I’ve been studying the concept and skill set of critical thinking as of late and while I would consider myself still a novice in this area, it has already opened my eyes to a number of biases I was previously unaware I had. The trouble with a bias is that it acts like a blind spot in our understanding of concepts. We assume we are seeing an issue clearly because we don’t know that our biases are blinding us from pieces of information that could potentially alter our perspective. I’ve always thought of myself as leaning towards the liberal worldview and when I would hear those whose viewpoints were decidedly more conservative speak about “Left Wing Radicals” I would dismiss those assertions with a wave of my hand assuming that perspective was an exaggerated construct and simply untrue. I no longer take that position.
I recently found a website named The Free Thought Project and of course, the name intrigued me. I thought I may have stumbled upon a group who embraced a philosophy similar to my own. Freethought, as defined by Dictionary.com is:
Thought unrestrained by deference to authority, tradition, or established belief, especially in matters of religion.
Wikipedia (the ultimate source of information on the internet he said tongue in cheek) describes it thusly:
…is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas
It took only a matter of minutes to discern that this website had nothing to do with the philosophy of Free Thought. It was in fact, very much the opposite of that. The website is dedicated to a very biased and restricted viewpoint on police interactions with the public and government control in the US. The site takes the position based on the videos that it displays and the titles of it’s “articles” and other written content that police are essentially corrupt thugs that brutalize innocent civilians and that the US Federal Government is an abusive institution that has no regard for the welfare of US citizens. A mere look at the sites navigation menu paints a telling picture. (Please click on the image below to see the menu).
There appears to be little in the way of discourse regarding these issues with any kind of reasoned discussion. In addition there are glaring omissions of information regarding the situations depicted in these videos (such as officers being provoked by people with weapons in hand). This website strikes me as being nothing more than a repository for those who want substantiation for conducting ‘witch hunts” against authority and perpetuating the notion that any persons confronted by police are innocent victims. It’s intent is to evoke a strong emotional reaction rather than to examine the issue critically.
I’ve used this website as a way to illustrate not only the narrow views of individuals or groups that are often propagated by the internet, but also to show that just because a group may label themselves as “Free Thought” does not make it true. The very emotional and controversial issue of abuse of authority by law enforcement vs reckless, unlawful and foolish behavior by private citizens is a debate I will have in another article. The purpose of this post is to examine biases, explain critical thinking and show the double-edged sword of the internet.
One of the questions I’ve learned to ask when reviewing new information is “Why did the speaker or author say what they said and what was their intent?” In addition, I ask “What may have motivated them or directed them to adopt this point of view?”
Understanding the experiences and motivations of anyone presenting an idea, body of information or conclusions drawn from a set of seemingly connected pieces of information is helpful in determining the soundness and validity of the idea. This is where I find that biases tend to creep in and can alter the rest of the discussion. If a particular bias drives someone to simply sift through information cherry picking select bits that they will then attempt to weave together to support their idea, then I am suspect of the conclusions that may be drawn.
Rather than piecing together “evidence” to support an idea, it is more reasonable to gather all relative data, analyze it and allow the evidence as a whole to lead a critical thinker to the natural conclusion, even if that contradicts our previously held beliefs.
Another method of critical evaluation is to clarify terms and definitions. If I hear someone talking about “Badge abuse” or “Police brutality” it’s best to define what the person means when he/she uses those terms. Sometimes what may seem obvious to one person may not be obvious to the next and miscommunication can result from not clarifying the concepts. I’ve also found that when asked to define or clarify a term, the person proposing the idea sometimes has difficulty in doing so which tells me that perhaps they are not clear on their position. It is best not to make assumptions and important to communicate even the smallest detail.
How accurate is the data that is being presented (if any exists at all) to support a person’s idea or perspective? Someone might make a general comment like “Well, studies show that…” Ok. What studies exactly are being referenced? Can you provide these studies? What do they actually conclude? Is the data that is presented being accurately interpreted and does it really relate to the issue? How credible is the source of this information? Many arguments and ideas fail at this juncture. Presenting opinion as fact is very common in illogical discussion. Always, always question the facts.
Next I will examine the connections being drawn by the presenter of an idea. False analogies abound in discussion. It is not difficult to present one premise and then attempt to draw a connection to another premise, even though the two are not logically connected. (Premise A does not cause premise B for example) Logic fallacies are another area where I find that many ideas fail the test of critical review. For example, I’ve heard it said that since the existence of God cannot be disproven, God must exist. This is not logical.
Another example of false logic can be found in the book Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity by SE Cupp. She makes a number of illogical comparisons to sustain her thesis, which is that the general American media has a strong liberal bias and is antagonistic towards Christianity. For instance, she states that the Chronicles of Narnia movies, based on books by author C. S. Lewis who is known for his strong Christian views, performed well at the box office but received lukewarm critical review. She then states that The Golden Compass, based on the first book of the series His Dark Materials by author Philip Pullman, noted for his anti-religious perspective had moderate box office sales but strong critical review. She then tries to connect these two statements by suggesting that film critics in general are part of the “Liberal Media” and have an anti-Christian bias and therefore would naturally review a “Christian” based film poorly despite the generous box office take and an “Anti-Christian” film well, despite low ticket sales. There are so many errors in this assumption it is hard to know where to begin. However, if you follow the points I made in this article, you can easily pick apart her argument and see the glaring factual and logical mistakes.
Finally, I want to take a look at how the internet has played a big role in helping to form the way people view the world. I’ve long held that the internet may be one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements. Since the development of the World Wide Web in the late 80’s (Thank you Tim Berners Lee) the manner and scope of how people communicate and exchange information has been forever altered. The citizens of the world are now connected in a way never before seen in the history of man. The internet, a tool that has no intrinsic moral value can be used for the greater good of mankind, such as the exchange of civic minded ideas, sharing research information between scientists, research facilities and universities across the globe and giving people an opportunity to communicate with and develop friendships with others from different cultures. But like that terrible double-edged sword, it is also a tool that can propagate misinformation, perpetuate ignorant viewpoints, violate personal privacy and harass others. In fact, the propagation of misinformation is so great it has almost become a truism to say “If it’s on the internet it can’t be true”. Now I don’t believe that statement is true, but I would consider it an important caveat whenever evaluating anything seen online.
News outlets as well as the internet seem to prove true the words of the Nazi Joseph Goebbels who said:
Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths… The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.
These statements have been misquoted in different variations. One of the most common is: “If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.” While he may not have said those exact words, the idea would seem to bear some truth. As I previously stated, careful scrutiny of information on the internet is prudent before accepting anything as truth.
One final note. I think one of the biggest obstacles to critical thinking is to allow emotion to enter into the equation. Emotion clouds reasonable judgement and often leads to false beliefs. Unfortunately, so many social issues elicit such a great deal of emotional response it can become difficult to approach discussion dispassionately and objectively. None the less, that is the only way a critical thinker can proceed and that can take practice and discipline.
So moving forward, as you travel with me through my journey through life and explore it through my eyes, do so with a critical eye and don’t hesitate to question my perspectives, my sources of information or any conclusions I draw. You may find errors in my judgement and if so, I want to hear from you. Thanks for hanging in there with me my faithful readers. You’ve read my point of view. Give me your own.