Series | Critical Thinking in the Age of Digital Incredulity, Pt. 5

In an Infodemic, it’s up to Good Netizens to Slow the Spread

Some Strategies for Cutting through the Crap

Image by memyselfaneye via Pixabay

Welcome to Part 5 in an ongoing series on critical thinking and healthy Netizenship. In this entry we’ll discuss how good Netizens (citizens of the Net) can do their part in slowing the spread of misinformation.

You can also check out the rest of the series here:

The “Infodemic”

As we approach the end of another year besieged by COVID-19, let’s not forget the other pandemic that continues to plague us— i.e. the onslaught of misinformation making it increasingly difficult for people to find reliable guidance… just when they need it most.

The World Health Organization has dubbed this phenomenon “the Infodemic” and — since there’s so many parallels between ideas and viruses — that name is totally apt.

Just as a virus is a bit of self-replicating genetic information, so too are some ideas able to self-replicate by infiltrating — and in some cases INFECTING— the mind.

Image by author, created via Imgflip

This analogy finds its origin in a 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, written by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. There, Dawkins coined the term meme derived from the Greek word for imitation — to serve as an analog for genes in the realm of ideas. Since genes aim at biological self-replication, Dawkins argued, memes could be considered ideas that are encoded toward spreading their information from mind to mind.

The comparison is now a commonplace, as we regularly hear about videos and images “going viral” on the web.

But, ideas NEED minds, just as viruses need bodies. Whenever a hospitable host is found, there’s the potential to reproduce, mutate, and spread to other hosts. So, in an Infodemic it turns out the way to slow the spread looks a lot like fighting against a deadly pathogen.

Becoming better critical thinkers can inoculate EACH OF US against ideas of the dangerous sort. Becoming more responsible Netizens can help keep OTHERS safe, too. Put simply, critical thinking is our intellectual equivalent to vaccination, while good Netizenship is the cognitive analog to wearing a mask.

The Deadly-Serious Side of (mis)Information Spread

Although the term “meme” has become synonymous with comedic tropes seen every day on social media, that’s not exactly what Dawkins had in mind when he coined the term in the 70s.

While memes like philosoraptor, or success baby, or even condescending Willie Wonka use humor to spread… over the last few years, the darker side of memetics (the study of memes) has reared its ugly head.

Of course, some memes might be good for us, but others can be deadly… as discovered in one study that traced the deaths caused by misinformation during the first few months of the pandemic. Researchers were able to link nearly 800 deaths (and over 5800 hospitalizations) to COVID-related misinformation and conspiracy theories in February-April of 2020.

As hoaxes about phony coronavirus treatments have only multiplied since those early months, it may take years for us to fully understand the deleterious effects of COVID misinformation.

Fortunately, there are a few strategies Netizens can deploy to stem the growing tide of misinformation.

Strategy 1: “An Ounce of Prevention”

The first thing we should keep in mind is that misinformation is nothing new… despite the torrent of neologisms — like “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “post-truth” — associated with it in recent years.

These kinds of delusions have been around at least as long as mass communication has been a thing.

Consider Stephen Colbert’s 2005 indictment of “truthiness” in American media, echoing what philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s called the “lack of concern with truth” and “indifference to how things really are” in his book On Bullshit. Some may also recall how Norm MacDonald began his Weekend Update segments on SNL in the mid-90s: “I’m Norm MacDonald, and now the fake news.” And, although the 2020 U.S. presidential election led to one of the ugliest moments in American history, it was by no means the first election to be marred by misinformation (or claims of fraud). Consider the elections of 1828, 1844, and 2000 (just to name a few).

Some might even argue misinformation is in the very DNA of American journalism.

After all, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac gained a following by playing extremely fast and loose with the facts. Take for example his rivalry with Titan Leeds in 1733. Not only did Franklin claim to have predicted when Leeds (a popular astrologer in the American Colonies) would die, but after the alleged date came and passed without incident, Franklin doubled-down by publishing a fake obituary.

When Leeds published protestations that he was still very much alive, Franklin TRIPLED-DOWN by accusing someone of impersonating the “deceased” Leeds.

And, when Leeds ACTUALLY died years later, Franklin published a thank you note to the “conspirators” for giving up their hoax!

Image by author

What’s concerning about our modern predicament is not the fact that misinformation exists… or even that there’s so MUCH of it. Instead, it’s the SPEED at which such falsehoods can spread online.

That’s why Netizens — especially in times of crises — must focus their attention NOT on completely eradicating the disease of misinformation (a nigh impossible task) but rather on preventing it from snowballing any further.

Ironically, it was Benjamin Franklin who once said “An ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure.”

“Let’s flatten the infodemic curve.” by World Health Organization [CC-NC]

In other words, arguing with internet trolls isn’t the best use of a Netizen’s limited bandwidth. Instead, taking more responsibility for how we receive and transmit information — as the World Health Organization’s diagram here illustrates — is a more practicable goal.

Besides, as we’ll see later in this series, trying to convince others through arguments alone can often backfire, causing them to sink deeper into their false beliefs.

The celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger summed up the challenge best:

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Strategy 2: “Seeing the Forest for the Trees”

As Michael Shermer, one of the world’s most prominent skeptics, has pointed out, “Humans are pattern-seeking animals.”

That’s usually a good thing… except when it isn’t.

For instance, connecting the dots between an upset stomach and a dodgy meal eaten the previous night is a good, healthy sort of pattern-seeking. The fact that our ancestors were able to put two-and-two together in this way helped keep them in gene pool. And, even when they were wrong about such connections — when they identified a pattern that wasn’t REALLY there (a false-positive) — it cost them little more than missing out on another potential food source.

BUT, making mistakes in the other direction — i.e. failing to see a pattern that was TRULY there (a false-negative) — carried a much higher risk.

It’s easy to imagine entire villages being wiped out because nobody noticed the berries they were consuming were killing people.

That’s why attending carefully to context (or being able to see the forest for the trees) is a feature of human understanding that might help us think more critically about the information we receive.

According to Michael P. Lynch:

“there is no direct observation of the world that isn’t at least somewhat affected by prior observations, experiences and the beliefs we’ve formed as a result… the process of theorizing employs a composite of cognitive capacities, ones that when employed together make up understanding… understanding isn’t piecemeal; it involves seeing the whole.” — p. 159

Netizens need to stay attentive to just how fluid and dynamic context can be. It shifts. Sometimes multiple contexts can even converge on a single situation.

For instance, during the first few months of the pandemic the CDC changed its guidelines about masks and other PPEs as epidemiologists, virologists, and immunologists learned more about the virus and its spread. This led many uncritical laypeople to jump to the conclusion that the guidelines were either meaningless or designed with some ulterior motive in mind.

But, one should EXPECT such guidelines to evolve as situations change and more information is gathered. As John Dewey — in one of his grumpier sounding passages — wrote about drawing conclusions in an ever-changing world:

Unless one is an idiot, one simply cannot help having all things and events suggest other things not actually present, nor can one help a tendency to believe in the latter on the basis of the former. The very inevitableness of the jump, the leap, to something unknown, only emphasizes the necessity of attention to the conditions under which it occurs so that the danger of a false step may be lessened and the probability of a right landing increased. — How We Think, p. 26

That Dewey wrote this over a century ago (and with the same air of frustration we feel today) probably reveals something about human nature… but part of the maturation process of that nature is learning to attend and respond to contextual subtleties.

It’s one of the things that helps make our species so adaptable — at least, when it’s working well. The fact that science ADJUSTS its claims based on further evidence is the very reason we ought to respect it.

Strategy 3: Cutting Through the Crap

But, Netizens also need to hone their cognitive filters — so they’re able to tune out the noise within that bigger picture in favor of what ACTUALLY matters.

Again, Michael P. Lynch sums it up nicely:

The person who truly understands, in the philosophical sense, is discerning not only the actual situation, but also why various hypotheses and explanations won’t work, as well as how to ask what would. — p. 171

Learning how to distinguish between real causality and empty correlation is one way to improve that cognitive filter. Recognizing this difference is a feature of human understanding some call “knowing which” and like any other skill, it can be honed.

We’ve seen all manner of bogus claims about causality during the pandemic. One of the most outlandish falsely pointed to the implementation of 5G cellular networks as the cause of COVID symptoms.

Despite numerous studies showing such claims to be utter nonsense, conspiracy theorists continue to attack mobile carrier offices and cellular towers, costing millions in property damage and bodily-harm to innocent bystanders.

So… how DOES one cut through the crap and identify true causality, especially if it’s always based on observations within a dynamic and ever-changing context?

The first step is to remember that our assumptions about causality are quite often wrong.

Image by author

We assume causal arrows will always point from Event A to Event B, i.e. that effects will always follow causes. However, it all depends on how well we can RULE OUT other possible explanations.

After all, it’s possible B actually is the cause of A. For example, even though studies show smokers tend to experience higher rates of depression, it may turn out smoking is just a way some people cope.

In other words, depression (Event B) may actually cause smoking (Event A).

There’s also the possibility that A and B form a causal loop… like when global warming causes highly reflective polar ice to melt and the dark blue water revealed underneath starts to retain more heat…causing global warming to speed up.

But, since empty correlations — the kind where two events are correlated just by coincidence — are MUCH more common than real causal links, a good critical thinker should start there…

Consider the very strong — yet completely meaningless— correlation between Nicolas Cage films and the number of deaths due to falling into swimming pools between 1999 and 2009. I suspect few among us would conclude Nick Cage films have been causing drownings.

Image by tylervigen.com (CC-BY 4.0)

To do so would be to confuse correlation with causation.

Philosophers have known about these kinds of mistakes for millennia. They’re so common, there’s a whole class of informal fallacies falling under the general heading of questionable cause.

The oldest of the questionable cause fallacies is known as the false cause. It’s been around so long, it even has a medieval Latin name, “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc,” which means: “After this, therefore because of this.”

But, just because two events are constantly conjoined in sequence, doesn’t mean one CAUSES the other. Night follows day, but that doesn’t mean day CAUSES night.

Confounding factors have to be taken into account. As two experts in critical thinking put it:

“Only if it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that other factors were not involved — through a controlled study, for example — can you justifiably claim that there is a causal connection between the two events.” — Theodore Schick Jr. & Lewis Vaughn

Slowing the Spread

So, during this latest wave of the Infodemic, responsible Netizens should keep in mind just how DIFFICULT it is to find ACTUAL causal relationships in the real world.

They should approach dubious claims about the alleged effects of vaccines, masks, or alternative treatments with the level of skepticism they deserve BEFORE sharing them with others.

And, they ought to remain open to the possibility of revising their beliefs in response to changes in the larger context.

Doing so could save lives.

That’s it for Part 5. In the next installment we’ll consider why our perceptions and judgments can sometime go awry when we discuss “Illusions, Delusions, and Jumping to Conclusions.”

Hope to see you there!

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