Do you know Socrates’ Three Sieves Test?

Fake news and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are spreading on social media like a second virus. But a method over 2000 years old is still valid to help us determine if information is worth sharing on social media.  
Socrates, the father of fact checkers? 

About 2400 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates was challenged by an individual who wanted to tell him a story about one of his friends. Socrates was a busy man, so before paying any more attention, he invited him to filter his story through three sieves to determine if it was worth hearing. 

The first sieve, Socrates explained, is the Sieve of Truth. According to the philosopher, a story is worth hearing and sharing if it is true. That means it must be possible to confirm it’s true. Otherwise, it’s better to keep silent.  

Socrates then moved on to the second sieve, the Sieve of Goodness. For Socrates, if the story does good, if it contributes something positive to the person who hears it, then no doubt it’s worth telling. In a more modern context, it would be interesting to ask about the information’s intention: does the story aim to shock, create fear, convince or manipulate (propaganda)?  

Finally, the third sieve is the Sieve of Usefulness. The philosopher asked the person if his story contained any useful information. Given a third negative answer, he concluded: “If what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor useful, why bother telling me at all?” 

This theory looks simplistic. But if everyone filtered their comments and assertions through these three sieves before making them public, there would certainly be less disinformation. And probably there would be a lot less “noise” on social media! 

COVID-19 and the Three Sieve Test 

Just for fun, let’s apply Socrates’ Three Sieves Test to the “news” that the COVID-19 virus was manufactured in a laboratory in China:  

  • First sieve: TRUTH – Is this information true? Was the person spreading it able to check it? Since it’s impossible to confirm this information by valid fact-checking, it can’t be said that it is true.  

  • Second sieve: GOODNESS – Will this allegation do good for the people who hear it? Is it based on fear or manipulation? In our example, it’s fairly clear that the purpose of this story is to blame the pandemic on China.  

  • Third sieve: USEFULNES – Is this information useful? It’s difficult to answer “yes” when the entire planet is looking for a vaccine or drugs to stop the spread of the virus and the evolution of its symptoms. Some people might find it useful, but given that the information didn’t pass through the first two sieves, it isn’t worth sharing. 

 With this kind of result, the information claiming that COVID-19 was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory certainly wouldn’t have passed Socrates’ famous test! 


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