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Critical Reading and Thinking on the Internet

Recently I posted a rant in Facebook which dealt with people – specifically, someone who is “friends” of mine on Facebook – spreading misinformation and outright lies on their newsfeed. I declined to name and shame primarily because I believed at the time that it really wouldn’t get anywhere – it’s unlikely that I would have accomplished any good except perhaps embarrassing this person, which doesn’t fit any definition of “good” that I know of – after all, this person has committed no sin except, perhaps, be ignorant. (To be fair, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt as to their level of culpability here.) So I ranted and I got a lot of likes and whatever. But I believe that part of the reason we have brains, part of the reason we are capable of reason, is to enlighten and debate. So in that spirit, I have decided to actually put my money where my mouth is and write a small dissertation on how to read critically on the internet.

We will, of course, need an example for me to work off of. For that, I will use an article posted on Mother Jones, titled “10 Pro-Gun Myths, Shot Down”, by Dave Gilson, posted on January of last year (2013). I am using this article for two reasons – the first is that it is an article that is relevant to the world today, it says something informative, and is clearly an argumentative “position piece”: it’s taking a stance on something and saying “this is my position.” In other words, it lets me break it down point by point, raising a lot of the points that I wanted to bring up about critical reading. The second reason is that there is a follow up article, including a follow up from NRA media man Cam Edwards, and a response by Mr. Gilson, who wrote the original article. And we’ll get to the response later.

Disclaimer: First, my position on the whole 2nd amendment thing is pretty complicated. I like guns – as an instrumentality designed to do one thing, they are incredibly interesting, and dare-I-say fun to shoot. I have on several occasion gone to the range and fired a number of weapons, including an H&K PSG1, a 9mm Glock, an M1 Garand, at least two shotguns, and an AR-15. I enjoyed myself each and every time, and I believe it should be the right of every American and world citizen to at some point or another enjoy themselves as well. I would never, however, own such a weapon, because I believe that more guns in the world make the world inherently a more dangerous place. I embolden that statement not to make a greater point, but because I want to make my position crystal clear when it comes to the article that I am using as an example: I side with Mother Jones in this one.

Now why did I just disclaim? I did this because my first point when it comes to “Critical Reading and Thinking on the Internet” is the following:

1) Identify What You’re Reading

Is it an opinion piece? Is it a news article? Is it an argument piece? Is it an entertainment piece? Is it a scientific study?

Everything that is written, and therefore posted on the Internet, has a purpose – yes, even cat gifs. The purpose can be as simple as to wile away the time. Or the purpose can be deadly serious. Most things that are posted on the internet tend to be somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, however. In other words, it’s rare that you will read something on the internet that is purely factual – even the most objective of scientific studies will still, in the end, have been produced by a human being, and that human has a bias. Rule 1: It is impossible to completely undo human bias; but it does not mean we cannot reduce it.

The first step to combating bias as a reader is to identify what you’re reading. That will tell you how high your guard should be. Consider the spectrum of published works. On one end, we have scientific studies – as close to anything “dryly factual” as you can get, really, in terms of publications. These works should have a high “fact content”, meaning that everything about them should be pure, distilled information, with a conclusion at the end. (It’s important to note that the conclusion isn’t necessarily a “fact”, per se, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) At the other end of the spectrum is the entertainment piece. These works have almost no real “fact content” (note that I don’t mean “entertainment news” – those are still “news”, of a sort, so they contain some fact content), but are designed instead to make us pass the time. A joke, for instance. My rule of thumb is this: The higher on the spectrum of “fact content” that a work rates, the more skeptical I automatically become.

Which brings me to the most important Rule of all the Rules of Critical Thinking: Question Everything. That’s Rule 0: Skepticism is Good. Always ask “why?”. Never accept “because I said so.” Let’s see how some of this works.

Okay, so the MoJo piece. We know that this is a position piece – it’s taking a stance on the gun debate, clearly saying “We are pro-gun control.” We can discern this from a number of things. First, what are we reading? We’re reading Mother Jones, a news magazine that covers politics, human rights, the environment, and culture. A quick glance at their WikiPedia*page can lead you to also conclude they tend to side on the liberal aspect of things (founded by a pro-union social democrat, based in San Francisco, etc.) It was written by Dave Gilson. I am not personally familiar with Mr. Gilson, not being a regular reader of either Mother Jones or Mr. Gilson’s work, but given the publication he’s writing for I think we can safely assume he’s somewhere on the “liberal” side of things on this debate.

*A note on Wikipedia: I think it’s okay to point to Wikipedia as a source. Like any source, it should be read with some skepticism, but because Wikipedia is crowdsourced wisdom and democratically controlled, the information therein tends towards reliability more than not. (In other words, because you’re not reading one person’s opinion, but rather the observations of a multitude of people, Wikipedia tends to approach a level of “generally accepted truth” that is otherwise lacking in single-author works. But that’s for another time.)

So we’ve identified the source’s biases. This allows us to put up flags in our minds for specific things – points to look for and to look at carefully, without necessarily making a preconceived acceptance of the rightfulness or wrongness of any particular point. We can  now use this information, to look at what the article itself is actually saying.

2) Understand What You’re Reading

This is where you actually begin to read the article. Everything about identifying the source of the article should be done before you even step into what the actual article says. Note that at no point have you actually made any conclusions. Just because you have identified the “general” expected biases doesn’t mean that those biases actually exist, or that they make what you’re about to read unworthy of your attention. (I want to bring special notice to this. The internet has the problem of people being able to specifically tune out information that is in opposition to their own worldview. I caution you as an intelligent reader not to do this! The marketplace of ideas requires a lively debate, and that means you must expose yourself to arguments that are in opposition to your own ideas. How else to test your knowledge of something if you never challenge yourself? Anyway I digress; we’ll get to that in another post maybe.)

Actually read the sentences. Look at the specific words that are used. It’s something of a tragedy that our school system teaches us that synonyms can be used interchangeably without consequence. That’s not quite true. Individual words have very specific meanings and evocations. Think about the words, and what emotions those words draw from you. If you find yourself reacting to a particular word or sentence, try substituting synonyms. If the meaning of the sentence hasn’t changed for you, that is an important point that is resonating with you. If the sentence changes meaning and your feelings change as you change to different synonyms, then there’s a chance that the author or editor was deliberately manipulating you with word choice. And that tells you something important.

Let’s look at the MoJo article’s lede:

By cutting off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing, the National Rifle Association has tried to do to the study of gun violence what climate deniers have done to the science of global warming. No wonder: When it comes to hard numbers, some of the gun lobby’s favorite arguments are full of holes.

Right off the bat, there’s manipulation going on. The National Rifle Association is the bad guy here: they’re “cutting off” federal funding, and “stymieing” data collection, not “lobbying for advantageous positions on Capitol Hill”. The article is clearly making its position known: the author is taking on the NRA, because they’re violent and aggressive cheaters. The words “cutting off” evoke violence, aggression, force. “Stymieing” evokes shadiness, double dealing, cloak and dagger work. If you read the actual articles that are linked, however, the story becomes a little clearer. I’ll let you as the reader make up your own mind as to whether or not the NRA did in fact “cut off” federal funding for research, or “stymie” data collection. It certainly seems to me, at least, that the NRA has done a fantastic job at lobbying its position on Capitol Hill. I doubt anyone will disagree.

So now we know that this is going to be an anti-NRA piece. (BTW, never go by the title of a story. Titles are more often than not chosen by editors for the sole purpose of driving page views. They will never reflect the true nature of the story.) This is information we need to know, because we know the author’s True Purpose. (Note, also, that it’s often rare to tell what an author’s True Purpose might be for writing a piece; you’ll just have to use your best judgment. If you’re reading this far, your judgment is good enough that you should trust it to make your own opinions. In time, you will get even better at it, and might find you were wrong about some of your earlier assumptions. Finding out that you were wrong is half the fun of critical thinking!)

And that tells us what to look out for. Any time that the piece makes a statement either for or against its position, think critically on it! They’ll try to dazzle you with charts and graphics – be sure you know what you’re looking at! If it’s a chart, make sure you know what the axis represent, and how the data is being presented to you. There are all kinds of ways that malicious writers and editors will try to sway you with fancy graphics and gizmos that get in the way of you getting into the information. Don’t let them! Seize the information that is being presented, and question it critically against the defenses you’ve raised within your mind.

3) Does that Sound Right to You?

As you read through an article, always check your flags and ask: Does that sound right to you? As a neophyte critical thinker, you might be wondering if you possess the knowledge necessary to do this internal fact check. Believe me: You do! First, remember what you know. We all possess a massive database of information – most of it at first glance useless. But it’s not useless – not really! Employ that useless trivia by checking what you’re reading against what you know.Second, remember how you feel. Human beings are pretty good at pattern recognition. This means our brains are pretty good at associating data that is otherwise not associated, which gives us at least a decent instinct for correlation. If something you’re reading or seeing isn’t really jiving with what you know of the universe, there’s a good bet there’s a reason for it.

That reason tends to be one of two things: Either what the author is saying is bullshit, or what you know about the world is wrong. But how to tell?

4) Check Your Sources!

Thankfully, many authors these days are providing sources for their information. HTML has made hyperlinking a simple thing, and all of the world’s knowledge is or will soon be linked in the World Wide Web. If your article contains citations (in the form of end notes, side notes, or hyperlinks), feel free to check the underlying sources. Remember to read the sources critically too!

This is, sadly, where most Critical Readers fail. In fact, the initial rant I had was inspired by an article that was full of citations which, when checked, had nothing to do with what the author was claiming. Often times, people will put citations on their works to lend an appearance of intelligence and veracity. They know that most people won’t check cites. Sadly for them, I am a lawyer, and cite checking is just one of those things they teach you as a first year law student. (Even still, I admit, I don’t cite check as often as I should.)

Example: The MoJo article contains 10 “gun myths” which they are attempting to “shoot down.” Each myth will contain a “fact check” portion, which contains supposed “facts” proving the myth wrong. They provide links to studies, articles, web sites, and other sources of information for each of their “Facts”. Their sources all tend to be what I would term “legitimate sources” – that is, high on the factual content scale.

But what happens if you don’t have any sources?

5) Independent Research

If something truly strikes your craw, do a little bit of independent research of your own. You don’t have to write a dissertation – just a quick Google search will usually be enough to prove or disprove a point. As an example, my mother recently had me read an email that claimed that kindergarteners were being taught sexual education classes, including books filled with graphic sexual images, about homosexual relationships. Of course, the email lacked any end notes, hyperlinks, or citations. I quickly discerned that the email was clearly 1) an argumentative opinion piece, 2) written by a conservative Christian (or at least, someone with Christian/American Christian values), 3) against homosexuality, 4) written with the intent to disparage the “homosexual agenda” of “normalizing” homosexual behaviors by teaching the vulnerable and impressionable (kindergarteners.) I was a little incensed, and I got into an argument with my mother, telling her that said email was nothing but blathering nonsense, full of lies and spreading misinformation. At the time of the argument, I had no proof – just my instincts that nothing the email said made any sense.

Sample from the argument:

Parent: This is happening, son. They’re putting graphic pictures of gay sex in sex ed books and showing them to little kids.
Me: That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Show me a teacher who is showing pictures of anal sex to kindergarteners and I’ll show you a teacher who is in jail for disseminating pornographic materials to minors.

Anyhow it stuck in my craw. I didn’t know I was right; I only felt I was right. So that night before I went to bed and I did a quick Google search for “sexual education in kindergarten”. I quickly found a ThinkProgress piece addressing the concerns of several (conservative) folks in Chicago who were protesting a new school board measure (backed by the Federal government) that would include sexual education from grades K through 12. The article further elucidated that the programs are very much age sensitive and age specific, and that what the kindergarteners would learn were things like “good touch” and “bad touch” and basic body knowledge. (You know, girls have penises, boys have vaginas… or is that the other way around? Damn my lack of sexual education in kindergarten…) They don’t even begin to learn about “sexual reproduction” as a concept in living beings until about the 4th grade, and then you get into the more complicated sexual education. I slept happier that night knowing that, from here on out, kindergarteners were being taught their good touch from their bad touch, and that no one was showing anyone unwanted pictures of anal sex.

6) Keep Questioning

The truth is, critical thinking and critical reading never really end. I slept better that night, yes, but I don’t really know that what the email said wasn’t true. I just have a lot of information that tells me it was false. We’re never going to have perfect knowledge. At some point, you have to make the call: When is enough data enough for you to say “okay, I’m starting to believe that.” And that’s a call that you must make on an individual basis.

I haven’t even begun to get into how to spot a good argument from a bad argument, but I’ve been writing for an hour now and am starting to flag. Besides, this is almost 3,000 words long and hoo boy, I bet you’ve stopped reading by now! So tune in next time for…. Critical Reading and Thinking on the Internet, Part 2!

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