Tell me lies

Critical thinking is a skill that remains sadly untaught – or at least unlearnt – throughout our society. Of course we don’t have time to analyse every statement and research every reported fact. To a large extent we trust the media to do it for us, but this is a risky move, especially when you see someone like Gina Rinehart buying into a media empire. It is widely reported that she expects to be able to control editorial content once she has a big enough share of Fairfax.

Is this what we have now? A system of media where whoever has the most money controls what we see, hear, and even feel?

GetUp recently circulated a video where Christopher Monckton suggested that the mining industry needed to create its own news channel in order to influence public opinion. Which leads me to ponder – who influences my opinion? Who influences yours? Are our opinions up for sale to the highest bidder?

It rather puts paid (hah!) to the notion of a free and fair press.

Even where motives may be less suspect, journalists frequently seem to lack the ability to apply basic critical thinking skills. That’s the charitable interpretation, of course – it may be that they simply go for the most alarming headline. Consider this one, out of The Age in Melbourne today: “Worst Retail year since 1984.” Gosh, that does sound bad. Given that retail sales have been growing, and that was – oh, my! – nearly 30 years ago, sales must have fallen dramatically to have been worse than 1984. However, 2 minutes spent reading the article shows that sales have grown since the year before.

What? How on earth does that work?

Worst retail year since 1984, yet sales have grown since the previous year?

Yes, boys and girls, apparently it is the worst year because it is the lowest growth of any year since 1984. So sales have grown – every year, in fact – but they grew a little less last year (the year before they grew by 2.5, this year a measly 2.4). Quite apart from the whole conversation about the sustainability of endless growth (as David Suzuki said: “Economists and cancer cells think they can grow forever”), I can’t help feeling that sales declining might justify that headline, but sales increasing just a fraction slower do not.

Ok, I would be the first to admit that I am not an economist. Economics is a closed book to me, (and probably a burnt book as well), but critical thinking has become something of a passion of mine. My kids despair of the suspicion with which I view any bold statement such as “Yes, Mum, I really did put all my clothes away”. I am renowned, and reviled, for checking the fine print and asking difficult questions like “what exactly do you mean by ‘away‘?”.

Sadly, most of the bold statements in the media don’t take much more effort to check, but we rarely bother. Levering open the cupboard door quickly shows the chaos within.

 Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies
Tell me lies
Oh, no, no you can’t disguise
You can’t disguise
Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Tell me Lies, Fleetwood Mac

Sometimes I feel as though I am waging a lonely war on ignorance. Debunking myths like “J Random Store will give $500 to everyone who likes them on facebook”, blowing urban legends out of the water, picking apart alarmist news articles. It frustrates me how quickly and easily myths spread, and how slothfully the truth crawls after them.

It’s so easy to believe what some guy at the pub asserts as fact, particularly if it’s

scandalous: “Wiggles Wage War on ex-yellow Wiggle

or comforting: “Climate Change is nothing but a big conspiracy, go ahead and consume the world as voraciously as you can, it’ll be fine

or with a big whiff of schadenfreude about it: “Celebrities get divorced/go into rehab/do something stupid in public“.

The only thing we can do to save ourselves is to switch our brains on as often as possible. Ask the difficult questions. Query the bold assertions. Not only do we need to think for ourselves, but we need to encourage everyone else to think as well. So next time you hear someone assert something dubious, or swallow a headline whole, see if you can make them cough it up. Look a little deeper. Think a little harder.

Tiny things like this can change the world.

Take my word for it.

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4 thoughts on “Tell me lies

  1. Kev

    Here’s an example from yesterday – how many times have the various media outlets reported about the horrific scene of a baby in a pram (or “strapped into a tram” as one major newspaper put it!) rolling onto the train tracks as if it just happened? It happened last October! The media will report anything without even basic research.

    And somebody has patented “displaying grammatically correct sentences on a thermostat controller”. Seriously!

    Thinking is a dieing art. As is my ability to confidently spell continuous verbs or present participles formed from verbs ending in “ie”.

    1. lindamciver

      Oh yes, that’s another of my pet hates. You can get apparently endless headlines out of a single traumatic or sensational event. Even if it happened on another continent in another decade!

  2. Joe

    (rant)…

    From time to time I get into (somewhat heated) debates on climate change with one of my team members. I don’t recall what launched this morning’s discussion but basically he feels that “climategate” “proves” that it’s all conspiracy to protect research jobs and green energy investments (ie 0% chance of climate problems in the offing). I take the stance that while climate modelling extrapolations are worth treating with skepticism they can’t be dismissed entirely.

    Anyway, his throwaway line to support his case today was “even Nobel prize winning physicists don’t believe in climate change”. I did a little searching / reading, and arrived at the _incident_ this assertion is based on. Hyped on anti-climate-change site…
    http://www.climatedepot.com/a/12797/Exclusive-Nobel-PrizeWinning-Physicist-Who-Endorsed-Obama-Dissents-Resigns-from-American-Physical-Society-Over-Groups-Promotion-of-ManMade-Global-Warming
    … basically Dr. Ivar Giaever has resigned from the relevant society of physicists in the US over the official statement by the society supporting the evidence for climate change, but his resignation is NOT because he doesn’t believe climate change is likely but because he objects (rightly) to the use of the word “incontrovertible” relating to the body of evidence on the subject.

    wt…? The actuality of one person’s objection to phrasing the support in inappropriate language turns into a headline of mass exodus of support for the idea in its entirety?

    (btw I’m equally annoyed by those who would support the use of “incontrovertible” in this context. This is a highly complex realm of science with only some basic elements “incontrovertible”, eg [a] CO2 increases are a matter of basic measurement, certainly since 1960 and [b] CO2 infrared capture / re-radiation is a matter of simple physics… if the planet isn’t warming, as per data faking accusations, then there’s other unidentified factors going on. Climate models? Hmmmm. Tough to prove accuracy outside current real-world parameter boundaries, really, and similarly tough to falsify. Difficult arena.)

    1. lindamciver

      Ah yes, but that’s exactly the problem. Too often we swallow the headline and then regurgitate it as “proof”, without ever finding out facts or thinking things through.

      I agree, Joe, that use of the word “incontrovertible” is inappropriate in this context, but I can also understand the temptation to use it when dealing with an audience that uses doubt as an excuse for inaction. Now I’m waiting for the climate trolls to pounce. Duck and cover, people!

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