Posts Tagged ‘Critical Thinking’

Fake news and critical thinking

April 8, 2017

Little of what I write about on this blog is based on first-hand knowledge.  It is what the philosopher Bertrand Russell called knowledge by description rather than knowledge by acquaintance.

I write about foreign countries I’ve never visited, whose language I do not speak and whose people I’ve never spoken to.   I write about politicians I’ve never interviewed.

I know from 40 years experience on newspapers that it is hard to be well-informed on a topic, even if you have time to study the subject, and in fact are being paid to be well-informed.

It is even, as now, I depend on second-hand information.  It is easy to be misled and hard to sift the real from the fake.  Here are filters I use to separate news from fake news.

  1.  Who says so?  How do they know?  Is a source of information given for every assertion?  Is the source of the information a person in a position to know?  Is the person trustworthy?  Is the source of the information anonymous?  If so, do they have a good reason for being anonymous?
  2.   Click on the links.  If the source of information is a link on the Internet, follow links as far as you can to the original source, and see whether it supports what is asserted.
  3.   Does the claim make sense?  Does the news item make sense as something somebody could do?  Does it make sense in terms of something somebody would do?  Is it consistent with what else you know?  Is it consistent with itself.
  4.   Does the writer engage in mind-reading?  Other people’s’ motives are unknowable.  You can know what somebody does.  You can’t really know why they do it, and the “why”
  5.   Compare and contrast diverse sources.  If you have time.
  6.   Carry on imaginary conversations in your head.   If you are a progressive, imagine a conservative making their best arguments (or vice versa).   How would you answer?  Could you answer?
  7.   Distrust emotion, but not too much.  Emotion can blind you to facts and logic, but the fact that somebody feels strongly about something doesn’t mean they’re wrong.   There’s nothing wrong with expressing anger, admiration, pity, gratitude or any other normal human emotion; what you should ask is whether the emotion is appropriate to the actual facts.
  8.   Use fact checkers, but skeptically.   Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are useful, but make up your own mind.
  9.   Arithmetic can be your friend.  If the news item is based on statistics, go to the original source, if you can.  Do the calculations yourself.  Always distrust any claim that is based on percentage differences or changes unless the underlying number also is given.  Don’t jump to conclusions about the significance of any number unless there is another number you can meaningfully compare it with.
  10.   Three things to watch out for.  Old news packaged to look like it’s current.  “Sponsored content” packaged to look like journalism.  Satire that isn’t labeled as satire.
  11.   Suspend judgment if you’re not sure.  Better to admit you don’t know something than to think you do when you don’t.
  12.   Admit mistakes, at least to yourself.  It just means you are wiser today than you were yesterday.

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Anti-intellectualism and questioning of authority

October 7, 2015

criticalthinking002Hat tip to Bill Elwell.

Anti-intellectualism has long been a strong and deplorable force in American life, but there’s a fine line between anti-intellectualism and questioning authority.

It is not anti-intellectual to refuse to accept someone’s opinion because the person has an advanced degree and speaks in scientific jargon.

I don’t believe credentialed experts who tell me that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is safe, or that the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership will create jobs, or that it’s necessary to drop bombs on people in Middle Eastern countries for their own good.

I question authority, but I accept legitimate authority.  I don’t elevate my personal feelings to equal standing with scientific fact, and I don’t think I can determine everything for myself.  Rather I try to figure out which persons have real knowledge and wisdom, based on their records and on my ability to follow their reasoning.

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