Upgrading Your Critical Thinking Cap

One of my goals in launching this blog is to encourage people to think more critically about the news.

Inundated by a toxic wave of partisan journalism, government propaganda, and just plain sloppy reporting, readers have to apply filters, or they’d be overwhelmed to the point of insanity. Indeed, information overload might explain why folks have gone off the deep end in this election cycle. Unfortunately, the most common filter used to judge the credibility of a news story is whether it reaffirms one’s beliefs.

Take Trump’s supporters, for example. They’ve been disparaged as “low-information” voters who were sucked in by his cynical appeal to their fear of social progress and anger over their declining economic status. As we’ve read, those voters were easy targets for “fake news,” most of which portrayed Hillary Clinton in a negative light and thus validated their consuming hatred for her – which, underneath, was really a pathological fear of a woman president and powerful women in general.

Do you see what I just did? I told a story that left-leaning readers likely didn’t question, because it fits with what they believe, and it was emphasized by liberal news sites and media pundits repeatedly during the 2016 presidential campaign. However, while that description might apply to some Trump supporters, there are no facts to support the claim that a majority or even a large percentage of them fit the stereotype. Nor is “low-information” clearly defined.

I’ll have plenty to say on this topic in the future. Meanwhile, here’s some sound advice from author Peter Van Buren, who worked at the State Department for 24 years before getting himself in hot water for writing a book exposing U.S. government bungling in the reconstruction of Iraq.


Sources Tell Me… Fake News, Kuwait and the Trump DC Hotel
By Peter Van Buren

peter-van-buren_265x232It is fully normalized now in American mainstream journalism to build an entire story, often an explosive story, around a single, anonymous source, typically described no further than “a senior U.S. official,” or just “a source.”

For a writer, this makes life pretty easy. They can simply make up the entire story sitting in their bedroom, inflate a taxi driver’s gossip into a “source,” or just believe an intern they tried to pick up at happy hour who says she saw an email written by her supervisor saying their manager heard something something. The story goes viral, often with an alarming headline, and is irrefutable in an Internety way, demanding critics prove a negative: how can you say it didn’t happen?!?!?

. . . The issue for readers as critical thinkers is that we tend to feel we have only two options: wholly take the writer’s word for it all, or not. The result is a steady flow of amazing insider stories that get blasted through sympathetic repeat media, left like roadkill for us to Tweet about, labeling them as fake news or screaming at the people who label them as fake news. Any follow-up, including a straight-up debunking, is rarely sent viral, as it isn’t as click-worthy.

Any follow-up, including a straight-up debunking, is rarely sent viral, as it isn’t as click-worthy.

That said, there are a couple of things a reader with a few firing synapses still left might do.

The first is to examine the underlying political goal of the writer. If they seem to spend more time “proving some evil” than reporting facts, be skeptical. Be particularly skeptical of a writer whose proved evil tracks very closely with an established narrative the writer has driven before. Show me a (generally conservative) DailyCaller piece exposing Trump corruption, or a (generally liberal) DailyBeast piece exposing Clinton corruption, and you will have my attention. Not necessarily my belief; remain skeptical no matter the source. Don’t stop thinking.

Next might be to ask if what is being reported as true fits with the “is the juice worth the squeeze” test? In other words, if what is being reported is true, is what’s gained worth what is being risked?

As an example, a writer claims Candidate X had a police officer beaten after she ticketed his car. Ok, of course It May Be True! but in reality would a candidate risk news that he ordered a beating of a cop just to retaliate for a minor traffic ticket? Seriously?

###


There’s a lot more good stuff in Van Buren’s blog post. His “Case Study in Bullsh*t” reveals how a left-leaning (sort of) blog distorted an alleged abuse of power by Trump to make money off his presidency before even taking office. The story is totally believable, but after Van Buren is done picking it apart, there’s nothing left but a desiccated cow pie.

I’m waiting eagerly for him to do an in-depth analysis of the new report by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security proving that the Russians hacked into the DNC’s computers and gave the files to Wikileaks.

Featured image: Detail from The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

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