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.