John McManus’ ‘SMELL test’

Veteran journalism critic John McManus came forth with a good article on evaluating online information sources, published online by PBS.

“Don’t Be Fooled: Use the SMELL Test To Separate Fact from Fiction Online” encourages readers to test claims with a process that follows the SMELL acronym:


Introducing the SMELL test

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?


McManus has produced a very useful test, though he somewhat glosses over the need to test everything and create a body of presumably reliable information based on trusted sources. His work qualifies as a type of applied epistemology that takes the basics of epistemology for granted. We see that perhaps most obviously when he mentions mainstream fact checkers in context as trusted sources:


On some major issues, fact-checking websites will sniff out bias for you, e.g., Factcheck, Politifact, and Snopes. But most of the time, you’re on your own.


Annenberg Fact Check and Snopes will typically produce reliable assessments. But nobody’s perfect. To obtain accurate information, use something like the SMELL test on everything. Test what you think you know from time to time. Spot check trusted sources. Reconcile yourself to the fact that even our most trusted sources of information like scholarly journals and government publications remain vulnerable to problems.

As a practical matter, we can’t verify everything. We need to trust some sources of information. Offer the most trust to the sources that pass the tests of reliability most consistently.

We’re inclined to argue for a promotion for logic in the hierarchy.  But “LEMSL” isn’t as easy to remember as “SMELL.”

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