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Critical Thinking in Critical Condition

— September 4, 2018

Are Americans losing critical thinking skills due to conspiracy cranks and ideological blinders, or are they now beginning to wake up? You be the judge!

Pity poor Alex Jones. Last week he lost his bid to have a defamation lawsuit against him thrown out by a Texas court. Jones’s lawyer claimed that since he was engaging in political speech, he should be protected under the First Amendment. However, while Jones and his Infowars outlet have the look and feel of newsiness (including hosting an interview in 2015 with presidential candidate Donald Trump), Jones’s lawyers also claimed in a countersuit against Sandy Hook families that “no reasonable person” could take Jones’s statements seriously, since they are “mere opinions masquerading as fact.” During a custody battle earlier this year, his lawyers also claimed that Jones is a “performance artist, playing a character” – the epitome of Fake News. So which is it?  And why is the state of critical thinking in America in such a shambles?

One reason is the rushed nature of modern life. We’re juggling so many responsibilities that we simply don’t have the time to research everything that we need to know. Good critical thinking requires reflection, attention to detail, and a complete-as-possible set of facts to draw from. Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when those qualities are disappearing. We skim headlines and speed-read text, missing out on complex thoughts and nuanced reality while trying to absorb everything we need to know as quickly as possible. Reading on a computer or e-book screen isn’t helping; a Norwegian study found that students who read printed material learned more than students who read the same material on a screen. These trends result in an erosion of critical thinking skills which need to be practiced regularly in order to be useful.

The rapid flow and crowded marketplace of ideas are huge factors undermining our critical thinking skills in recent years. On his Stonekettle Station blog, Jim Wright, a former Navy Chief Warrant Officer who worked in the intelligence field, describes the problem as a combination of information volume and too few qualified gatekeepers. When data was hard to come by and disseminated more slowly, information was painstakingly vetted and analyzed by specialists, with the side effect of reliability. That trickle has grown into an absolute flood, overwhelming attempts to fact-check and contextualize the information before it’s digested by a public who still seems to think that “they couldn’t print it if it’s not true.” But “they” can, and they enthusiastically do.

Radio personality Alex Jones, wearing a suit jacket and looking into the distance.
Alex Jones in 2017. Photo by Michael Zimmermann, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

That leaves most of us to be our own gatekeepers. Everyone likes to believe themselves above being fooled, but cognitive biases, ideological echo chambers, limited education or life experience, and wishful thinking mean that we often play the fool instead. It doesn’t help that we’re also under subtle attack from forces both foreign and domestic, who encourage the spread of misinformation in order to sow discord and profit from destroying Americans’ ability to think critically.

Perhaps the most intriguing and optimistic interpretation of this state of affairs is that we are learning to use critical thinking skills again after an extended slumber. If that’s the case, it’s long overdue. Our world is changing around us, and our long-accustomed thinking habits won’t serve us very well in the future. It’s time to start experimenting again and coming up with new ideas about how to live, but as writer Jordan Greenhall explains, we’re going to mess up for a while. We’re in what he calls “learning mode,” moving away from the information sources that Jim Wright would consider to be qualified gatekeepers and experimenting with new ideas, some of which will work out and some of which will be terrible.

It’s likely, too, that the ideas considered terrible by roughly half the population will be considered workable by the other half (and vice versa). After all, huge swaths of Americans already work out of two different, ideologically incompatible dictionaries. Perhaps it’s not that other people lack critical thinking skills, so much as their thinking goes into advancing their own goals, not yours. That could be why North Carolina is locked in a seemingly nonsensical cycle of contested gerrymandering and voter suppression, and a grossly inflated school shooting statistic can creep into a government report (until NPR’s investigative reporting sought to correct it).

With such different paradigms, can Americans learn to live together again? Can we even decide on what constitutes a “real American?” Perhaps, but the first step is to realize that competent, critical thinking isn’t just something to sneer at.  It transcends political agendas in an honest attempt to figure out the best way forward. That’s one great reason not to feel the least bit sorry for Alex Jones.

Related: Education in an Age of Neo Know-Nothings


U.S. Conspiracy Theorist Alex Jones Loses Bid to Stop Defamation Lawsuit
Don’t feel sorry for Alex Jones. Save it for the Sandy Hook dad who moved 7 times to escape his followers.
InfoWars’ Alex Jones Is a ‘Performance Artist,’ His Lawyer Says in Divorce Hearing
Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound
Critical Path
How Cognitive Biases Influence How You Think and Act
Why Trump Supporters Believe He Is Not Corrupt
Russian trolls ‘spreading discord’ over vaccine safety online
Trump’s dangerous claim to the internet he wants
On Thinking and Simulated Thinking
Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise
The North Carolina Primaries Just Became a Logistical Nightmare
The School Shootings That Weren’t
Can America’s Two Tribes Learn to Live Together?
The astounding political divide over what it means to be ‘American’
America is one of the few cultures with insults for smart people

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