PART II: One of the Most Powerful Tools in Our Arsenal

by JN Fenwick, former U.S. History Teacher, Author, In the Eye of the Storm

The mainstream media has let us down. Our education system has let us down. Our justice system has let us down. Our leaders have let us down. The stakes have never been higher. It’s time for us, the American people, to take back the reigns. And we can start by becoming inherently more skeptical of the information we’re subjected to, and increasingly more suspicious of the information we are not.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the process of analyzing fact in order to reach a conclusion or form a judgement.

The key word in that statement is FACT. And just like truth, fact does exist, regardless of how obscured, distorted, and manipulated it has been.

What is a fact? A fact is something that can be proven true or false.

Emotions, judgements, interpretations, no matter how often or in what quantities they are added, do not alter fact. Like truth, it requires nothing be added or removed. It stands on its own and is unalterable.

Fact that has been manipulated in order to evoke emotion, sway judgement, or suggest behavior, is no longer fact. It has become something else. And that something usually has a purpose, an agenda, a narrative to perpetuate. And regardless of what that purpose is, it’s dangerous.

The Thinker by Rodin courtesy Pixabay

The manipulation of fact is not new.

It’s called propaganda. And it has been used over and over again throughout history with usually one, and only one end-game in mind: to control behavior in order to gain and maintain power.

Propaganda does this by not only controlling the flow of information, but exactly WHAT information is provided. If you never present the other side, it’s much easier to present your narrative as fact, right?

When we think of propaganda, we don’t usually associate it with America, or with democracy. No. We usually associate it with totalitarian governments that control every aspect of their citizens lives.

So if that’s the case, what has propaganda got to do with us, right?

The news media, the internet, social media, and the technology giants who run them, have an agenda; the same agenda, in fact. At face value, it’s simply to make money.

Beneath the surface though, behind closed doors, there is a much darker purpose at work. One that we, for the most part, are oblivious to.

What is that agenda? To reap the maximum return on their investment by capitalizing on their ability to quickly collect and quantify information in order to not only predict behavior, but to manipulate and influence it, as well. To what end? Their own, period.

And as we’ve seen recently, that also includes suppressing information, individuals, and organizations that are contrary to or, in their judgement, damaging to that agenda.

And it goes even deeper than just the information alone.

Day in and day out we are bombarded with information. Information that elicits emotional rather than logical reactions. Information that reinforces our own positions, while at the same time dividing us from everyone else.

Information we provide with a click, a swipe, a like, an engagement of some kind. Information that is collected, stored, and used, at the very least, to expose us to advertising we might be interested in, at worst and most dangerous, to manipulate our emotions with the singular goal of influencing our behavior.

And as we have seen in the last seven months, that manipulation is playing out in very real, very violent, and devisive ways before our very eyes.

Every one watches news, uses the internet and social media, yes; and that’s ok.

Learning how to apply critical thinking skills can lessen the in-your-face impact what we see, hear, and what we read ultimately has on us. Information is power, after all, but it doesn’t have to be one sided, and in a democracy, in fact, it’s not supposed to be.

We are responsible for being informed citizens. Being informed does not mean accepting everything we see, hear, or read at face value. Information, as we’ve discussed, can be, and is, manipulated. And video is as susceptible to manipulation as any other media out there.

How? Video clips, sound bites, even photographs once taken out of context, can be easily used as propaganda tools. The mainstream media does it all the time. Politicians do it all the time. Many of them are experts at it.

So what can we do to lessen the impact this distortion of fact has on our ability to make logical decisions? Become experts at critical thinking.

What critical thinking enables us to do is wade through the noise, identify the facts, and then using those facts, draw our own conclusions.

Once we absent ourselves from all the noise, and there is tons of it, and focus on the facts, the conclusions we draw on any given subject, are truth-based rather than based on emotion, anger, fear, etc. Thus, the decisions and judgements we apply that information to are logical, rather than emotional.

In short, we have taken back control of our thinking, of our learning, and of our choices and decisions.

How does it work?

Asking questions, evaluating the evidence presented, or in many cases suppressed, along with the ability to distinguish fact from opinion are the first steps toward becoming a critical thinker.

“Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fairminded way. People who think critically attempt, with consistent and conscious effort, to live rationally, reasonably, and empathically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.”

Linda Elder, President, Foundation for Critical Thinking, September, 2007

Critical thinking requires us to consider not only the information, but the speaker, the audience, the statement, and it’s relevance.

The Speaker and Audience

Who the speaker is, their affiliations, and how they know the truth of the statement they’re making are as important as the statement itself.

Additionally, who is being addressed, the speaker’s connection to them, and how likely they are to consider the statement true, are also vital. Group-think is in fact a very real, and dangerous byproduct of the absence of critical thinking skills in our society on a large scale.

And we’ve had a front row seat to it’s ramifications for months now.

The Statement

It’s imperative that we consider the statement itself. Can it be proven? Will it still be valid tomorrow, next month, even next year. We’ve all witnessed instances where in light of new information or facts, statements once considered truth become debunked and discarded.

If the statement itself is true, it’s critical to ask, what else might be true, as well as, are there other possible interpretations of the facts behind the statements?

How many times have we been encouraged, or have encouraged, a friend or family member to seek an alternative medical opinion? We don’t usually leave our health and we’ll-being to chance. We do the research, we ask the questions, we seek expert opinions, and we rely on proven facts and statistics before making any medical decisions affecting ourselves or those we love.

Critical thinking is simply applying those same considerations to any aspects of our lives where the assessment of information is intrinsic to logical decision making.

The Relevance

Just as important as considering the statement itself, is consideration of its relevance. Asking ourselves, what difference does this statement make? Do we care; why should we? What happens now? What happens next?

Seemingly innocuous on the surface, these questions are important for us to decide for ourselves. Too often, the motivation behind statements being tossed out as factual or repeated incessantly, is to elicit strong emotion, usually fear. Fear is a great motivator as we’ve witnessed all over the country this year. As is perpetuating the collective “us or them” victim mentality that has incited so much violence in our cities.

Critical thinking requires us to step outside our emotions and to examine things logically. When we do so, relevance is more than simply whether or not we should care, it’s an indicator that looking deeper into the statement is warranted and even necessary to uncovering truth.

Why is any of this important?

Critical thinking includes, at its heart, a sense of skepticism, an innate need to question why?

In this day and age of abundant information from an over abundance of sources, it is becoming harder and harder to discern the facts contained within.

Approaching the news, the internet, virtually all sources of information with a sense of skepticism is vital. Not just to each of us as individuals, but to our society as a whole.

If we don’t develop and use these skills, especially in our children, than we are laying the foundation for a society in which we are told what to think and how to act, rather than deciding those things for ourselves.

And that is just the first step. Every step after that will lead us further and further down the road to a total dismantling of our democracy and our freedoms.

It may seem like a small weapon against such a vast and virtually unchecked machine, but it’s a powerful one.

You can only manipulate the willing, or the ignorant. Critical thinking places the responsibility for our knowledge, reason, and our choices where they belong. With us.

That’s how important it is.

Additional Resources

In Part I, we explored History and why it matters. Part II, which you have just read, discusses the vital importance of critical thinking and applying this skill in a free society. Join me for the final installment, Part III: The Function of Our Government, coming soon.