Continue, we must: US needs critical thinking advocates to step up and be heard

keep-calm-6The DN/15 Credibility Street crew took a break yesterday because writing and talking about most things besides the election results seemed frivolous. We postponed our scheduled recording of the podcast because we weren’t in the right frame of mind, but by the end of the day, I saw many of the dejected pick themselves up, decide we must organize, and move on. It’s cliché to say “we must keep fighting” but there is definitely something to that. And here’s why.

Sputnik’s launch in 1957 was a jolt to the American education system that spurred science education. Events in the Bush years spurred advocacy for atheism and secularism. A Trump presidency will be the klaxon to compel us to increase support for critical thinking, science, and reason.

Critical thinking (CT) is a nebulous concept everyone assumes they are doing but very few actually are. Objective and careful evaluation before making a judgment is a skill that must be learned and practiced. “Critical thinking” is a buzzword in many school curricula but it is not taught as it should be.

Created by Max Tegmark.

Created by Max Tegmark.

Around 20% of all Americans supported the winning candidate who provided absurd promises, no detailed plans of how to accomplish those things, and stated goals that are complex and unfeasible to achieve and have dire consequences left unresolved. The president-elect has espoused conspiracy theories and rejected scientific findings about several subjects. The joke going around is what position insane conspiracy-monger and Trump pal Alex Jones is going to get in the new cabinet. We can’t allow the nonsense to run rampant.

I’ll admit, my first thought post-election was that I wasted 20 years advocating science and critical thinking and skeptical activism. Why bother with this? It’s a lost cause. It’s not.  Ben Radford on the CFI blog wrote that even though Trump supporters seem to need education in civics since they misunderstand how the US government works, we shouldn’t be despondent and go all irrational now that the election is over.

Note the following developments from the past year:

Fact-checking. An excellent trend (even if some people used it selectively). Scrutiny must continue not only for evaluation of candidates in the future but for everything that leaders, media personalities and influencers say. We must continue to loudly call out lies and misinformation, supporting those call-outs with reasonable discussion aimed at helping people make well-informed decisions.

Media influence. The media grabbed on to any hint of scandal and sensationalism even when it was baseless. By the last week, the mere mention of “emails” was enough to spur new headlines and create new and totally unsupported accusations. Thanks to early media fascination with the Republican political clown show, it can be argued that the news media played a huge role in the Presidential decision. Even though the media did expose the legitimate negative aspects both candidates, did they do a worthwhile job at explaining what it all meant and what was really important to the role of President? Or did they just do it to gain audience share? News should be factual but did anyone explain the ramifications? Mostly not, but we became addicted to junk food news feeds.

Internet influence. This factor was enormous. This was the first election influenced by Twitter. Facebook friends were lost in droves as we muted, blocked and unfriended each other on a daily basis. We are all influenced by the opinions of those around us, and now like never before in history, we are subject to opinions both reasonable and extreme, 24 hours a day, everywhere. Would Trump have succeeded without the ubiquitousness of cell phones? Would people have been able to publicly espouse support for racism and xenophobia like this in the past and have it be reinforced? Social media with its immediacy and simplistic delivery made complicated issues into memes that inspired or enraged. We’re not necessarily better off for it.

The gates have opened.

The gates have opened.

Those three concepts can be utilized as tools in attempts to change the tone of American society from the current wave of anti-intellectual populism to a progressive reasonable civility that many in the country long for.

To achieve a sea change will take time and a great deal of effort. It’s exponentially more difficult to dissect and correct bad arguments and claims than it is to spout them. We’ve shown thousands of such examples on this site alone! But we’ve all been kicked in the ass to get started. Here’s how we do it.

Critical thinking for everyone

Yelling at and insulting each other doesn’t solve problems. Working through issues does. CT is an essential part of that. It must be emphasized in schools, in the news, in social media. We need to act on the following:

Be the example. Work on your own CT skills. Read. Practice. Learn how to argue effectively and speak up calmly and persistently.

Reach out past your circles, especially to kids. Subjects that you can use to illustrate CT are limitless. Our focus is on weird news stories including anomalies, the paranormal and conspiracies, which some people think are silly but others find fascinating. They are popular with exactly the public that needs to be exposed to reasonable discourse and can serve as a perfect gateway to learning how to think critically. Kids love this stuff – that’s the key population we must hit. I’m convinced that exposing kids to why arguments are bad and imparting CT skills to elementary school age kids make a tremendous impact, yet few organizations focus on that. (NCSE is the best one.) There is not enough help for teachers or parents. Not enough effort is given to helping our senior citizens either who are often the target of scams.

Support effective CT-focused organizations, websites, and people. CT is not the same as being an atheist or a secularist or a scientist. CT is for everyone to use when making evaluations or decisions. It’s absurd to think that everyone is going to rationally examine every aspect of their lives. But, it’s far more useful if they apply some reason to big decisions like voting, health, education, and finances and still go to church or espouse a belief in a deity. Those organizations will effectively fail if they get bogged down with anti-religion promotion or science literacy cheerleading. It hasn’t worked so far, time to expand your outreach to the general public without alienating most of them. If an organization is leaning in a direction turns off the public response, tell them to change their tone. (Check out my piece in the Skeptical Inquirer 40th anniversary edition about skepticism needing a reboot. The article is not online but here is a copy [PDF].)

Share, follow, suggest, “like” and share some more. Share links to good web content. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Due to our hiatus and drop in sharing by some social media sites, the DN site drops in Google rankings. Search engines are the top producer of traffic at DN. That is, if people look up a keyword to find out more about a topic we cover critically, our results are lower than the more popular uncritical and pseudosceince sites (like Daily Mail and Natural News). This is catastrophic. Those sites not only get eyeballs who think what they read is truthful, they also get ad revenue that spurs production of more of the same nonsense. Don’t share bad stuff. Share more good stuff. Write reviews on Itunes for good podcasts, post good YouTube videos, suggest reporters cover CT stories, point them to good spokespeople (I am available and cooperate with almost ALL media requests). Respond to social media shares of bad information with links to BETTER information. Any opportunity you have to share and promote CT media, DO IT!

Create media and expand the message. We have excellent CT producers like Captain Disillusion, Skeptoid Media, On the Media, and First Draft News. SUPPORT THEM and help others produce MORE of this kind of content. We really really really need it. If you have an organization that values CT, write press releases, contact journalists, participate in interviews, arrange talks or host discussions with your local organizations. Attend CT and science talks. Edit wikipedia. Purchase books for your local library. More ideas are here [PDF – What do I do next]. Talk it up – spread the message! Don’t forget you can also help with server and supply costs for websites, and video and podcast production. It’s not pocket change to run these things. Any donation shows those people and programs that you value their message which means we are far more apt to continue.

We have to continue. Let’s go.


“I am no man.” Slaying the witch king. It’s what we do.

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  10 comments for “Continue, we must: US needs critical thinking advocates to step up and be heard

  1. November 10, 2016 at 11:51 AM

    Thank you, great post! I would be interested in reading this, but didn’t see a link? “Check out my piece in the Skeptical Inquirer 40th anniversary edition about skepticism needing a reboot. The article is not online but here is a copy [PDF]”

  2. November 10, 2016 at 11:57 AM

    Fixed link. Sorry.

  3. November 10, 2016 at 12:25 PM

    Thanks for writing this, the Skeptical Inquirer was very interesting and helpful.

  4. November 10, 2016 at 1:23 PM

    I am happy to read messages like this from my fellow skeptics. I wondered long and hard yesterday if it was worth being the voice of reason among my friends and (mostly) family. I was very close to thinking why bother, but messages like this are refuelling my fire.

    Thank you.

  5. S. Madison
    November 10, 2016 at 4:12 PM

    There was an interesting “You Are Not So Smart” podcast recently. The overall thrust of the podcast was about being able to communicate with people based on the listeners perspective of the topic under discussion rather than the speakers perspective of the topic under discussion.

    I think we often fail to be able to provide a convincing argument because we address an issue from our own perspective rather than trying to understand and address an issue from the listener’s perspective. This is worth a listen:

  6. November 10, 2016 at 6:53 PM
  7. Graham
    November 11, 2016 at 5:35 AM

    I am going to add one thing. What America needs more than anything else is Communications courses, too many people refused to speak to one another, unfriended one another and just (In the case of the “Bernie or Bust” people, now rioting at Universities across the states.) didn’t think outside their social groups.

    All that Diversity training seems to do is entrench divisions between groups. We have to re-learn to speak to one another. And the Left has to embrace Martin Luther Kings dream of a society were people are judged by their character, not their skin color, gender orientation or how ‘oppressed’ they are.

    And above all, the Left has to accept that just like the Right they are open to Skeptical criticism.

  8. Ronda Brewer
    November 11, 2016 at 5:50 AM

    Wonderful article. Thank you. Remember, we NEED this sort of thing world wide, not just in the US. So, please don’t forget us Aussies, mate 😉
    PS Love the little comment avatars!

  9. Ronda Brewer
    November 11, 2016 at 6:11 AM

    Yes, yes, yes! I understand. I feel like I’ve just struck a gold mine in finding this website. Could it be that there really are other human beings out there who think – like, REALLY think? And not just that, but even maybe think along similar lines to me?! I am not far off 50 years of age. And it’s been a long, long time feeling so isolated and alone. I think I just took my first real breath in years. I cannot remember the last time I felt hope and excitement about the future 🙂 🙂

  10. Angela Hill
    November 11, 2016 at 5:16 PM

    I think we all need to step back a bit away from the temptation of social media. Anyone can now respond rapidly to just about anything. Its very nature (simplicity of use) does not lend its self for time to think things through, to do some evaluating. I think what we just experienced (the election), was almost like when legions were passed along by word of mouth. The legion got bigger and greater till it became to be what everyone believed it to be. We only have our selves to blame for putting credence in a medium which does not require much thought. To begin with, what is the level of the majority of individuals who have to live on Facebook. Can we assume that the majority of participants are well-rounded or somewhat inclined to take time to separate fact from what isn’t fact? We created the perfect opportunity for a Donald Trump to get to where he is at now. How much good judgment can be expected from someone who couldn’t care less if they get hit by a car or not because they would rather not lift their head away from what’s on Facebook.

    Someone wanted to get rich. They wanted, and still want, your money, as much as they can get from you–they told you, you couldn’t live without it and to trust them, it would make your life better and the whole world a better place on account of it. And, everyone fell for it. Social media is quick and easy as is the Internet. However, look and examine carefully. Look carefully at what has happened and where all this fast and simple communication is taking us. Now, if any agency or business wants to communicate discreet information over the Internet without the treat of being hacked or exposed–better use pen and paper. Great progress.

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