Critical thinking in the 'post-truth' age

EXCERPT: In 'Six Steps to Better Thinking' Christopher DiCarlo describes how people can agree to disagree in today's contentious news environment
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on August 10, 2017
Nam Kiwanuka interview Christopher DiCarlo on The Agenda in the Summer.

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The following is excerpted from Six Steps to Better Thinking: How to Disagree and Get Along d by Christopher DICarlo. The book, published this year by  Friesen Press, is the basis for the author's interview with Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer.

The book is called what it is because there really are better and worse ways to think about things. And it really is possible to have heated discussions, disagree entirely, and still be able to get along. Due to events involving the Brexit referendum in the U.K. and the presidential elections in the U.S., the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 was “post-truth” – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This is an extremely sad commentary on how information is delivered, interpreted, and acted upon. By repeatedly stating talking points – even if they involved false information – some candidates said whatever they felt was appropriate to make their point. This was done through the excessive use of “echo chambers” – a media term indicating the uncritical way in which unchecked and untrue information can be repeatedly stated over and over again until it appears to be factual.

Once “fake news” becomes accepted as factual, it feeds on confirmation bias and becomes entrenched in the minds of people who want to believe it to be true. However, in attempting to respond to and correct the falsities, those who wish to fact check such claims often come under attack as belonging to a grand conspiracy, trying to suppress the truth. Post-truth politics makes considerable use of conspiracy theories. To further criticize such conspiracy theories with things like facts is to be a member of the “mainstream media” or “The Establishment”. In critical thinking, this is called “insulating one’s argument against criticism”. It is an attempt to make any claim impervious to scrutiny and criticism. And we will have none of that in this book, and hopefully, in society. In order to live in free and just societies, all information is open to criticism and scrutiny without exception. And so it’s time to make facts and critical thinking sexy again.

It has unfortunately become quite fashionable today to claim that what people feel about issues should be taken as seriously as the facts about those issues. Emotional attachment to specific viewpoints and the facts about the world are often two completely different things. It’s not as though a person’s feelings are not to be validated; they are. However, one’s feelings should only be validated up and until the point where they conflict with the facts. Phrases like “there are better and worse ways to think about things” book cover for Six Steps to Better Thinkingand “six steps to better thinking” imply that there is value to our beliefs, our ideas, and our opinions. And that some ideas are better than others. But what makes these objects of the mind and influencers of behavior good, bad, better, or worse? How are they measured? Who determines the value of our beliefs? Luckily, much of the hard work has already been done. Philosophers, mathematicians, logicians, scientists, writers, and many others have developed the critical-thinking skills that require all of us to make such valued distinctions. I have taken these skills and distilled them into six easy-to-remember steps.

It is by no means an accident that each of the six steps (or skills) corresponds to the first six letters of the English alphabet.

Step 1: A is for Argument

Step 2: B is for Bias

Step 3: C is for Context

Step 4: D is for Diagram

Step 5: E is for Evidence

Step 6: F is for Fallacies

In this way, the letters act as a handy mnemonic. Remember the letters and you can more easily remember and apply the most basic steps for becoming a better thinker. Combined, these steps form a skill set that will allow anyone greater capacity to have more meaningful discussions about all issues – from the simple to the sublime. In other words, this is a book that quickly teaches people how to think. What you think is up to you, but there are specific rules that govern better and worse ways of thinking.

The biggest take away from this book is that, if people use the six steps fairly, they will be more empowered to have meaningful discussions about important issues, disagree entirely, and still be able to get along. Learning these skills will allow us to value discourse over hatred, dialogue over violence, and most importantly, fairness and understanding in our disagreements on important issue.

And in a world where disagreements are going to happen, we need to re-learn how to have important discussions, which may become emotionally heated, but also realize that we can and should still get along. It’s easy to agree and get along. But we have forgotten how to value and use the art of disagreement in civil and political discourse. It is important for us to know that it’s okay to disagree. We need to accept that we’re not always going to agree. And that it’s okay to be diametrically opposed to another’s viewpoints and still be their neighbor, friend, in-law, co-worker, or family member.

Thankfully, the skills of critical thinking provide us with the capacity to be mature, diplomatic, and fair, and allow us to disagree in a civil manner. For the majority of us, developing such skills will not happen overnight ... or in a week, or a month. It is something that is ongoing and requires continuous practice, development, and use. But this takes time and a lot of practice. And in today’s age of immediacy, with information and opinion just a click away, there seems to be less and less time in which to practice such skills. Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many people are feeling their way through issues rather than thinking critically about them.

From the book Six Steps to Better Thinking: How to Disagree and Get Along. Copyright © 2017 by Christopher DiCarlo. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. 

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