Is it the truth, a half-truth or just fake news? The line between fact and fiction has become blurrier and blurrier. Otje van der Leij looks into ways we can guard ourselves against fallacies presented as facts with critical thinking.
Back in 2010, I stood up and clapped while watching television. On the screen were American comedians and talk-show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert organizing the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’ in Washington D.C., US. More than 200,000 Americans came together to demonstrate their support for the restoration of common sense. They were fed up with populism, the hardening of society, and ridiculous political campaign propaganda.
It was one of the most positive demonstrations I’ve ever seen. Participants were laughing, cheering and waving banners that read things like, ‘I believe in a sanity clause’ and ‘If your beliefs fit on a sign, think more deeply’. It hit the nail on the head: In a time when cheap sound bites, fake news and half-truths are dominating the Internet, critical thinking is becoming more and more important. But how do you become a critical thinker? How do you tell the difference between fact and fiction?
‘Misinformation has been a fixture of human life for thousands of years,’ writes American neuroscientist and author Daniel Levitin in his book Weaponized Lies: How To Think Critically In The Post-Truth Era. In the old days, you used to be approached on the streets by prophets of doom who handed out pamphlets predicting the end of the world. At birthday parties, you got a helping of gossip with your cake, and urban myths spread like wildfire.
You might have giggled or sneered at them and told a friend, but you didn’t pass it on to thousands of followers—yet thanks to today’s Internet, that’s now possible. Levitin goes on to add, ‘The unique problem we face today is that misinformation has proliferated and lies can be weaponized to produce social and political ends we would otherwise be safeguarded against.’ As far as he is concerned, ‘We all need efficient strategies for evaluating whether what we are being told is trustworthy’. We require critical thinking.
- Read the full story ‘How to be a critical thinker’ in Issue 23.
Text Otje van der Leij Photography Shutterstock