I've been watching a hoax spread across the Internet. It's about a screw. The authors of this hoax have come clean and shared their findings about how misinformation spreads in the Internet age. The setup was simple. Apple is known for building devices that are challenging to upgrade and repair. Indeed, Apple often uses uncommon types of screws to discourage casual disassembly of the devices they sell. It was this conventional wisdom that acted as the soil for a false rumor to spread. The perpetrators comped up a proprietary, asymmetric screw design in a 3D program and "leaked" it to Reddit. It didn't exactly set the world on fire. Reddit is famously skeptical, and even the passionate crowd at /r/Apple viewed this posting as improbable. Regardless, Reddit can generate a lot of traffic, and from some of these views came blog posts. After the bloggers came Mac news sites, and with those posts came comments, and ultimately people sharing the news on Facebook and Twitter. I watched as skepticism gave way to belief as the news was shared.
I believe that the Internet is one of the greatest inventions mankind has produced. The ease with which people can communicate and share information is transformative and beneficial. Unfortunately, this power comes with a price. Information on the Internet can be very low quality, and the evidence suggests that most societies are not well-versed enough in critical thinking and qualitative information evaluation to allow the Internet to do its best work.
It seems that for every bit of self-organized brilliance, the Internet seems to share 100 baseless memes. Look at your Facebook Newsfeed or Twitter stream. How many stories could be debunked with a simple visit to Snopes? How many claims are completely unsubstantiated? How many friends post opposing statements on the behavior of politicians or candidates, but fail to provide evidence on the basis that their post is "self-evident."
The combination of rapid, easy communication and relatively low skepticism toward ideologically sympathetic messaging is creating echo armies. Established interests use the Internet to rebroadcast sound-bites and snippets of thought. Repetition reinforces the feeling of truth in those who share similar views. The same mechanisms that make us believe that Facebook will donate $1.25 to a suffering child if we just share an image also allows political parties to rally a base toward a cause without fully clarifying or justifying their agenda.
Do you believe that Affordable Health Care act will provide a net economic benefit to our society? If so, why do you believe that? What evidence have you been shown?
Do you believe Obamacare is a government takeover of private industry that will saddle our nation with unbearable levels of debt? If so, why do you believe that? What evidence have you been shown?
I've spent dozens of hours studying the healthcare strategies of different countries. What do they cost per capita? What effect to the have an personal budgets? How about national budgets? How do you quantify health care quality? What effects are seen in societies with less population coverage versus more? What effect does a profit motive have on research and medical advancement?
Where has the research lead me? I am 100% convinced that I don't have an opinion worth sharing at this time. I've looked at both sides of the argument and I've seen a lot more propaganda than substance everywhere I look.
Critical thinking is checking assumptions. Whenever I read something, I look first at my own assumptions. Where did I get them? On what evidence are they based? After I have contextualized my own assumptions, I look at the author. What evidence does he/she cite? Who produced it? Under what context? Has this evidence been supported by another organization? If it is scientific in nature, has it been published and peer reviewed? What does the opposition say? What evidence do they site?
Try this. Scroll through your news feed. Look at their posts. Now critically analyze the one you don't agree with. Now do the same with the ones you agree with. Finally, look at your own timeline and look at your own statements. How much analysis and evidential evaluation have you performed on your own media?
It's hard work, sure. It means you are often silent when discussions are heated. It means you have to draw a harder line between your opinion and fact. It means that you will very often find out that a position you hold is wrong, or at least difficult to support with evidence.
Now imagine for a moment the level of accountability we would present to governments, political parties, corporations, churches, and establishments of all kinds if we started our discussions with critical examination.
Don't hear me wrong. I'm not saying critical thinking will produce universal agreement on issues. It won't. What it does produce is humility and an understanding toward people who have reached a dissimilar conclusion, but done so after honestly considering your own viewpoint.
Change the world. Think critically.