Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters. Albert Einstein
The fake news flap, having gone viral, is now a topic of social hand wringing. It’s trendy to fret about fake advertising while extremists charge that fake news is a phantom fashioned by the mainstream media to discredit the “competition.”
With all the lamentations and calls for censorship, little attention has focused on realistic solutions to what is in truth a pernicious threat to our politics, physical and mental health, individual and societal equilibrium.
Thinking about how to cope with the reality of fake news – which will only get more sophisticated — inevitably leads me back to the realization that the solution lies not with the source or even the target of misinformation and disinformation – the power, and thus the solution, rests with the “missing link” – the receiver of information.
In earlier posts my focus has been on the need to hone the basic skills of the post-truth age – how to locate and then evaluate information, how to relate sources of information to good decision-making, whatever the context. Clearly, “information literacy” is an essential first step.
The challenge is to go beyond find, assess and apply skills to deal with the fact that the receiver of information – whether student or voter, politician or parent. We are sentient human beings whose mode for processing information is insanely complex. Granted it’s more complicated than censoring or censuring the producer or connector; focus on the receiver, the “missing link” on the information chain, recognizes that information is inert until a human being gives it life, puts it to work, turns information into an opinion or incentive to act.
The first step is to consider the situation and condition of the information user – what does the user need? To date, the emphasis has been on information skills. My thought is that we need to know more about the condition of the receiver, in particular the role of self-confidence as a component of critical thinking. It takes self-confidence to welcome new ideas and match them against our own beliefs.
In an intriguing essay entitled “losing the courage of convictions” Timothy Ogden presents this puzzle:
There’s an old saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Unfortunately, it’s probably got things exactly backward. The more you stand for and defend the beliefs you strongly hold, the more likely you are to fall for anything – anything that confirms your existing beliefs.”
A thought to ponder…..
The initial challenge is to fire up inquiring minds so that they have the confidence to assess, compare and weigh the facts. Only then comes the tools to locate, then assess and evaluate the relevance and truth of information – broadly defined to include everything from tweets to infographics to juried journals.
Though skepticism gets a bad rap, the skeptic, aka critical thinker, possesses and builds both the confidence and the skills to examine assumptions, weigh alternatives, confront one’s own or others’ biases. Confidence sparks a sense of inquiry and independent thinking. Success will favor the seeker who is master of the tools. The challenge of this chaotic era is to envision, then work to create and sustain, a society of confident seekers of truth.