In The Mind’s Eye
Every person should have a built-in automatic fact detector operating inside his/her mind’s eye. (To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway’s famous crap detector quote.)
Fact and truth are synonyms. Fact checking is a way to verify the truth of a statement or assertion; to check on its accuracy. It is a way to determine if something is an objective fact or a personal belief. Checking, of course, means to investigate. I believe not many people want to investigate their personal beliefs. (That might actually be a fact if I checked the evidence). In the Post-Truth Age, checking facts may become a necessity. But how many people can be persuaded to develop a fact detector in their mind’s eye, learning the lessons of fact checking? And do we have the capability to teach the human mind fact-checking?
How about a “Baloney Detection Kit”? In Carl Sagan’s 1996 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, he offered his “rules for bullshit busting and critical thinking”. This was a set if cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods. As a proponent of critical thinking, he supported skepticism and believed that many of our problems with critical thinking are rooted in our chronic discomfort with ambiguity. He recommended a vital balance between skepticism and openness. That is what I have been recommending for years. (Why didn’t I know about Sagan’s ideas before, and where did those ideas go?) A built-in automatic fact detector, along with a built-in crap detector and a baloney detector kit might be a helpful step toward learning critical thinking. But is it possible?
The human mind’s extreme credulity and extreme skepticism is not critical thinking. But you can’t teach the human mind if it isn’t open to new ideas and new thinking. A fixed mindset is one of the biggest obstacles to critical thinking. Another obstacle to learning critical thinking is the notorious “confirmation bias”, the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Among the many cognitive biases that confront critical thinking, confirmation bias may be the greatest.
Maybe not. Modern technology may turn out to be the biggest obstacle yet. Facts, opinions, falsehoods, beliefs, information and misinformation are coming so fast that the human mind cannot catch up. As Mercier and Sperber write, * This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.
Fact checking in the mind’s eye seems like an unrealistic fantasy. But the new Information and Technology Curriculum and Media Literacy Teaching Critical Thinking Curriculum give me some room for optimism. Do you see a fantasy or optimism?
· The Enigma of Reason, 2017. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber