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Useful Idiots, Conspiracy Theories and the Death of Critical Thinking

The current global pandemic has induced a stress which has shown us many things. One clear revelation is that how people have responded to the pandemic says more about them than anything about the pandemic itself. There are sharp divisions among groups of people as each group hardens their views around their biases. What is clear is that the beliefs people have are rarely challenged by information that could undermine their beliefs. How is that possible?

It is clear that when there is a huge of amount of information around a topic, there is a bias towards believing information that reinforces biases rather than opposes them. Those who are “doing their own research”, often fall pray to only accepting information that is congruent with their own pre-existing beliefs. This kind of “research” is really advocacy for a point of view and nothing more.

A very common occurrence on social media is the recruitment of “useful idiots”. These are the folks who mindlessly (and lazily) re-post information that triggers them in some way.  Very often they are just becoming a useful idiot in someone else’s marketing scheme.

As I have noted in other posts, conspiracy theory is not a very useful term. However it has come to mean information that is divergent from the majority view on a particular topic. Therefore, it may be reasonable or can be completely idiotic, hence the “value” of said information is only that it is not what most people believe. Be aware of those who promote these so-called conspiracy theories, since frequently they have no interest in truth but are primarily driven by self-interest and self-promotion.

Please allow me to present an antidote to the prevalent paucity of quality information. Here are a few principles that are hopefully useful.

Critical Thinking Principles for Information Sources

  • No information source is perfect but some information sources are vastly superior to others.
    • Choose information sources that have consistent high reliability.
    • Evaluate an information source based on what they are presenting now and how accurate or valuable they have been in the past.
  • An information source should be evaluated related to both correctness and completeness
    • Correctness – is the information accurate? How accurate is it on a scale of 1 to 10.
    • Completeness – is all of the information pertaining to a particular topic being presented. If not, what is missing (and perhaps why)?
  • Use multiple quality information sources to evaluate information that is being presented.
    • Never rely on a single information source.
  • Secondary sources of information (eg. reposting on Facebook) are less reliable than primary sources of information (the original source of the information).
    • Facebooks memes are not information. Many of these memes are the information equivalent of throwing stones at others you disagree with.
  • Information sources that are driving hidden agendas should not be trusted. This happens with many of the proponents of controversial conspiracy theories,  since controversy creates buzz and  an audience for those marketing products and services. This group is particularly scurrilous since they care little about the public interest and are driven by pure self-interest.
  • Quality data sources are valuable, however look directly at the data and form your own opinions. Information sources tend to provide both data and opinions on the data. Data is more reliable than opinions on the data.
  • Information can be misrepresented by cherry-picking the data. This is most often done by providing anecdotal evidence for or against a particular hypothesis. Nothing can be concluded from anecdotes except that those who present them are being manipulative. This is very common in mass media sources.
  • Avoid reactively rejecting a particular information source if they get something wrong. Making mistakes is inevitable, so look at the entire history of the source to evaluate reliability.
  • Information is evolutionary and may change over time. This is acceptable as long as the “change” is not simply driven by expedience rather than by the review and integration of new data.
  • Understand the difference between an information source and a means of communicating information. YouTube is not an information source it is a means of communication. The information source is the individual or the organization that is presenting the information, no matter what medium they choose for a presentation. For example, you might find the same information source presenting information on a website, Facebook, YouTube or in a publication. Irrespective of the means of communication the information source remains the same.

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