Featured Image: penso positivo (i think positive) by Luca Ribichini, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Why shouldn’t we believe a credible looking fact or story? If it’s on the news, or our science-savvy aunt posted it, then it should be true, right? The answer is…not always.
On September 10th, Seattle Town Hall hosted Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University. His talk was called “a Field Guide to Internet Lies”.
Also known for being the best-selling author of The Organized Mind and This is Your Brain on Music, Dr. Levitin sat down with Hanson Hosein, Director of the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington, to discuss the topic of his new book, “a Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age” which, as the name would imply, is about how to distinguish lies from the truth in era of cheap and easy information.
“It’s getting harder and harder to know, just by looking at something whether it’s true or not” said Dr. Levitin.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do with evidence and scientific argument. They’d rather follow their emotion and believe what feels like the truth. This happens all the time in politics. “
Candidates use emotional arguments against one another to provoke feelings from voters. Fear is often used to manipulate our emotion, especially when it comes to sensitive issues such as air flight safety, terrorism and refugees.
An example of this is when Donald Trump has alleged that Hillary Clinton will allow 550% increase in Syrian refugees without having any effective screening processes during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on July 21st, 2016. However, there has been a long and rigorous vetting process foe refugees for over three decades. On average, the process can take up to 18-24 months and the acceptance rate is just over 50%.
Even educated and thoughtful people can be beguiled by emotional arguments when they are too fixated on an issue. Dr. Levitin used gun control as an example, “Some people are willing to support a politician who’d let them keep their gun without considering the argument from the other side”.
During the talk, Hosein raised a point about how people completely reject ideas, even those backed-up by evidence, if those ideas are threatening to their identity or beliefs. Asking “How can we get past that wall?”
“Accepting that people have different opinion and compromise – that’s what Democracy is” said Dr. Levitin.
Dr. Levitin responded that we have to change our conversation and narrative as a society. “Accepting that people have different opinion and compromise – that’s what Democracy is” said Dr. Levitin. “We have to understand that we can’t always be right”. We might encounter ideas that are controversial but we don’t have to judge them as right or wrong. Instead, we let them be a part of the conversation and broaden our minds in the process.
Modern day search engine algorithms, like Google, play a part in narrowing people’s opinion by catering information based on our search history, noted Dr. Levitin. This attempt to optimize our user-experience has an unexpected side effect, it influences bias. What we decide to believe is limited by the one-sided information that we receive.
“The problem with getting like-minded people together is that you’re never challenged to learn anything new. You can’t learn anything new if you’re only hearing the same old stuff” said Dr. Levitin.
Levitin noted that learning critical thinking is the key and it should start at young age.
“Education can no longer be about teaching any old stuff,” said Dr. Levitin. “It should be about teaching the next generation how to tell a fact from a lie”.
Education used to be about teaching people to memorize information and facts but now those facts are instantaneous on web. “Education can no longer be about teaching any old stuff,” said Dr. Levitin. “It should be about teaching the next generation how to tell a fact from a lie”.
Starting from the age of 12, children should be taught to ask where the information comes from, if there’s any bias in the way that the information is structured, and to be aware of how words are framed. At first glance, information that comes with numbers and stats can seem authoritative enough to be believable. However, when we take a closer look, the numbers might not make any sense at all.
Reposting something you see online before source checking it may seem annoying, but compared to the past method of spending hours at the library just to retrieve information from a variety of encyclopedias and print sources.
In comparison, double checking your facts is not that much work at all.
“All that time we’ve saved, with information becoming instantaneous, unfortunately we have to give back some of it back in verifying information. So yeah, it’s a little bit of work, but I don’t think it’s more complicated than what a 12 year-old can handle.” said Dr. Levitin.
What we can do is to have humility which is, according to Dr. Levitin, the most important part of critical thinking.
The reason that some of us fall for conspiracy theories is that we don’t really understand how things work, said Dr. Levitin at the end of the talk. It’s hard to be critical about an argument when you lack the knowledge and training about a subject matter. What we can do is to have humility which is, according to Dr. Levitin, the most important part of critical thinking. If each of us would be more humble and recognize that we know less than we think we do, then we’ll ask questions, we’ll open our minds.