Critical thinking in the age of fake news

David Kennedy

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It is concerning me when I see people that I considered sensible sharing unfounded and even false information through social media. The truth has become a flexible commodity today, and seemingly sensible people are proposing “alternative facts” as the truth, mainly because they are too lazy to find the truth.

Intelligent people like Carl Sagan saw this coming. In May 1996 he said: “We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology. And this combustible mixture of ignorance and power, sooner or later, is going to blow up in our faces.”

The scope of the problem

In his 1985 novel “Contact” Sagan posed the thought that: “In the long run, the aggressive civilizations destroy themselves, almost always.“ This is raising the question, if our trend for egocentric, nationalistic and xenophobic politics is setting our civilisation on the way to destruction or not.

When we consider that we, as technologists, have opened Pandora’s Box, which allowed deep data analysis tools to capture our data, identify our susceptibilities and fears, and then let unscrupulous politicians manipulate us through subliminal and false messages, we have to consider how we can regain control.

Today I don’t need to even consider your fact-based arguments, if I simply brand them as fake news. The ability of large groups of people to be happy in the knowledge that the Earth is flat is maintained through an amazing ability to deny all physical proof to the contrary. This is done by designating it as proof that the establishment is behind a conspiracy to keep the truth hidden.

Similarly, when the Brexit team declared that “the people in this country have had enough of experts”, they were indicating a key part of today’s problem – the desire to replace knowledge with opinion based on hearsay, fears and in some cases paranoia. The same logic asserts that my ignorance is as valid an opinion as your educated position. This has been combined with a hyper-sensitive sense of political correctness – where media is expected to give fair representation to all viewpoints – to actually distort the meaningful debate and collective decisions that democracy depends on. If you ask a scientist to be on a TV programme debating cosmic science with a Flat-Earth believer, you are actually demeaning science by asking it to prove itself against fiction. This approach gives the uneducated views an undeserved status.

How to fix our new world

We really need to go back to basics. The most basic thing is education. We have had global campaigns since World War II to increase the education standards across the globe. We may need to expand our concept of education beyond simply teaching people to read and write, which is only giving them the tools. We rather need to make sure people stay long enough in education to learn how to be critical in their thinking. The link between education and involvement in the civic society has been well identified – why this is linked is not so obvious. Some say the teaching ingrains the benefits of political participation while others propose that schools and collages teach us to work, play and communicate together for common gain.

Student communities have long been seen as the political vanguard and not willing to accept suppression. Even Lenin complained in his time that students were unwilling to subject themselves to the leadership of the revolutionary – and not so democratic – elites.

But even here we run into a modern interpretation of critical thinking, which basically says: don’t trust anything the government tells you, as they are lying to promote their own agendas. Science asks you to be critical and work through any hypothesis until you have evidence to prove or disprove it. We should renew our global commitment to education to the point where the average person has the capabilities to deal with modern challenges.

When we can stop asking people, if they believe in climate change and instead debate with them, if they understand the implications of climate change, we may be making progress.

What to do now

I would like us all to think about our roles in the chain: are we helping society or are we part of the problem? Your behaviour on social media has a lot to do with this. If you simply share emotive news that you like the sound of and because it re-enforces your biases, then you are the problem. I challenge you to change you behaviour with three steps: 1. Consider the message; 2. Consider the source; and 3. Pause before sharing.

I may be naïve, as we have worked hard to make our social communications powerful and far-reaching – and somehow almost anonymous. But the click-without-consequences world we live in is actually not without consequences. We need to put the values back into our increasing communications, in order to avoid that we sow so much suspicion and mistrust that our civilisation, as we know it, is doomed.