You would think that someone such as myself, someone who had recently finished a Steven Pinker book on critical thinking and then boasted that he already knew most of what it had to say, would be a pretty switched-on type of guy; the sort of guy who would leave all others in his wake, choking on the dust kicked up by his success. But I’m not. I have a stupid brain that does lots of stupid things. For example, only the other day I was browsing my bookcase (which veritably heaves with switched-on guy reading material) and I came across a book titled ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload‘. The irony, however, is that I had completely forgotten that I had bought such a book. And so there it was, still untouched and still unread months later. A book that was supposed to save me from information overload had simply contributed to the problem. And my stupid brain had allowed it.
There are a number of possible lessons to be learnt here, one of which is to buy fewer books. But the main one is that knowing everything there is to know about critical thinking obviously wouldn’t be enough to enable me to cope when trying to attend to too much stuff. Attention, it seems, is a finite resource. Eager to pursue this idea, I trawled the internet and quickly came across the following article on The Conversation website:
When critical thinking isn’t enough: to beat information overload, we need to learn ‘critical ignoring’
My stupid brain was intrigued.
It’s irony all the way down
Now, I may not know much about the art of critical ignorance, but I do know enough to understand that being familiar with an author must give some clues as to whether an article is worth ignoring or not. So when I saw that one of the authors was the climate sceptics’ very own guardian angel, Stephan Lewandowsky, my stupid brain’s inquisitiveness quickly changed direction. At that point, I knew that my search for wisdom had reached a dead end, and yet there was still some prospect of uncovering the perniciousness that often hides within the shadows of pseudoscience. That promise proved enough to keep me reading. At the very least, there was still the possibility that the article could unpick the irony of having a website called The Conversation that fanfares the virtues of ignoring people. This was still a rabbit hole worth investigating.
Or so it seemed. The reality is that Lewandowsky and his pals had nothing of any great originality to say. It was all very familiar stuff, so stop me if you have heard it before.
Apparently, the internet is a great source of information but there are also a lot of bad guys out there who are seeking to misinform you and benefit from gaining your attention, and so it is important that you learn to discriminate between the trustworthy and the wicked. One way would be to read carefully through what they say and employ your critical thinking to work out for yourself whether what they are saying is likely to be truthful and useful. However, Lewandowsky et al warn that this is already too late. You just won’t have the time or the attention span to implement such a strategy and, besides which, you will have already fallen into the evil trap:
“Past studies show that, when deciding whether a source should be trusted, students (as well as university professors) do what years of school has taught them to do – they read closely and carefully. Attention merchants as well as merchants of doubt are jubilant.”
And if you were to rely upon critical thinking, can you trust yourself to get it right?
“Online, looks can be deceiving. Unless one has extensive background knowledge it is often very difficult to figure out that a site, filled with the trappings of serious research, peddles falsehoods about climate change or vaccinations or any variety of historical topics, such as the Holocaust.”
The solution to this problem, says Lewandowsky and his self-appointed myth-busting crew, is to know in advance not to bother. And the way you do this, apparently, is to use the internet to deal with the internet. Put simply, ask the internet whether or not this is a bad guy, and if it says he or she is one of the baddies, then ‘critically ignore’ them and just move on. The Lew crew call this ‘lateral reading’, so eat your heart out de Bono.
The reality, of course, is that there is nothing clever or original about any of this; certainly, there’s not enough originality or value to justify coining a term for it. It’s just what you tell people to do when there is an orthodox view to peddle and you don’t want anyone to challenge it. As such, it is actually a very old and dangerous idea.
In fact, Lewandowsky’s concerns go as far back as the invention of the written word, some five thousand years ago. Thamus, the king of ancient Egypt, argued that the written word would fill the heads of the Egyptian people with fake knowledge. Plato, an orator by trade, was none too keen either. He wondered how anyone could trust the written word when the author wasn’t on hand to answer questions. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger bemoaned the output of the book-writing attention merchants, claiming that ‘the abundance of books was a distraction’. He recommended focussing only upon a small number of good books, though he didn’t have the internet to hand to advise him which these might be. He probably just had his own works in mind.
So I’m sorry, Stephan, but you are five thousand years too late. Worse still, it is five thousand years during which the evidence for the perils of ‘critical ignoring’ has been stacking up. Yes, of course there is a problem with information overload and the reliance one can place upon one’s own evaluation. But an appeal to authority as a means of discrimination (even the collective authority offered by the supposedly respectable branch of the internet) can only serve to suppress valuable heterodox views along with the noise. It will be the Matthew Effect writ large.
Whilst Lewandowsky maintains that critical thinking is still important, I think you will find that, through the magic of ‘lateral reading’, the internet can tell you that the failure to think critically is somehow only to be found in the folk who Lewandowsky despises. The irony is that sites like Cliscep are devoted to the promotion of critical thinking but will find themselves increasingly marginalised by techniques of censorship that the Lewandowskys of this world are drooling over.
That’s the third irony I have mentioned so far. In fact, it is irony all the way down. Lewandowsky claims to hold critical thinking in high esteem and yet he proposes a solution to the information overload problem that renders critical thinking redundant. If you have selected your reading material based upon the recommendations of an authority, you can relax and take it all in uncritically, feeling confident that you are missing nothing important. Calling this ‘critical ignoring’ doesn’t make it an extension of critical thinking.
Don’t turn your back on your stupid brain
My stupid brain will continue to do stupid things, but at least I am dedicated to using it rather than outsourcing all my judgement to others. I’m not that stupid that I will insist on sticking to my guns when just about everyone who should know better says I am wrong. But, there again, I am well aware that there are processes that are perfectly capable of generating a consensus that doesn’t actually stand up to critical evaluation. It’s a very odd phenomenon, I’ll grant you, and one which I find fascinating.
I’d love to spend a lot more time with you, discussing the perils of worshiping the gods of authoritative wisdom and picking at the thin veneer of science that Lewandowsky likes to apply to his otherwise naked prejudices. But you must forgive me now, because I have a book that still needs reading, and I note on the back that it must have cost me £9.99.
That is something that I cannot critically ignore.
I see that they’re doing it again:
Yes, anyone who questions the validity of policy responses to the supposed climate crisis, or questions the wisdom of the totality of the response to the covid pandemic must be the sort of person who would be a Holocaust denier. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?
I’m afraid it is standard fayre nowadays. I just think it is a bit rich that someone who makes such a lame-assed connection should be lecturing anyone on the subject of critical thinking. As I say, it just seems to be irony all the way down.
My eye was also drawn to the climate denier – holocaust denier comparison.
This does not work at any level, as far as I can see. The first and most obvious point is that one is a historical fact, while the other is a prediction of something that will supposedly happen some day. The evidential base for each proposition is by nature orders of magnitude different. It is like going back to 1923 and comparing those who denied the Great War with holocaust deniers.
The second point is that if you only read from an “approved” reading list, you could be induced to believe that the holocaust was a hoax. It only depends on who is curating the list. But if you read both sides, you would easily discover that the evidence for the holocaust is compelling and universal, and that its deniers are relying on you listening to them and them alone. They are relying on you ignoring facts and data. Or rather, on never seeing such facts and data, because someone you trust has labelled their purveyors as masters of disinformation.
I am compelled to believe in the value of critical thinking, because nothing else makes sense to me. It would only make sense to censor the opposing case if your own was appallingly weak. I am left with the thought that those who seek to do so seek to win the argument, not uncover the facts.
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I think the comparison made by Lewandowsky is simply a rhetorical ploy that isn’t really intended for sensible analysis. After all, what exactly is the climate change denier supposed to be denying? There are many nuances and complexities at issue, and not everyone labelled as a denier necessarily agrees with the next guy. But that doesn’t enter into the calculation of those such as Lewandowsky. If you were to try to encourage a more sophisticated debate he would just critically ignore you. He’s just a propagandist masquerading as a critical thinker, and the first thing a propagandist will do is seek to debase the target group.
Just to illustrate how reliable my stupid brain is, I have only just now picked up on a howler of a typo in my article: “aincent Egypt”!
What the hell was I thinking? I have no excuses, but at least I have corrected it now.
Here is someone, at least, who hasn’t given up on critical thinking.
Of course, what I should have done, according to Lewandowsky, is look elsewhere on the internet and discover why no one should ever listen to anyone who would appear on Fox News.
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If you were going to short-cut critical thinking, there are far better rubrics than those suggested by Lewandowsky.
Motivated reasoning — is the person sticking their neck out to say something, or earning good money by saying it? The first group are rather more likely to be at least trying to tell the truth.
Revealed preference — do they preach about how good state schools are, then send their children to private ones?
Are they prone to other conspirational/oddball thinking — do they think there is a world-wide network, secretly funded, that are opposing them?
Are they prepared to deny basic facts/science — do they somehow believe that children don’t inherit intelligence from their parents to any degree at all? (A bugbear of mine when reading about education.)
Moving the goalposts — that wasn’t true Communism.
Do they only protest at the West doing something, not the non-West
They’re only rubrics, but on all these things the global warming alarmists don’t do very well.
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John – thanks for the link above, how refreshing to hear someone state the obvious.
I know that Russell Brand isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he seems to be doing a fine job here making the point made in my article:
Of course, you could always take the advice of Lewandowsky and do some ‘lateral reading’ before viewing the above. For example, take the Guardian:
There you are reliably informed that he has ‘descended’ into being a right-wing conspiracy theorist and, therefore, what he says should be ‘critically ignored’ – particularly that bit about the importance of free speech and courageous journalism.
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That is surprisingly impressive from Brand, thanks John. There is an even more striking example of ‘critical ignoring’ underway in the US than the Twitter Files malarkey, I feel. Will try and explain a little today or over the weekend.