Critical thinking is plainly in decline. Everywhere we look, people are uncritically consuming and spreading information that is distorted, misleading, and sometimes intentionally deceptive. Conspiracy thinking is rampant–QAnon, Alex Jones and the Sandy Hook shooting, Pizzagate, and unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud are just a few of the most notorious examples. The very foundations of our democracy are arguably at risk when millions are willing to believe irrational and unfounded claims.
Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) demonstrated that we’re generally inclined to draw conclusions based on gut instincts, thereby avoiding the hard work of closely examining evidence. Psychologists and neuroscientists have shown that we are subject to “confirmation bias,” the tendency to believe whatever reinforces our prior views and to disbelieve what challenges them. We are especially prone to this bias if changing our views would be costly–financially, to our reputation, or to our identity. These natural tendencies, exacerbated by the pervasiveness of social media and the limitless access to information on the internet, leave us vulnerable to being duped by disinformation.
But we are not defenseless. There are some simple exercises we can use to combat both our natural instincts and the rising tide of digital misinformation.
1. Explore context. Whatever you read comes from someone with a particular history, perspective, and set of interests. Ask yourself: Who is this person? Where are they coming from, literally and figuratively? What might s/he stand to gain by persuading us of this?