It’s Time To Bring Back Some Critical Thinking Skills
2016 was a standout year in many ways. If you were paying attention you may have noticed one phenomenon that stood out in particular: the decline of critical thinking in confronting the rapidly growing use of “fake news”.
But fake news is nothing new. And it is dangerously effective. In fact, throughout history fake news has been used as a means of manipulating an uninformed population – for example, as it’s been used in war as propaganda.
We do have a weapon in our arsenal to counter these types of disinformation machines: it’s called critical thinking. The question is, what happened to it and why don’t we use it anymore?
What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is the ability to assess any situation with logic and reason and come to a conclusion based on the facts. It also means to refrain from accepting a claim if the evidence fails to sufficiently prove or support it.
The Socratic Method
A famous example of critical thinking is the method employed by Socrates of Ancient Greece (written through Plato’s dialogues), also known as the Socratic Method. Socrates employed pointed questioning to determine the soundness or validity of an argument. The typical structure would begin with Socrates conversing with another person who expressed a claim or statement about Truth, or the Good, or politics in general. Instead of outright contradicting the person, pointing a finger and calling him a sheep, Socrates would innocently probe the premises laid out, seemingly just to understand the statement more thoroughly.
The questions he asked would in turn reveal gaps in the argument presented. That, in turn would lead to further dubious claims and arguments. Continued persistence would ultimately lead to the reader to question conclusion that the initial argument. The dialogue would conclude in a spectacular mic drop from Socrates after showing the inadequacy of the argument presented. At least, until he was executed by the city state of Athens for incessantly undermining their authority.
What are the steps to think critically?
Thanks to social media, we live in an age of information overload. Now more than ever it’s important to use our big, beautiful brains to employ the same scrutiny of thought to the information we receive as Socrates did with his Athenian peers.
The most important first step is to ask yourself these two questions:
Critical thinking relies on removing emotions and value judgments from the equation.
Moving on. If you answered yes to these questions, then move on to this very simple exercise.
Tips for critically evaluating the sources of information
The next time you are presented with a news article, statement or argument ask yourself:
WHO is the source of the information? Is this gossip or was it thoroughly researched by journalists? Could the source have a bias or conflict of interest in promoting one story over another? Just because something was said on a popular blog or website doesn’t make it false. Likewise, just because something was said on a major news network doesn’t make it true. And vice versa. The same scrutiny should be given to big news outlets as small ones.
WHAT is the information given? Is the information given an opinion or is it a statement of fact that can be verified with appropriate further research.
WHERE was this information said? Was this information disclosed in private or in a public venue? Does the location of the event matter?
WHEN was the information revealed or gathered? There was a prevalent news article that made its way through Facebook and social media this past year about Hillary Clinton’s mentor Robert Byrd being a confessed racist, thereby portraying Clinton as racist as well. Here the “when” question is relevant. Byrd, in his early days, was an unapologetic racist and member of the Klu Klux Klan. Later in life he recanted. Before passing, he said his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one of his greatest regrets. But by positioning Byrd as Clinton’s mentor without providing a context with his evolving views on race in America portrays Clinton as a racist or racist sympathizer.
WHY is the article making these claims? Does the article try to persuade you into believing what it’s saying? Advocacy journalism, including documentaries, opinion columns, YouTube channels and the like are usually issuing a statement that they want their viewers to also subscribe to. This information should be taken with a grain of salt. News outlets that try to convince you to believe what they believe should be critically evaluated by the reader/watcher.
HOW was it reported? Is the video doctored? Does the article provide some context for the situation or is it merely a sound bite with heavy commentary?
Additional tips for critically analyzing media:
For both smaller news sites or blogs and larger conglomerates, watch for/think about:
- Their resources/budget: Usually smaller blogs do not have the resources to employ actual journalists. The information is constructed in a way to boost traffic from third-party sources. In many conspiracy-ridden news sites they will draw on conjecture and opinion and find ways to connect dots that aren’t actually there.
- Their type of reporting: Is it sensationalist? Does it use a lot of click bait? Do their headlines use inflammatory language to incite visceral emotional reactions? Are they looking to reinforce beliefs that they believe their readers already have?
- Possible influences: What they cover in their news reporting is sometimes just as telling as what they don’t cover. In the same vein, it’s important to be critical at stories that for some reason are given more weight than it deserves. News organizations with a lot at stake are not in a position to simply put out fake or false information. Any time that happens another organization is ready to pounce and they could face financial/legal penalties. But that doesn’t mean the stories can’t be slanted in one way or another.
- Ideological standpoint: It is no secret that people have biases – these can be revealed in news reporting. The question here is about journalistic integrity. True journalists must be able to balance their own inherent biases with their commitment to honest reporting.
Fake news happens on every side of the ideological spectrum. It is not unique to one side and the purpose of this article isn’t to criticize one side or the other. But it is a problem and growing at an alarming rate. Critical thinking is one of humanity’s most precious tools and the beautiful part about it is it doesn’t rely on anything external. It is purely an internal reasoning process of keeping an open but skeptical mind to new information. Critical thinking is our best line of defense and it’s time people step up to defend it, lest it go the way of Socrates.