining that length and complexity in our own writings, and specifically seeking and endorsing media that does the same—I think we can go a long way towards promoting better reading practice.

And when our friends or coworkers or fellow classmates send us a blurb from Yahoo or MSN news or the like, treat it openly for what it is—a sidebar or an info box. Whenever possible, ask for specific links to studies, promote the reading of technical websites like Physorg or ScienceDaily to get past the snappy headlines, and be particularly careful to forward only that same level of professional journalism to our collegial circles in turn.

Painstaking work, granted—but worth it if we’re to find a coherent way of managing the immensity of raw data provided us by the Information Age.

To that end, this was a great, thought-provoking read. Many thanks to Ben Radford.

#25 Fereydoun (Guest) on Tuesday May 01, 2012 at 9:08pm

So do the trees rally move;))

#26 Kopacetic (Guest) on Thursday May 03, 2012 at 8:57pm

I’m sorry…what was that last part again?

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