Lacey Smith

Misleading Facts and Critical Thinking

In Current Events, Education on October 11, 2013 at 2:04 pm

My sister recently shared a video from Upworthy about wealth distribution in America. It leaves the distinct impression that things are unfair in America’s economic system. It uses facts and sources to back up it’s point. And it is very convincing.

However, it also left me with some questions. Lots of questions.

Questions like: Did the overall standard of living go up as well? How does the poverty level today compare with the poverty level in the decades they were comparing? In other words, in real dollars, has the poverty line moved or stayed the same? Has opportunity to join the ranks of the wealthy gone up or down? What caused this? How does America’s poor compare with the wealth and poverty of other nations?

Without debating the actual facts of the video, the message it sends or the mistaken concept of wealth as a finite resource instead of a renewable or expanding resource, I want to address these sorts of videos as a general whole.

I both love and hate this form of delivering information. It’s pithy, it’s visually engaging, it’s easy to understand the message and it doesn’t take a lot of work to absorb the information. However, these videos, especially when they are very short, present a limited number of facts to prove a point. They often leave questions. If we do not ask these questions and do our own research, these videos leave us with a partial view of reality.

The fact is, facts can mislead us to draw inaccurate conclusions.

So, this is where critical thinking skills come into play.

We need to be able to take a hard look at the facts and ask “What else?” We need to really evaluate the information we are being presented from any source, but especially when the presentation of facts are limited.

Here are some questions we should be asking:

  1. What are the sources quoted? Are they reliable? Based on anecdotes or limited studies? A think tank? An individual person? A corporation? Are they factual? If they were studies, were the studies composed well or are they flawed?
  2. What do the original sources say? Does the video/blog/article/etc. accurately quote or paraphrase the original source?
  3. What is the agenda of the original source? Liberal or conservative? Progressive? Libertarian? Democrat, republican? Trying to make money? Trying to convince you of something? Does that taint their presentation of the facts? Even the news is biased by an agenda. First, they want to get you to watch/read and second, the “news media” is actually a whole bunch of individuals and everything from the order of the stories in a newscast or placement in a newspaper to the quotes used may represent a certain producer, editor, reporter or anchor’s personal views (avoiding this is the holy grail called “unbiased” but it’s nearly impossible to achieve).
  4. Who funds these original sources? For example the Tides Foundation is funded heavily by George Soros, as is The Center for American Progress. Bill Gates has poured millions into Common Core, funding both for-profit and non-profit companies. Glenn Beck funds MercuryOne and The Blaze. The Heritage Foundation was funded in part by Joseph Coors (president of Coors brewing – the beer company) prior to his death. Disney owns ABC, Comcast owns NBC, and so on. Even government-backed sources, like “independent” studies, are often handpicked by government officials who used to be or soon will be big players in the industry these studies focus on.
  5. What do the facts leave out? Are there things that could enrich or change the conclusions drawn? Do they provide a complete picture? Are there other elements at work that are not mentioned?
  6. What other conclusions could be drawn? If the facts are reliable and you’ve checked the original sources, are you sure that the conclusion drawn is the correct conclusion?
  7. So what? How does this affect your life? What effect does it have on the world?

This is, in fact, only a partial list. A primer, if you will, on critical thinking questions. If I’ve missed any big ones, let me know in the comments!

When we deal with pithy videos, news reports (which try to give you the “most important” parts of the news in less than two minutes a story), blogs, Facebook posts, commercial ads, newspaper articles, political press releases, campaign promises and mudslinging and so on, especially when they color our world view or are featured prominently in the national debate, we should meet them with a healthy amount of skepticism.

Critical thinking is essential. Perhaps now, in our instant information access culture, it’s more important than ever. Facts can mislead, but with a little bit of critical thinking, we can avoid being mislead.

  1. It’s a very silly notion that wealth is distributed like it’s manna from Heaven. Thomas Sowell has said in the past that “words can stop a people from thinking for fifty years”. So it goes with things like “tax cuts for the rich”, “diversity” and “fair share”.

    • That’s why we need to think critically. The video itself leaves so many questions and I could take it apart in another blog post. But the problem is if we just take things at face value, we end up wandering lost.

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