By David A. Liapis, Senior Fellow & Former President, American Leadership and Policy Foundation
Not a day goes by wherein someone is not trying to influence your thoughts, attitudes and behaviors. It can be a company using an advertisement on the internet, television, billboard or magazine. It can be a political figure or activist in a news story, an op-ed or a Tweet. It can even be that annoying jingle you remember from watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid that still makes you buy a certain brand of chewing gum. More dangerously, it could be propaganda or mis/dis-information intended to deceive, mislead and divide.
Regardless of the source, medium or intent, it’s our responsibility of consumers of information to arm ourselves with the ability to think critically and learn how to filter out the barrage of bad information in order to know and understand the facts. In spite of the massive increase in our ability to access information on the internet, it has become more and more difficult to discern between fact, partial fact and fiction. That difficulty, however, should not become an excuse for our failing to ask certain questions about what we read, hear and watch. Here are some examples of what we need to be asking:
Who is the source, and are they credible?
Is it being reported similarly by multiple news sources (and not just from one side of the political spectrum)?
Is the story factual, and is all the information being provided?
Is there an agenda?
Who will profit from this?
Is this really a big deal?
Does this represent an isolated incident or a wide-spread problem (such as in California where the “house of horrors” story is being used to push for restrictions on home schooling just because the couple “home schooled” their children)?
Politicians and activists on both the Left and Right, and media and educators with those biases to some extent or another, are guilty not only of leveraging select information (think “spin” or “shaping the narrative”), but also employing fallacious arguments to influence us. Some of the most popular of these arguments are:
Ad Hominem (“against the man”) – This is where an attack is made on an individual or group to invalidate their cause or position, rather than to counter them with fact-based, reasoned and logical arguments. An example of this would be to dismiss an opinion or premise as invalid because of someone’s race, gender or religious or political preferences.
Either/or – This creates a false dichotomy, or artificially created choice between two sides and does not allow for alternative positions. An example of this is when someone argues that you need to agree with them or you’re a racist, bigot, hater, etc.
Straw man – This is when someone’s position is represented as being more extreme than it really is. An example is when some groups are accused of being anti-women’s rights or “homophobic” because they hold to “traditional” or Judeo-Christian values, when in fact they are likely neither anti-woman nor haters of people from the LGBTQ community.
Begging the question/circular reasoning – This, according to the Texas State Department of Philosophy, “… occurs when an argument’s premises assume the truth of the conclusion, instead of supporting it.” An example would be to conclude that the National Rifle Association is responsible for gun violence because they are a pro-gun organization and criminals sometimes use guns illegally.
The threats to our ability to determine what’s factual are not only external, but internal as well. One of the most prevalent and hardest to detect (in ourselves) is confirmation bias, which, according to the Cornell Law School, is, “A tendency to look first for information that confirms a desired conclusion. As a result, a theory may be reinforced to such a high extent that later discovered negating information appears to reinforce a minority view at best.” Basically, we give more weight to information that confirms things we already believe, and discount or outright reject valid data that contradicts our presuppositions. One of the most blatant and recent examples of this is the raging debate about gun control.
Regardless of what you believe about gun control, abortion, freedom of religion, freedom of speech or anything else, the worst thing you can do is assume that these tactics are either not being used or are not effective on you. We are all at risk every day of being taken for fools. It’s up to us to think critically, take time to analyze data, and then encourage civil discourse and debate rather than allow the pitfalls of bias, celebrity or apathy. If we don’t seek and demand well-sourced, verifiable information, we will fall prey to those (both foreign and domestic) who want to deceive, mislead and divide us.