Fake News, Willful Ignorance and Critical Thinking

Against the much maligned backdrop of contemporary higher education a bright light has been trained on the problem of fake news. Critical thinking is hot right now, suddenly spoken of as an urgent necessity rather than an abstract or faraway good. Those of us who’ve long been worried about folks’ capacity for basic reasoning and factual discrimination are justified in feeling newly energized. It has been confirmed, we are told, that many Americans cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. Democracy is in danger and we must commit to developing students’ critical thinking skills with renewed vigor.

A philosopher by training, I’m grumpier than many about the ubiquity of poor thinking skills. In fact, some years ago my grief over anti-intellectualism and the disregard of science, facts and common sense drove me to a crisis of faith that impacted my scholarship, teaching, and sense of place in the world. The persistence of racism, embarrassingly literal strains of religious fundamentalism, and climate change denial were among the bullies that pushed me to reappraise my naive confidence in reason, facts and intellectual self-scrutiny. Shortly after 9/11, during a period of sorrow and brittle fury, several tentative conclusions took shape in the jingoistic, anti-Muslim, anti-gay miasma that surrounded me.

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For one thing, I noticed that many who failed to distinguish between this or that fact also couldn’t appreciate the more general differences between fact and fiction. Addressing the problem, then, wouldn’t merely require adding information so as to improve a discrete skill — like teaching someone to identify a Bobolink, say — but would require the awareness and development of at least a few basic points about the stubbornness of reality and of our accountability to it. I also had to accept that many who systematically blurred fact with fiction, and logic with wishful thinking, did so quite happily. They were, then, unmoved by arguments that assumed that they did or should care about being accurate or reasonable. Their blithe disregard makes sense given how often we are rewarded for the size of our enthusiasm rather than the defensibility of our positions. One’s football team wins and one’s political candidate comes to power in the midst of a righteous, passionate, confirming din.

When it comes to sports teams and rock stars it’s easy enough to appreciate that emotional forces will be more determinative than rational ones. But what if our beliefs about most things are determined to some extent by how holding those beliefs makes us feel? To paraphrase William James, what if we are inclined to believe that which makes us feel good? And what if this isn’t so much an individual failure — people going astray — but reflects something of our nature? If we are such deeply affective creatures, then emotions must be front and center as we address the problem of fake news and critical thinking.

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If students’ orientation to reason and facts is nested so intimately into their psychological and social selves, then it’s not enough to think of critical thinking as a mere skill. In fact, I’ve come to think of it as like learning a new language. It is open ended, often tentative and halting, and progresses in fits and starts. Further, the greatest strides occur through immersion into a culture where the contextual relevance, including concrete rewards and penalties associated with mastering it, emerge. Of course, most native English-speaking U.S. students who study another language in school never really learn it, just as they may never really learn critical thinking, even from courses focused on precisely that.

The capacity for critical thinking is also like second language fluency in that many who claim to value it do not, not really, and may not even know that they don’t. There’s an unfortunate circularity here in that being able to identify the bad consequences of poor thinking relies on the very reasoning skill and ethos that is missing in the first place. The problem, then, isn’t just a lack of critical thinking skills, but a lack of sufficient critical thinking skills to even recognize the initial lack. Similarly, poor language speakers often overestimate their ability precisely because their poor skills blind them to their missteps. Adding more lessons in logic, or new lists of vocabulary words, important as this may be, is unlikely to effectively combat this vortex of ignorance, especially since its swirls are invisible to many who are drowning in it.

All this to say that, while learning discrete critical thinking skills is important — just as learning to conjugate verbs is helpful — genuine leaps of ability probably can’t occur without serious attention to underlying emotional and social motivations. Apparently, we are creatures who must sometimes be jolted into noticing and caring about the size and shape of our own ignorance. I am reminded that those yanked from Plato’s cave did not rejoice in the harsh daylight, but were initially pained. The fundamental danger of fake news, then, may not result primarily from a deficit of intellectual skill — though, of course, this matters — but a lack of will. With this hypothesis in mind, I try to focus as much on helping students want to think better as on improving thinking skills. As I explore in an upcoming post, I’m trying to work with them to more viscerally connect intellectual mastery with their personal and professional goals. Though, as we know, thinking patiently and well can bring its own satisfaction, its pleasures and rewards can be lost — to all of us — in the bright lights and deafening roar of a self-satisfied crowd.

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