Critical Thinking in Time of Crisis

Fresno Bee, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus uncertainty leaves us wondering what we should believe and who we should trust. This is made more difficult by partisan division and a general distrust of authority. Many authorities think that this illness is serious. Some countries have implemented drastic measures. Businesses and campuses are preparing contingency plans. Events have been canceled.

But the president suggests that this is fake news. On Monday, he tweeted, “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power to inflame the CoronaVirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

But how do we know what the facts warrant? This question holds for a variety of issues: from climate change and the stock market to the threat of terrorism and dietary guidelines. Beyond these contemporary questions, there are deep questions about history, religion and the meaning of life. Did Jesus really walk on water? Did Shakespeare himself really write all of those plays and poems? Is there a soul that survives death?

In many cases, we lack direct access to the facts. Miracles happen far away and long ago. Historical facts rest on fragile threads of evidence. And death remains an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.

Layers of secrecy and confidentiality in government and business make it difficult for ordinary people to judge. Even when we have evidence, we lack the expertise to evaluate it. The facts about climate change and the coronavirus have been published by scientists. But you need substantial training to understand these facts and assess the risks.

Given this problem, it is often wise to say “I don’t know.” Philosophers have routinely called for intellectual humility. Socrates famously said that the only thing he was certain of was that he lacked certainty.

But intellectual humility doesn’t help in an emergency. Acknowledging your lack of certainty doesn’t help you decide whether to avoid crowds, cancel a trip or stockpile toilet paper.

Intellectual humility should not be a recipe for inaction. Nor is it the same as lazy indifference. To say you don’t know is not the same as saying you don’t care. Nor does it mean that you should give up on the quest for certainty.

Prudence tells us to work diligently to get the facts and learn how to interpret them. One obvious method involves checking multiple reliable sources. But, of course, we disagree about what counts as a reliable source, which is the present predicament.

The president tells us not to trust the news media. But is the president trustworthy? The Washington Post reports that President Trump has made over 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. Trump calls that fake news. The polarization of information makes critical thinking more difficult.

This is not a new problem. There never was a time when people agreed about the facts or about who counts as an expert. The apostles believed Jesus was a resurrected messiah. Others thought this was fake news. And the Bible’s doubting Thomas demanded direct evidence.

In addition to gathering evidence and gaining expertise, we need to think about the burden of proof. The more the risk, the more the need for proof. If there is a risk of a deadly disease, you ought to take precautions, especially if those precautions are minimally invasive. If more hand washing prevents a pandemic, then let’s all wash our hands. But when it comes to cancellations and quarantines, the risk assessment becomes complicated. At some point, a leap of faith is required.

This is difficult and frustrating. But life is a series of decisions made without certainty. And at least we are free to make these decisions for ourselves. It’s a sign of our freedom that even the authorities disagree with each other. In ancient Athens, they killed people like Socrates who questioned authority.

Today, there are no undisputed authorities, in politics, religion, love, or life. There is no secret revelation that will cure a doubting Thomas. And there is no magic safety net to save us from bad decisions. We are on our own. It’s up to us to develop the knowledge to solve our problems — and the wisdom to think critically about what we believe and who we trust.

MLK and the Moral Need for Enlightenment

Fresno Bee, January 19, 2020

We have a moral obligation to educate and enlighten ourselves. Love and duty are blind without education. This is a theme we find in the life and writing of Martin Luther King Jr.

King was a Christian minister whose nonviolent work for racial justice was inspired by Jesus and Gandhi. But he was also a scholar. He studied sociology, philosophy and theology.

King’s model of thoughtful activism provides an antidote for a culture of quick tweets and silly memes. Our attention spans are short. We skate across the surface of things. King reminds us of the power of the slow and serious study of the humanities. Social change begins with change of heart and also with a change of mind.

So here’s a proposal for Martin Luther King Day: read something! King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start. King shows there how Socrates and Jesus inspired him to engage in civil disobedience.

If you want to know more about King’s philosophical influences, read his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he explains his philosophy and theology of love. King says there, “All life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”

This idea did not pop into King’s mind unformed. He discovered it through an intellectual pilgrimage through the history of philosophy. King’s ideas, and his activism, grew out of a broad understanding of the world’s traditions.

King routinely warns against intellectual and spiritual blindness. In his book, “Strength to Love,” King said it is “not badness but blindness” that causes evil in the world. It was ignorance that led people to crucify Christ and to execute Socrates. The root of racism, hate, and violence is “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

King concludes that we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.” And he argues — with a nod to the existentialist philosophers he studied — that moral blindness is a result of a tragic misuse of freedom.

Racists and haters often make a conscious choice to be dumb. Every human being has the capacity to think critically, inquire into truth, and gain enlightenment. But people choose not to exercise this capacity because they are focused on defending their own selfish interests and narrow points of view.

Liberation from ignorance is difficult. It causes anxiety. It is difficult to question authority and stand up for justice. The solution for the anxiety of emancipation is a courageous commitment to truth. We need the courage to think for ourselves and, as King puts it, to “courageously do battle for truth.”

King suggests that the Christian faith provides the ultimate solution. He rejects the idea that human reason and science alone can eliminate hatred and injustice. He says, “Man by his own power can never cast evil from the world.” He says that humanistic hope is based upon an illusion about the inherent goodness of things.

King was, after all, a Christian pastor. In the background of his thinking is the problem of sin and the need for a savior. King tells us that he found the strength to persevere against threats and violence with the help of God.

This pushes us toward further reflection. Are we good enough to save ourselves? Or do we need divine assistance?

In order to answer those questions, we need to embrace the difficulty of thinking and the complexity of faith. A lot of people would like to ignore these sorts of questions. They would prefer to ignore the question of why racism persists, whether violence can be justified, and whether the arc of the universe really does bend in the direction of justice.

But lazy indifference is not helpful. Faith without thought is flimsy. And wisdom is not possible without fear and trembling.

King said, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

So how do we honor Dr. King? We honor him by working for social justice. But we also honor him by avoiding half-baked solutions and easy answers. In short, we honor him by taking up the task of thinking.

Fake News and Media Literacy

It’s actually easy to tell real journalism from fake news. Here’s how

Fresno Bee, April 28, 2017

The fuss over fake news continues to unfold. In February President Trump accused The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN of being fake news and the enemy of the American people. This week he said the “fake media” were falsely reporting that he had changed his position on the Mexican border wall. He also explained away recent reports about his low approval ratings as “fake news.”

President Trump seems to think that stories he doesn’t like are phony. But truth is independent of our desires. Not liking something does not make it false.

Journalists – like everyone else – have biases and opinions. But there is an important difference between biased stories and bogus ones. Every story has an angle. But objective reporting rests firmly on the ground of facts. Legitimate news organizations avoid lies and fabrications.

The objective truthfulness of real news provides the template that fake news imitates. Fake news stories are counterfeit. They look like real news. They appear to provide objective facts. But they do not. Rather, they try to sell us something.

Infomercials are fake news. Internet “click bait” is fake news. Newspaper advertisements written to look like news reports are fake news. The tabloids lining the grocery store checkout are fake news. Political propaganda is fake news.

Professional journalists do not produce fake news. The journalist’s code of ethics has four guiding ideas. Seek truth. Minimize harm. Act independently. And be accountable and transparent.

Mainstream news organizations sometimes exaggerate with attention-grabbing headlines and titillating teasers. But real journalists want to get the facts right. When they get things wrong, they admit it – or get fired.

It is not always easy to differentiate fake news from real news. That’s why we need substantial training in media literacy. We need to teach kids how to read a newspaper and how to avoid being suckered by online click bait. Kids need to learn the difference between objective news reports, the opinion page, commercials and outright propaganda.

We all need to understand that YouTube and other Internet sources offer suggestions based upon what the computer thinks we want to see. Some tech firms are proposing a technological fix for this particular problem. Google and Facebook are working to combat fake news by changing how search and news notification functions work.

The technological fix is good. But the problem of sorting out fact from fiction will remain with us. Fake news is an ancient problem. Socrates was executed because false rumors were spread about him. Charlatans and quacks have always taken advantage of the gullible and the ignorant.

Wisdom teaches skepticism and self-restraint. A story that is too good to be true is likely not true. We are often beguiled by our biases. We want to believe things that flatter our egos and reinforce our deepest beliefs. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias.” But wanting something to be true does not make it so.

So while technological solutions can help reduce the proliferation of fake news, the real solution is critical thinking and self-examination.

The most obvious key is to seek out multiple sources of information. You should also compare what you read or hear against commonly held background knowledge. Critical media consumers also ask some of the following questions:

▪ Who is speaking, what is the source of their authority, and what biases do they have?

▪ Is the story trying to sell me something or advance an agenda?

▪ Who is the intended audience? What is included in the message or left out?

▪ How does this story connect to other things I already know?

▪ What more would I need to know to evaluate this properly?

These kinds of questions should guide our reading of books, our evaluation of scientific reports, and our understanding of speeches, sermons and sales pitches. The process of sifting and winnowing is liberating and edifying. Critical thinkers make informed decisions in all aspects of their lives.

Critical thinking is essential for citizens in a democracy. In order to effectively participate in the project of self-government, we need to be able to distinguish between the phony and the factual. Let’s hope that the fake-news furor stimulates a renewed commitment to media literacy, objective reporting, and basic common sense.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article147400744.html