It seems that in this era of social media, the sound bite, and hosts of political sophistry from left and right, we need to teach our children the importance of critical thinking and healthy skepticism.  Note that I do note advocate cynicism, but as I read the endless parade of trash posted on social media, a few things come to mind.   So, I presumptuously posit a few suggestions on how to approach and question what other would have us adopt as “truth.”

1.            Be not so quick to agree.  It is natural, perhaps almost unavoidable, to embrace conclusions with which we are in agreement..  The real challenge is to rise above our own preferences and insist on the same level of proof from someone with whom we agree as we would from someone far removed from our views.  You’re a better man than me if you can do this consistently.

2.            It’s not often black and white.  And no, this has nothing to do with race relations.  Anyone with the benefit of three or more decades in the bank, has probably learned that there are issues and nuances to most issues beyond the simple yes/no - zero sum game.  The truth often lies somewhere in the middle.  It may be a lot closer to one position than the other, but it is seldom at either extreme.

3.            Consider the source.  Nearly everyone has an agenda.  Simply wanting to be right is itself an agenda.  If an individual stands to gain politically or materially from the position they advance, take a second look.  This is not to say that having an interest in the outcome necessarily invalidates an opinion, but if does perhaps call for greater scrutiny.  I’ve seldom met a real estate developer favoring more restrictive zoning laws.

4.            Beware of inductive reasoning.  This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve, as it seems to be the most pervasive.  I see more and more postings that make the fatal logical fallacy of using a specific example as proof of a general proposition.  Many of them are is vitriolic as they are logically incoherent.  For example, I recently came across a posting citing a particular politician saying something really stupid, it then uses this statement to support the conclusion that all [pick political party] are stupid.  Not only is this an unsupportable inference as to the political party, I would even go so far as to say it’s unfair to the speaker - despite having said something undeniably stupid.  Saying any number of stupid things does not automatically make the speaker “stupid” – or at least that’s what every husband fervently hopes.

5.            Beware of numbers and statistics.  They are so easily manipulated.   Here’s a simple example: If someone says to you, “don’t use Brand X; it’s twice as likely to give you cancer than Brand Y,” you might quickly trash you’re entire Costco lifetime supply of Brand X.  However, if you were to discover that Brand X users had in increased cancer rate from 1 in 100 Million to 1 in 50 million, you probably would keep it in the cupboard.  Yet the statement as to “twice as likely” was absolutely correct; it was just presented to make a specific skewed point.  The claim was correct as to proportion but selectively silent as to magnitude.

6.            Not so fast.  The media is in a competitive race to be the first to reach a conclusion.  The truth often takes time to present itself, and the first impression is often wrong.

7.            Beware the purveyor of motives.  This is really a species of inductive reasoning, but a particular act is not necessarily indicative of a given state of mind.  Unless you can see into the human heart and mind, don’t be so quick to ascribe a particular motive to particular act, and question those claiming such omniscience, particularly when the motive plays into their own agenda (see no. 3 above)

8.            Distrust absolution.  Think twice before you accept the position that your personal condition is the fault and responsibility of someone else.  It is an attractive and seductive proposition – being absolved of our “sins.”  It is also the oldest trick in the book to weaken and enslave.

9.            Lastly (for now any way), write does not make right.  Do not assume that just because someone has reduced something to a writing it is necessarily true.  No one is fact checking what gets posted out there, and some of it is just plane made up.  (Of course all of this is just my opinion, so it doesn’t have to be true).

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