Beyond “Conventional Wisdom”: Thinking Critically in the Information Age (Part 1)

By , November 6, 2013

We have become an anecdotally-educated society that would rather believe what we’re told, or our own experience, than think critically about issues. The basic thinking is that if it didn’t happen to me or to someone I know, it doesn’t happen to anyone. “Conventional wisdom,” a dangerously oxymoronic term, trumps everything—scientific evidence, historical records, critical thought, even the conventional wisdom of other groups.

Unfortunately, much of our “knowledge” comes from television. Google the term “cartoon physics.” You’ll be appalled (if not embarrassed!). Television has reduced the average person’s attention span to the length of a sound bite, and we’re suffering as a result.

We are now a nation educated by rumor mill. This condition has been greatly exacerbated by the Internet. As a student of urban legends, I’m amazed by the local stories that have gone international in the Internet age. Some date back to the 1800s or earlier! They live again, as “fact” on the Worldwide Web in the 21st Century! Help is out there: Snopes.com, is usually reliable, but even they are not the last word in truth and fact.

A classic, non-political example of this problem is a popularly forwarded email that tells a fascinating story about English bowmen who escaped having their middle finger, vital for drawing a longbow string, amputated by an enemy force. The story purportedly explains the origin of a common vulgar hand gesture. Unfortunately, there’s no truth to the story at all. Many people know the story, and many of them have learned that it isn’t true. And yet, the story’s so memorable, that before long, one forgets that it isn’t true. The veracity fades, but the story remains. You’ve heard the saying, “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”? We as a society are living this admonition, and are becoming steadily less informed as a result—in the very midst of “The Information Age,” no less!

In a coming post I’ll offer some suggestions and aphorisms that may help stimulate critical thought.

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