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Peering through the fog – a personal approach to critical thinking

February 12, 2019

Did you ever play that game in which you line up a bunch of people, and get the person at one end of the line to whisper a message to the next person, who does likewise until the message reaches the other end of the line? You then get the person who first sent the message to read out their version, and the ultimate recipient to read theirs.

The message is usually corrupted in the telling, often to hilarious effect. Google Translate enables a tech version of the game, wherein you translate a phrase into a succession of languages and then back into the original.

Now consider the same games played by people who deliberately set out to muddy the waters in transmission, for political or ideological reasons, or through plain devilment. That, it seems to me is the essence of the problem facing anyone who is trying to make sense of what they read, both in the mainstream and social media. What is written is often no more reliable than what is passed on orally from person to person.

None of this is new. Muslim scholars struggled for centuries to agree on a reliable set of hadiths – representations of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Mohammed – because within the first two hundred years after the birth of Islam there is no evidence that these stories were written down. Thus the definition of true or false not only depended on human memory, but on an accurate line of transmission. In other words, Mohammed said to Ahmed, who said to Abdullah, and so on. Could it be that the original stories, either by accident or intent, were distorted in the transmission? Small wonder that thousands of scholars laboured for centuries trying to work that one out.

Before Jeff Bezos called the National Inquirer’s bluff over its threat to publish his intimate selfies, how many of the good readers of that organ were aware that what they read, or didn’t read, was allegedly part of a regular system of blackmail in return for favours, such as exclusive interviews with subjects of the blackmail? Some perhaps, if they were paying attention to the large sums of money paid to keep Donald Trump’s sexual indiscretions under wraps. The National Inquirer tells the truth, right? And the truth gets more lurid with each retelling.

And what did the readers of the Daily Mail make of its headline in reaction to Donald Tusk’s statement that Brexiteer leaders who were attempting to take their country out of the without a plan deserved a special place in hell? In (presumably) full knowledge that Tusk was referring to political leaders, the Mail insinuated that Tusk was talking about Brexit supporters, not the political advocates of no deal. A little politically motivated tweak launches a new truth into the nation’s conversation.

Then there was a Conservative MP, Daniel Kawszinski, who recently tweeted:

Britain helped to liberate half of Europe. She mortgaged herself up to eye balls in process. No Marshall Plan for us only for Germany. We gave up war reparations in 1990. We put £370 billion into EU since we joined. Watch the way ungrateful EU treats us now. We will remember.

Was he ignorant of the fact that Britain received more from the Marshall Plan than any other country, or was he just lying? Does Kawszinski’s pro-Brexit stance have anything to do with his paid consultancy deal with a gold speculator? Who knows? But two new truths are born: that the UK got nothing from the Marshall Plan, and a Tory MP has a financial motivation for the ruin of his country. You will pick one truth or another depending on which side of the Brexit divide you stand.

A couple of days ago, we learned that Lynton Crosby, the political strategist who helped the Conservatives to secure several election victories and advised Boris Johnson in his last London Mayor campaign, pitched to Qatari exile for a campaign to influence world opinion in favour of Qatar being stripped of the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosting.

Are we therefore to re-evaluate the motives of those who have already come up with significant evidence of bribery and corruption connected to Qatar’s original campaign for the tournament? Was a shadowy “strategist” behind their efforts?

And what of the newspaper publishers whose products we enjoy as we sit at the breakfast table? Rupert Murdoch owns The Sun and The Times. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. Do the views of the owners cause us to ask if and when an editorial is an advertorial? And when is a newspaper owner a lobbyist? Who can we rely upon to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, a concept that now seems to endure only in the law courts?

I haven’t even started on the subject of Donald Trump’s lies, and nor do I intend to beyond saying that many are self-evident, yet believed by those who want to believe.

The oft-repeated (including by me) solution to the fug of confusion and distrust is to promote the art of critical thinking, especially in our schools. But teaching one generation how to think for themselves, and how to distinguish between truths, half-truths and lies, will not help those of us who left school a long time ago.

But what does critical thinking mean? I can only say what it means to me, and how I try to practise it in my everyday life.

On that basis, as I see it there are a few simple things that those who want to look through the fog can do.

For example, go back to the source of a story. Do a little homework on the earliest version of the story you can find – the first in the line if you will. Try and understand the story teller’s political interests, their business interests and any other relevant information about them. Only then make a judgement about the story and the story teller. The same rule should apply to the social media. I find it helpful to stick to the originator of a tweet, rather than disappear down a rabbit hole reading all the comments the tweet attracts. Unless you enjoy wading through the opinions of trolls, bots and smart-arses, that is.

Then there’s the context of the story. Was it designed for an audience, or based on a chance remark? What else was happening at the time that the story surfaced that might have had an influence on its proliferation (think Me Too and antisemitism)? Even the most naive would surely suspect the words uttered in front of a video camera by people kidnapped by the likes of ISIS. In America, a country that loves redemption stories, Liam Neeson’s revelation that he once took a cosh on the streets to find and kill a black person after a friend was raped might have won him plaudits for his honesty. But he was promoting a film about revenge. And this is the America of Black Lives Matter. Wrong place, wrong time, Liam.

Clearly this kind of thinking process will be impractical when you’re browsing the web or a newspaper and come across a story of no great importance. But if it’s clear that the storyteller is seeking to influence you – to buy something perhaps, or to vote for someone or something – and you’re open to persuasion, then it pays to do a little due diligence on the story teller. If you’re not sure they’re trying to influence you, ask yourself whether you’re more likely to take a specific action based on what they’re saying. You should also ask what levers they’re using to influence you. Are they appealing to your emotions? Are they using facts and figures? Or are they trying to influence you on the basis of their credibility? (You may recognise Aristotle’s definitions of logos, pathos and ethos here.)

The problem is that we’re so bombarded with news stories that we simply have no time to do that due diligence on everything we read. We short-cut our critical faculties and rely on whether or not the story “feels right” to us. We apply what’s referred to by psychologists as the ladder of inference. The thing that “feels right” corresponds to the world we think we know. Thus a volcano indicates the displeasure of the gods, and a disturbed person is possessed by the devil.

But if we can avoid jumping to conclusions and go as far back to the original story as possible, then at least we have a reasonable chance of making an informed judgement on its validity.

We also rely on the opinion of others. And therein lies another tactic. Let’s say that we’re lucky enough to have friends that we’ve known for a long time. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we filter our judgement on what they’re saying based on our knowledge of them, their attitudes, their prejudices and beliefs. But are we more likely to believe something a friend tells us than a stranger? Probably yes. If we’re looking for what we think is impartial truth, we end up relying on sources we trust, even if those sources are not necessarily reliable. We treat them as trusted friends who have proved their reliability and impartiality over a long period. After all, they’re people like us, aren’t they?

The same can also apply to journalists and “experts” we’ve been reading, listening to and following for years. We trust them because they’ve proved their trustworthiness over time. This is Aristotle’s ethos in play. Sometimes we trust them because they think like us. But that’s not the same as trusting someone because they tell the truth as they see it, even if we sometimes disagree with what they say.

Several decades of adult experience have taught me not to trust institutions or newspapers. But I do trust some of the people who work for them. I trust some journalists, and I trust some members of Parliament, even if I don’t necessarily align with their views and political affiliations. So just as I trust friends whom I judge to be reliable, so I trust others whom I’ve never met, not because they’re Tories or Democrats or work for Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos. I trust them because they’ve earned my confidence in their integrity through the things they say and do.

Trust in individuals rather than institutions is hardly fail-safe. They can always let you down. But it can be an effective way to filter out much of the bullshit. Sometimes, when all other ways of establishing the truth fail, you have to go with your gut feeling.

Unfortunately, blind trust in an individual produces leaders whose power depends on blind faith. Trust comes to define who you are. Trust turns into belief, and belief often defies evidence to the contrary. When you question a belief, you are questioning much more about yourself than a core belief. You’re damaging your self-esteem. Am I an idiot? Has my life been on the wrong track for the past few years? The process of unbelieving can be very painful, and most of us prefer to stay with our certainties.

This is where the due diligence comes in. So yes, don’t be afraid to trust a friend, a politician or a journalist. But your trust should be conditional. Circumstances change, people change, you change. So never stop applying a sanity check on anything you read, hear, watch on TV and even witness in person. Never forget three basic factors: source, motivation and context.

This is what works for me. You might argue that it’s common sense. Maybe it is. There are many more sophisticated ways of critical thinking taught at journalism and business schools, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of the theory. But most of us will never encounter that wisdom unless we deliberately seek it out. Which takes time, effort and motivation. I’m too bloody old to go back to school, so I’ll stick to what I’ve figured out for myself with the help of a few people I’ve met along the way.

PS: if you’re curious about books, and thinkers, who have influenced me most, here are a couple that are particularly relevant to this post:

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini

The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani

From → Business, Education, Social, UK, USA

  1. I’ve also read Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a good book and, one of the points that is worth bearing in mind is that the system 1 type ‘fast thinking’ can be appropriate. For me, a large part of critical thinking is deciding how much critical thinking to apply to a claim, but then you have to factor in things like how likely is the claim and how significant it would be if true.

    I think the first step in critical thinking is to step back from the news cycle, social media and the rest and take some time to understand how things work. The greater your understanding, the better your chance of noticing an unlikely claim.

    At the end of the day, though, critical thinking is a skill and, like all skills worth having, it’s something that needs to be learned and practiced.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for your input. Good points all, and I agree with them. Yes, understanding how things work is very important. Unfortunately there are lots of people who don’t have that knowledge. S

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