The 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.
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.
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.
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