I got good strategy advice from John McManus, author of “Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web”, who told me “you have think like a detective.” Think of tools like search engines, the productivity index, hoax debunking sites like Snopes.com, and others I will mention later as forensic instruments, like Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass or the crime scene investigator’s fingerprint kit.
It’s a good essay and it made me realize one thing: the problem of how lazy we are. Most people know they should ask more questions, and take more time to verify sources, but that takes effort. And that effort, if spent well and results in the discovery of a unreliable source, it costs double. We’ve lost not only the time verifying something, but also the time spend finding that now unreliable source, and the kicker is you still don’t have a fact you can use. Fact checking is a double-whammy against seeming productive to others. We have natural reasons to not want to check that source, even though we know we should. Part of us doesn’t want to know.
When people find a fact that supports their argument, regardless of where it comes from, its incredibly tempting to grab it and run, assuming whoever reads what you write, or listens to what you say, will be as lazy as you were. You can bluff your way into credibility because there’s no one depending on what you say enough to openly challenge what you’re saying. Often online when people think you are full of shit, they’ll just click away. You have to care to take the time to challenge someone’s facts or sources. And even when people do criticize, they’re in such a rush to prove you wrong for something, it’s common to be criticized for things you didn’t actually say, or with claims that are not supported, sparking a dozen ratholes that have no possibility of convincing anyone of anything. Communication speed makes the downward spiral of miscommunication spin much faster.
I’ve written my own take on detecting bullshit, but the thing I don’t know how to tackle is what to do when our innate desire for efficiency works against us. Being “productive” online in writing blog posts or frequent tweets, demands spending little time verifying anything, much less seeking out evidence for the opposing view and vetting them against each other in what old school folks used to called thinking. If there is anything I want to promote it’s thinking. Honest, open, generous amounts of critical thinking where people are just as willing to admit when they are wrong as they are to prove they are right.
My gripes about social media, and the future of technology in general, comes around to how we’re increasingly rewarded for volume online, or believe we will be rewarded for volume, rather than quality. Which is strange given how successful the web has been at making volume of information moot. We have more to read, watch and listen to than we can consume in a thousand lifetimes. Volume isn’t the problem. It’s the search for quality and the shortage of critical thinking that we need to solve and this includes the promotion of the kinds of questions Rheingold suggests everyone asks of things they read online.
Critical thinking will always require effort – and if we’re overwhelmed and stressed by too much information, or feel we’re falling behind and running out of time, the feedback loop works against slowing down to ask good questions. That stress fuels making assumptions and jumping to misguided conclusions.
How do we fix this? Or is it even a problem at all? Let me know what you think.