We’ve written on the blog before about the importance of backing up assertions with evidence when one writes (with evidence being, loosely, one’s reasoning, not necessarily intense scholarly research), but I’ve been thinking lately about a tangentially related topic—making assertions (or writing responses to) something one hasn’t read at all.
On a theoretical level, I think doing this would seem ridiculous to a lot of people; they would think that of course no one would have and disseminate an opinion or interpretation of something they haven’t read. It would be absurd to write an essay on or a review of a book you haven’t read, for instance, or to talk about the merits (or lack thereof) a scientific study you never looked at. Yet people do this all the time.
People frequently comment on blog posts, news articles, scientific studies, and other texts that they haven’t actually read because they read the headline and believe that alone suffices. Yet generally (in the vast majority of cases), the headline is not the full story. For instance, sometimes headlines are directly misleading and don’t give an accurate representation of the content of the text at all. Publications will write provocative titles that will generate shares and, yes, clicks—even if not actual full readers. But this does not need to be the case for it to be a bad idea to respond to and even take away “information” from just a headline. Headlines simply are not nuanced enough to convey the full meaning, argument, and intricacies of a text.
For instance, I recently saw someone on Twitter mention a 2019 study that concluded that married mothers do more housework and have less leisure time than single mothers. This person’s interpretation of the study (or, rather, of the headline) is that men create more work than they do work, leaving women with the difference. But that’s not what the study says. The study actually suggests that married women might be socially conditioned to feel obligated to do more work, that when a single mother concludes the house is “clean enough,” a married women feels pressured to clean more, perhaps to be a “good wife.”
So the person “summarizing” the study on Twitter is spreading misinformation, as well as causing others to be outraged that “men are creating tons of work for women,” when that simply is not what the study suggests. The person merely assumed men were the cause of married mothers doing more work, based on their personal interpretation of just the headline, and they were wrong.
I see such assumptions nearly every day. Sometimes people even jump to conclusions when headlines are so vague, it’s hard to follow their line of thought. For example, I might write a post titled, “Why I Love Bananas,” and I would get comments that say, “I agree that bananas are great because they are yellow,” even if the post never mentions the color of bananas and instead talks about their taste. The reader saw the headline and assumed they knew why bananas are awesome, but they never read the text to see if that’s what I was saying.
I was most recently confused when I saw an author on Twitter encouraging people not to link to an article she considered outrage clickbait but rather only to tweet out screenshots of the headline, so the offending journal would not get the gratification of clicks. While I agree the article in question was rubbish clickbait, I vehemently disagree with the idea of intentionally spreading the headline while simultaneously purposely discouraging clicks—that is, literally, discouraging people from actually reading an article that you also expect them to comment on and discuss on your Twitter thread. If you want to discuss how ridiculous an article is, you should read it first, and if you want others to discuss the article with you, you should expect them to read it, too. Notably, most of the people outraged about the article on Twitter were not outraged about the actual main argument of the article…because they had never read it.
As readers and people who value communication and the written word, I think it’s our responsibility to be thoughtful about the ways we spread, share, and respond to texts. If someone responds to a blog post I write after clearly having read only the title, that doesn’t really matter in the long run. However, it does matter when people read only the titles of news articles, scientific studies, etc. and assume they know what the text said when they don’t. The problem is compounded when the people who haven’t read the text act as if they have and write summaries and responses that others pick up, share, and believe. “Fake news” isn’t just propaganda created to intentionally mislead the public about important events; it’s also all the “summaries” and “interpretations” of texts we read on blogs and social media every day, things written by our online friends and acquaintances when they give the impression of knowing about a text they have not really read. And how awkward to read someone’s summary of a new scientific study and realize, maybe years later, that the new “science fact” you learned wasn’t true at all! If you are angry about a text or wish to spread information about a text, it’s always a good idea to read the text in full yourself before finalizing and sharing your opinion.