Archive for August 14, 2015

two people arguingToo many times I’ve gotten sucked into religious or political debates online. Whether it’s on Facebook when I see someone posting something I disagree with as it enters my news feed, or vice versa.  Or when I’m reading the comments section of a controversial news story. I read the thread as it spirals downward into name-calling territory and personal attacks and further from the topic.

All too often, these types of conversations devolve into vicious sniping sessions of the worst passive-aggressive variety. I’m convinced that none of these issues will ever be settled by means of a social network platform. I’m not trained in the art of debating. I lack a formal education in the schools of philosophy and theology and indeed the scientific disciplines. But that hasn’t stopped me from having a particular reaction to what I see others posting about these topics.

Why? Why do I have this reaction? It seems like an easy question to answer, but it is something I’ve had to devote some time into self-exploration in order to understand this behavior. If I am so secure in what I believe, or if the belief-system I subscribe to is to me unshakeable, then why have I devoted so much time and effort towards trying to get people to see my point of view? I mean, what does it matter to me if religious people are making declarations of faith? I am a non-believer, so why does this affect me? When people post politically-charged internet memes and links that clash with my own, why am I so affected? These people have the right to the same freedom of speech that I enjoy, right? And difference in political views is one of the aspects that make our society diverse and robust, right? So what’s the big deal? Despite the grim satisfaction I got from these interactions, I couldn’t ignore the nagging sensation that something about this felt wrong. And then it hit me.

frenemyInstead of spending my time squabbling with Facebook “friends” over unresolvable issues, the more important issue at hand here, is how to convince people why it’s important to seek quality information. And indeed, how to evaluate information critically in order to make more informed decisions. The lack of factual information I’ve seen come across social media is alarming. This, I’ve decided, has been the cause of my distress over the so-called “hot button issues.” So instead of getting quicksanded into endless debating, I will try to tackle what I see as the causes for much of this disparity: Bad information/Bad communication.

The internet has been a great tool to gather and spread information, but—as they say—with great power comes great responsibility. The internet has provided us with the access to more information, but MORE doesn’t exactly mean BETTER. In fact, I would argue that it’s more difficult to attain quality information, because first, you have to sift through all the crappy information (and there’s a lot of crap). Before the internet, information had to pass through a more rigorous process in order to be broadcast for public consumption. Now, anyone who wants to say something has a platform (even me). And this is great, because the internet has democratized information, but the rigorous, skeptical process of vetting information has fallen by the wayside.

The internet has become a morass of half-baked truths, bad ideas, and dangerous misinformation. But what’s even more dangerous are the lazy attitudes people have adopted towards seeking truth and disseminating quality information. Social media platforms have become breeding grounds for virally destructive ideas. Often, these ideas are spread through memes. Sure, memes can be funny, stinging, poignant, and factual. Anyone can create them. I’ve used them before. They are like greeting cards; a way to share beliefs and sentiments across the social webs. There is nothing inherently wrong with memes. But memes (especially ones revolving around hot-button issues), can also be factually incorrect, misleading, or propagandistic. The problem becomes when people don’t fact check. As I see it, this is a two-fold problem:

  1. It takes nothing to put something out there, regardless if it’s true or not. Most people don’t take the time to consider the source of the information, but simply accept its existence on the internet to mean that it must be true.
  2. Some people would rather accept information they suspect is misleading if it supports their worldview, especially if it’s entertaining or acerbic.

This type of negligence toward quality information spreading is problematic because it takes little effort to spread poor information and nearly anyone can be a carrier. People have less time and less desire to get into the details of an issue. It’s more convenient to simply “share” a meme.

meanmemeAlthough it can be tedious at times, it is more important than ever to seek out good information. It is key to being a well-informed member of society. Here are a few questions to ask when evaluating information:

  • What is the source? Don’t just accept things at face value. Find out who or what is behind a particular bit of information. Just because it appears on the internet or on the cable news, doesn’t mean it’s true.
  • Is the information credible? Reliable information should be testable, verifiable. Too often, people react to information on an emotional level, which can sometimes cloud the facts. Try to remove personal biases. Seek corroborating evidence.
  • What does the opposing view say? It’s a good idea to understand all sides of an issue. This is not only a good practice for gathering information, but practicing empathy as well.
  • What is the context? Is there any additional information that is able to paint a more complete picture of an event or news story? Literal or Symbolic?
  • What is the intent? Is a particular piece of information designed to inform, or sensationalize? Are all the facts presented or are some of them purposefully obscured to mislead?

These are just a few ways to look at incoming information with a critical eye. There are many resources available that go much further into detail about how to examine information. I will list some of these links down below.

teamworkhandsOn a final note, one casualty of these internet information wars has been civil discourse. Lobbing word grenades at each other from the safety of our computer chairs has become the norm. This is a sad practice that gets us nowhere. I’ve been guilty of this at times and have felt the sick satisfaction that comes from “putting someone in their place.” But how can I expect another person to listen to my ideas or respect me, if I’m unwilling to do the same? There needs to be a return to thoughtful, respectful discourse. And the best way to create that environment is to put it to practice myself. It may be tempting to pulverize an easy target, but as a friend of mine once challenged me: Be the bigger person.

Here are some helpful links for improving your critical thinking skills:

Author and professional skeptic Michael Shermer writes about Carl Sagan’s famous ‘Baloney Detection Kit’

Radio host and political commentator David Pakman’s Critical Thinking Miniseries