Friday, 5 March 2021

The Rabbit Hole of Critical Thinking

Sound advice on how to deal with the search for truth in the secular world.

From Crisis

By Prof. Francis A. Grabowski

Everything seems to be an existential threat nowadays—from racial, gender, economic and political inequalities, to climate change, to the coronavirus pandemic. However, if we have been paying attention to the media recently, there has been a new addition to the list: misinformation, aka “fake news.” Journalists and politicians would have us believe that misinformation has only become a problem over the past few years. But as Christians, we know that this is utter nonsense. It has been a problem ever since the serpent tempted Eve. Misinformation is indeed a problem, and as Scripture teaches, it is a threat to our well-being on earth and our relationship with God. The question is, what to do about it?

In his recent column “Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole,” Charlie Warzel, an opinion writer for The New York Times, discusses the current battle against misinformation, which, in his assessment, is not going well. A big part of the problem, he says, can be traced to how we have been taught to think critically, which, as some experts have argued, is “fundamentally flawed and out of step with the chaos of the current internet.” Traditional critical thinking requires a deep engagement with material we encounter; but this strategy, Warzel warns, can backfire.

It is like diving into a rabbit hole: Once you enter, you may not be able to find your way out. Warzel’s point is that deep engagement, because it often involves interacting with unknown sources of questionable reliability and authority, makes people susceptible to conspiracy theories and other intellectual scams. But if deep engagement is not effective in the fight against misinformation, what is?

The answer, Warzel suggests, lies largely in how we spend our time. Appealing to media literacy specialists, he notes that because our attention is a scarce resource, we need to develop better ways of sifting through information so that we do not get bogged down in unnecessary details. After discussing how some academics have tackled this problem in the classroom, Warzel offers up his own advice: “Use Wikipedia for quick guidance! Spend less time torturing yourself with complex primary sources!”

To illustrate how this strategy works, he appeals to the case of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., an anti-vaccine activist and chairman of Children’s Health Defense, who has suggested that the HPV vaccine contributes to a number of illnesses including cancer. How deeply should we engage Kennedy’s claims about the HPV vaccine? Based on a quick glance at Wikipedia, Warzel infers not deeply at all. The first sentence of Kennedy’s Wikipedia entry dismisses him as a “conspiracy theorist.” As Warzel continued his Google searches, he became convinced that Kennedy’s claims about the HPV vaccine were unconventional and thus not worth anyone’s time. Thus, Warzel concludes, “Mr. Kennedy’s claims were outside the consensus—a sign they were motivated by something other than science.”

To be fair, Warzel is right to emphasize the need to be selective. Because time is limited, we should be picky about where we get our information from, which means being able to discern reliable from unreliable sources with efficiency. But should Wikipedia really be our first stop? Wikipedia, after all, is an open source; anyone can contribute to it. For this reason, it can be manipulated by pranksters like the North Carolina teen who, though unable to speak a word of Scots, contributed over 23,000 articles and at least 200,000 edits for the Scots version of Wikipedia (sco.wikipedia.org).

Worth mentioning, too, are Wikipedia’s operating principles (viz., the Five Pillars), which include the commitment to describing “multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as ‘the truth’ or ‘the best view.’” It seems, then, if we are looking for truth, Wikipedia is by its own admission not the place to go. There is also the problem with search engines and which one to use? Because they operate on different algorithms, and because these algorithms are undergoing constant change, search engines can and often do yield different results. Where and when one looks, therefore, can influence what one knows.

More troubling, however, is Warzel’s dismissal of primary sources. His concern is that primary sources, especially if they are highly technical, can confuse readers and ultimately lead them astray. To be sure, primary sources should be handled with care. But suggesting that they are torturesome and not worth our time is terrible advice. Primary sources are often our best defense against misinformation. If you want to learn about the Constitution, the best place to begin is with, you guessed it, the Constitution. The same goes for just about anything, be it Aristotle’s metaphysics, wars, pandemics, or Scripture. If it is available, go directly to the source.

Of course, one’s studies will eventually span out to include commentaries and critiques, but initially consulting Wikipedia or some other secondary source is handing one’s mind over to another to shape, influence, and quite possibly manipulate. It is the very antithesis of critical thinking. How is one ever to know if a straw man is being given without knowing the original argument found within the primary source?

The fight against misinformation is in large part a matter of faith (pistis). Whom should we trust? As Catholics, we have among our many reliable sources the Magisterium, which, according to the Catechism, speaks authoritatively “in the name of Christ” (CCC 85–87). In secular matters, however, authoritative sources are much harder to identify. Wikipedia is a source, but hardly authoritative. It might be suitable if we are confirming Ronald Reagan’s birthday or want to check quickly who won Super Bowl XX, but certainly not if we want to become informed about some serious philosophical, scientific, political, or religious matter.

In many instances, serious matters are open to debate; there is no settled truth, not yet at least, but instead we are confronted with multiple completing claims. This is not in and of itself a bad thing because we want to know what our options are. If we are going to find the truth, we need to be prepared to paw through a host of falsehoods.

Now more than ever, there is a need to foster a marketplace of ideas, where thoughts can be freely exchanged and for which no one party can claim a monopoly. The medievals, with their method of disputation, practiced the proverb, “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). St. Thomas Aquinas and his fellow scholastics were not satisfied in merely answering questions; they understood the need to present and pick apart competing views. Robert of Sorbonne appeals to an apt chewing metaphor. “Nothing,” he says, “is known perfectly which has not been masticated by the teeth of disputation.”

Unfortunately, we live in a world where answers are more highly valued than are questions. Conspiracy theories may be false, and if false should be rejected, but they should at least be entertained and engaged, if only to refute them. John Stuart Mill argues in On Liberty that free speech allows us not only though debate to reject falsehoods, but also to defend long-held truths so that they do not become “dead dogmas.” Whatever it is called—the Socratic method, the Cartesian method, or critical thinking—the goal is not merely truth, but justification, which, as Socrates himself points out, ties opinions down so that they will not “run away from men’s souls” (Meno 98a).

Warzel is not wrong to prize time, but time should not be prized more highly than truth, which time is needed to uncover. If we follow Warzel’s advice, we may unknowingly arrive at the truth, but without debate and research into primary sources, truths will in time become dead dogmas and will soon thereafter lose their moorings and become lost. Just as the apostle Peter urges the faithful to “always be prepared to make a defense (apologia) to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), so, too, must we be prepared not merely to possess the truth on secular matters, but also to seek the reasons for the truth by deeply engaging sources and competing arguments, no matter the time it takes and the number of rabbit holes into which we need to descend.

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