The SMELL Test

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The SMELL Test is a tool that was originally proposed by John McManus in 2013 in a MediaShift article titled “Don’t Be Fooled: Use the SMELL Test To Separate Fact from Fiction Online” for consumers to appraise news and claims in the media and on social media. This became important in the context of the subsequent increasing pervasiveness of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, conspiracy theories and promotion of pseudoscience. The increasing vulnerability in society to this needs to lead to an improvement in critical thinking and media literacy skills. The purpose of the SMELL test is a tool to use to improve those skills when evaluating claims in the media to discern what is reliable information.

The idiomatic meaning of a ‘smell test’ or ‘sniff test’ is determining if something is authentic, credible and morally acceptable by using common sense. If something is truthful, trustworthy and morally acceptable, it has considered to have passed the ‘smell test’.

The mnemonic version of the SMELL Test as proposed by McManus is:

S stands for Source. Who is providing the information?
M is for Motivation. Why are they telling me this?
E represents Evidence. What evidence is provided for generalizations?
L is for Logic. Do the facts logically compel the conclusions?
L is for Left out. What’s missing that might change our interpretation of the information?

S – Sources:
This refers to just who or what is providing the information. Are they a credible and reliable source? Are they a recognized source of news or information? Do they have appropriate knowledge and experience on the topic? Are you even able to confirm the identity of the writer? Where are they getting the information from?

M – Motives:
What is the information being provided for? Are they trying to inform or persuade you towards something? Or is it entertainment? Are they trying to sell you something? What are there motives in providing the information?

E – Evidence:
What is the factual support for the information? Has the information been interpreted correctly? How is the information that is provided been verified? Can it be verified? How do they back up their facts? Do they provide links to credible evidence-based sources?

L – Logic:
Does the information make logical sense? Is the conclusion actually backed up by the evidence? Look for overgeneralizations and flawed comparisons, especially correlation vs causation.

L – Left Out:
What have they left out? What are they not telling us? Information left out could change the context. Is only one side of the issue presented?

John McManus is a former journalist, journalism professor, news critic and author. His first book, Detecting Bull: How To Identify Biased, Fake and Junk Journalism In the Digital Age is now into its 3rd edition. His most recent book is Don’t Be Fooled: A Citizen’s Guide to News and Information in the Digital Age.

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