Albert Einstein said “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters.” But what is the truth? How is it determined? In this era of calling everything that doesn’t agree with your position as fake, it is important to consciously think about what you believe. It is also important to be able to think critically about what is being read, watched, and listened to so that facts can be found – especially given the purposeful spread of misinformation. The obvious application for this is today’s political environment – especially when social media and willful ignorance are involved. We all must be able to approach information critically, research and sort through the data, identify biases, and come up with fact-based conclusions. If we don’t do this, and pass along bogus information, at best we look uninformed, gullible, and foolish.
My training in critical thinking was in high school. I took a Modern Literature course from Betsy Kendall-Brown. Her goal for the class was to expose us to modern literature and to make us critical thinkers. She wanted us to be able to read/see/hear about a topic, examine it critically and then discuss it productively – especially if it was controversial. She also told us that we didn’t get to be willfully ignorant – making proclamations about what we had heard. We would have to educate ourselves by reviewing the material personally and make up our own minds. The books she used as the avenue for the discussions included: Slaughterhouse 5, A Clockwork Orange, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher In the Rye, Animal Farm, Stranger In A Strange Land, etc. As she said, ‘These books have been banned in the past. Someone in the future will try to ban them again. We are going to read them, discuss them, and then you can make up your own, informed mind.’
But where do you start? It is essential, with social media bots targeting us with misinformation, that we be especially informed and especially critical. Consider the following when evaluating the veracity and validity of what you are reading or seeing or hearing:
- Look for specific examples – don’t be satisfied with ‘people say’ or ‘it has been said’ or ‘I heard’. Frequently, what initially sounds like it comes from a large, credible group of experts is traced back to a single person’s opinion with no facts to back it up.
- Who authored/sponsored the information? Don’t be fooled by high sounding organizational names – check them out.
- How was the information reviewed before being published? A peer review usually means different positions and perspectives providing feedback to ensure its honesty.
- Who paid for the information? Much research and many papers are bought to present a particular point of view and to provide something to quote when someone wants to say, ‘In this study …’.
- Beware of statistics – especially the confusion between probability and actuality. Minimal increases in a low probability impact are frequently used to inflate that impact and drive fear.
- Bias exists – consider the amount of bias and look for additional sources of information. If 99 sources say the same thing but 1 source doesn’t – maybe it is less about bias than you think.
Considering these items while evaluating information will help keep you from diving down a rabbit hole, believing crazy conspiracy theories, and spreading misinformation. Israelmore Ayivor, writer, said, “Information and ignorance are like light and darkness… When light comes into your room, darkness must fly away. When information rules your mind, ignorance finds its way out!” Ask the questions, do research, evaluate critically, and have open discussion. Let the light in, reject willful ignorance, and create in yourself an informed individual who makes up their own mind.