Last Saturday the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development announced plans to target “fake news” and social-media “echo chambers”, through an international focus on the critical-thinking skills of young people.
The OECD is a major international forum consisting of 35 member nations, which promotes global political and economic development. Its interest in the “global competence” of young people is clear, as the role of social media and fake news in promoting extremism and undermining confidence in democratic processes becomes increasingly apparent.
As the OECD Director of Education told an education conference in Dubai:
“Exposing fake news, even being aware that there is something like fake news, that there is something that is written that is not necessarily true, that you have to question, think critically. That is very important.”
The OECD may have big plans to encourage the critical thinking skills of schoolchildren, but what about the rest of us? We can’t sit back and wait for the OECD to save us. We need to take the initiative and remember how to think for ourselves.
Reason is a discipline
As a philosopher-by-training I used to take pride in my capacity for critical thinking. But my ability to think logically and incisively has grown a little dull with neglect, ever since I started writing fiction. Writing fiction and telling stories develops a different set of skills from analysing and dissecting arguments in search of valid reasoning and justified beliefs.
What I’ve learned from this change in perspective is that it is much easier to let people tell you what to think than to actually think for yourself – easier in the same way that it’s easier to watch sport on TV than to get up off the couch and do some exercise.
Like out-of-shape former-athletes, we need to recognise our limitations and start off slow and gentle if we want to regain our lost form.
No more junk knowledge
The biggest obstacle to regaining reason is that we have at our disposal a ready supply of junk knowledge.
Junk knowledge, like junk food, fools your brain into thinking it’s consuming something substantial and nutritious, when it’s really all about superficial flavours and sensationalism.
Getting back into reason-able shape means cutting out junk knowledge. We need to adhere to a strict knowledge-diet and avoid consuming empty opinions. I won’t lie to you – this is not going to be easy.
But it’s going to be worth it. Just imagine being able to look down and see your foundational principles of reasoning again, maybe for the first time in years! Imagine how nice it will feel to fit into your old philosophical frameworks once more – the ones you’ve never had the heart to throw away even when your day-to-day operating principles became increasingly elastic.
If we don’t cut out junk knowledge entirely it’s never going to happen.
Think before you consume
The problem is that we’ve gotten used to consuming junk knowledge without even thinking. Often we don’t even realise we’re consuming it. We hear it on the TV or radio, we read it on the internet, we see it on Facebook feeds or news sites, and we just lap it up, breathing it in like it’s part of the ether.
We do this because it’s tasty. Junk knowledge is specifically designed to target your intellectual taste-buds in ways that make it hard to resist.
Junk knowledge gives you the illusion of having learned or discovered something significant, meaningful, revolutionary, or profoundly revealing. It makes you feel like you have inside-understanding, it invokes strong emotional cues like outrage, fear, and contempt.
And the more we rely on junk knowledge, the less we rely on our own thinking. Skills are lost, we can’t be bothered taking the time or making the effort to arrive at reasoned conclusions or form valid arguments.
It can get to the point where real, substantial knowledge and arguments don’t even look appetising to us anymore. We don’t want to consume something unless it’s packaged properly, doused in artificial colour and flavour, and hyped up with empty enthusiasm and sensation.
The first step to cutting out junk knowledge is to remember that you are not primarily a consumer of other people’s ready-made opinions. You are an individual mind in an individual body, and you take in information, the raw ingredients of knowledge, from outside of yourself.
Every piece of information you take in, and how you treat it, is your choice. The manufacturers of junk knowledge don’t have your best interests at heart. Either intentionally or through ignorance they are out to get you hooked on their product. And while good quality sources of knowledge do exist, it’s up to you to distinguish them from the junk.
It’s up to you because in reality you are a lone, isolated individual mind, with the ability to take in, scrutinise, and reject all the information and propositions that come your way. You don’t have to believe everything you read.
You can instead cultivate a healthy suspicion of every proposition that comes your way, first by learning to recognise that it is a proposition in the first place.
Let’s take two recent examples from the Fox News and CNN websites respectively:
The first is a great example of a minor news story that has received attention because it sounds weird, inappropriate, and potentially racially charged.
The second report is essentially an opinion piece, written with emotive and opinionated language on the hugely divisive personage of Donald Trump.
Neither item is unusual. In the usual course of consuming such pieces we would gravitate to whatever news or opinion aligns most with our pre-existing view of the world. In other words, we look for new information that will confirm our existing beliefs.
When we read them as news, we tend to absorb them without thinking. It’s only when we regard them as propositions that we can gain enough distance to view them critically.
On a razor’s edge
Each article, opinion piece, news item, or inflammatory blog post is trying to gain something from you. It wants to be consumed, it wants your unthinking assent. But if we look at it with critical eyes we can learn to resist the temptation.
Looking at it critically doesn’t mean trying to reject it or refute it, it just means being accurate about what we are seeing: what we really know about it.
For example, the story about the professor under investigation is just a story to us. If you read the report all you really know is that the report says what the report says.
You don’t know if the report is accurate, embellished, exaggerating or understating the incident. You don’t even know if there was an incident, just that you have read a report that states that there was an incident.
Being critical looks a lot like being pedantic.
If you read the second report, you might notice that the author is using heavily loaded words and expressions.
For example, instead of saying President Trump has maintained that President Obama wiretapped his phone lines, the author states that President Trump has “floated a conspiracy theory” about the wiretapping. There are numerous other examples that include President Trump and his aides fumbling, clinging, digging in, and not ready to quit, even if it means embarrassing a world leader.
That doesn’t mean the author is wrong to use loaded words and phrases – it’s an opinion piece after all – but if we want to exercise our reason and avoid junk knowledge, we have to read it with the tiresome and almost pedantic rigour of a critic.
In other words, we have to take all the fun out of it.
Your junk-knowledge detox
Just as junk food exploits our natural savour for salt, sugar, and oils, so junk knowledge exploits our natural appreciation for novel, insightful and conclusive information.
Taking a cautious, rigorous, critical approach to the information and propositions presented to us is like learning to ignore the superficial flavours of junk food and look directly at its true nutritional value.
The good news is that maintaining a critical eye on all the propositions and information that come your way will eventually turn into a junk-knowledge detox. You can’t go on subjecting incoming information to scrutiny and discarding junk knowledge without eventually asking yourself “what do I really know?”
In other words, your critical eye doesn’t have to stop at external sources of information – it can also turn inward. It’s much harder than only looking critically at external sources. But with persistence we can learn to stop ourselves saying stupid things, and passing off junk knowledge as if it were true.
It might not sound like much fun, learning to be a critical, pedantic scrutineer of propositional truth claims, and you will lose the idle enjoyment that comes from consuming junk knowledge and emotive confections.
But you’ll also rid yourself of that heavy, bloated, bilious feeling that comes from endlessly ingesting empty opinions. You can begin to enjoy the lighter, more disciplined attitude that comes with the regular exercise of reason.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. His new fantasy novel To Create a World is available as an ebook from Amazon.com, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and other digital stores. He also blogs at zacalstin.com.