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 and 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.