Critical Thinking a Critical Skill

Anyone with kids can tell you what a challenge it is to teach your kids how to discern "truth" from "advertising."  My kids went through a phase where every product they’d seen a commercial for was the "best" or the "coolest."  It got really annoying when they would suggest a solution for a problem based on an ad that they’d seen.

"Dad, you should use Exxon for gas because it puts a tiger in your tank," my oldest said when he was about seven or eight as we hurtled down the road with fumes spewing from under my hood thanks to an oil leak.  I haven’t liked Exxon since.

The problem has moved beyond advertising since the kids started doing projects for school.  The first stop for any research is the web, and take it from me you don’t want to know what passes for historical information these days. 

As an adult whose done a fair amount of research in my day it is relatively easy for me to separate legitimate info sources from the crackpots, but to a child operating without the same points of reference the job is imminently more difficult.  I can look at a web page and within moments know that it’s a mainstream or "quality" source.  But my kids don’t know Merriam Webster from a hole in the wall so they will give "Joe’s Dictionary Blog" the same weight as the venerable Webster.

Amazingly my kids’ frame of reference has grown exponentially in a very short time.  I think my wife and I have succeeded in giving them an appropriately jaundiced view of the world (i.e. all advertisements are lies, and any product that appears on Nickelodeon the Cartoon Channel or any other kid station most likely causes cancer).

But the kids aren’t the only ones who sometimes struggle with the "truth vs. BS" question these days.  With the kudzu-like spread of information sources beyond traditional media outlets we adults are also learning that we need to re-calibrate our own BS meters.  That means we need to hone our critical thinking skills, and an article I read today called "Media/Political Bias" (Rhetorica) provides a great starting point.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:

"There is no such thing as an objective point of view.

No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context,
through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated
historically, politically, economically, and socially. This state of affairs is
neither bad nor good. It simply is…

Critical questions for detecting bias

  1. What is the author’s / speaker’s socio-political position? With what
       social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?
  2. Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the
  3. Who is paying for the message? Where does the message appear? What is the
       bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?
  4. What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the
       speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the
       data, and are the data being presented fully?
  5. How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does
       it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present
       alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting
  6. If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views
       characterized? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe
       his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points
       of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of
       view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?"

The author goes on to dig more specifically into the current debate on bias in the media, and makes a very strong argument for the fact that there is both liberal and conservative bias in the media (it depends on who you talk to), but that the stronger biases in media are commercial bias, temporal bias, visual bias, bad news bias, etc.

Anyway you might want to keep these questions in mind as you try to parse through the white noise that is modern info-communication and wonder whatever happened to Walter Cronkite and the certainty of "That’s the way it was…"

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking a Critical Skill

  1. Jon Lowder

    I’ve never seen Sagan’s Balony Detection Kit, but I’ll look it up. Sounds like something I’d enjoy.
    I did read Rollback and agreed with it wholeheartedly. I think the Bush Administration is trying very hard to remind us why critical thinking is so critical.


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