In my first content questions piece, I cited Robert D. Kaplan’s Washington Post article, in which he describes how people use content to distort and deceive — how information becomes misinformation and then the misinformation is amplified.
Reader Mark Baker proffered this comment:
This is an old wolf in new sheep’s clothing, but there are so many wolves now, and their sheep’s clothing is such a bad fit that we can always see their paws and teeth sticking out.
I respectfully disagree.
This is not to pick on Mark, with whom — based on his subsequent comments and on other conversations we’ve had in this forum — I agree on most things. But here, at least, I think he understates the problem.
Sure, sometimes it’s easy to spot the content frauds. Just like in Cold War-era spy movies, you knew who the bad guys were because they had Russian accents.
But many wolves are better at masking their true selves. Social media, especially, makes for effective masks. It’s easy to pretend you’re something you’re not.
(It’s been 25 years since Peter Steiner’s famous “nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon in the New Yorker. How much has really changed since then?)
Exposing the wolves
We try hard to spot the wolves behind the masks. We look for trusted allies who can curate the content we receive. And we instinctively turn toward people who resemble ourselves — our tribe.
That exposes some of the wolves, but not nearly all of them.
To expose some wolves, we need to stop judging their appearance and start judging the things they say (or write).
In other words, we need to think critically.
Unfortunately, critical thinking seems to be in short supply today. Mark’s comment seems to assume that most people can — and do — think critically. I wish that were true.
Why don’t more people think critically? Well, critical thinking takes work, and perhaps some of them are lazy. Perhaps some have never learned how.
Perhaps some have forgotten how.
With that in mind, here’s a quick primer in critical thinking. Call it Critical Thinking 101.
(This is only a primer. There’s much more to say about critical thinking, of course. If you think I’ve misstated something or left out something important, by all means tell me in the comments.)
Your keys to critical thinking
When you’re confronted with new content, ask yourself:
Can I trust the source? What’s its track record? If I know that the source tends to be biased one way or the other, I’ll look for the same story on a different source. By triangulating the same story between two viewpoints, I can get a clearer picture.
Do the speaker/writer’s assumptions — what they assume to be true — align with what I’ve observed to be true? Do they align with common sense?
In making their case, is the speaker/writer actually addressing the question at hand — or are they shifting the conversation onto something else?
Why is the speaker/writer telling me this? To inform? To persuade? To sell me something? To elicit an emotional reaction?
Does the speaker/writer indulge in any of these logical fallacies?
- False causality: I ate pizza and got indigestion, therefore eating pizza always makes me sick.
- Overgeneralization: It’s colder than normal this week, therefore global warming is a hoax.
- Ad hominem: You can’t trust anything the other party says, because they’re all lying so-and-sos.
- Circular reasoning: John Wayne was a great actor because he was so good in all of his roles. (This, by the way, is the original meaning for begging the question.)
- Straw man: People who don’t support the proposed state minimum wage increase hate the poor.
(The last example comes from a handy list of fallacies compiled by the English department at Purdue University.)
If you’re not used to thinking critically when you go onto Facebook or Twitter, or when you turn on the TV or radio, perhaps you’ll find these questions helpful. Again, use the comments to add your own suggestions.
I said earlier that critical thinking is hard work. It requires persistence too. The alternative, however, is far worse: it’s leaving yourself at the mercy of the wolves who seek to distort and deceive.
Make the choice to be a critical thinker. Without critical thinking, none of the rest matters.