Saturday, September 5, 2015

Critical thinking

I keep thinking about our reaction to this Syrian boy drowning. Tragedies happen everyday. Why does this one seize our collective imagination? And why do facts matter so little? We now know, or should know, that most of the "facts" originally reported were not terribly factual. The answer to both questions seems painfully obvious: presented with a compelling photo, we stopped thinking.

But did we? I think we did think about it. The problem was not that our judgment was turned off by the photo but rather that it was turned on.  We suddenly started reaching conclusion and deciding that action had to be taken about things we already knew about before we saw the photo. The problem is not that our brains were turned off by a photo but that they were turned on and we started making judgments we didn't need to be making.

I have started putting together a list of critical thinking questions to ask myself in cases like this. It's nothing new, I've been informally using some of these for years now. I want to become more disciplined about asking them though. This list is not final.

  1. Is my reaction based on a photograph or video? If yes, turn off judgment and just gather experience. The moment we make a judgment, we stop paying attention to our experience and focus instead on our judgment.
  2. How did the camera get there? The other day, someone shared a post with me about the pope's surprise visit to an Italian slum. The video at the post showed news footage of the event. It was a tripod shot over the heads of thousands of people who were already standing there when the pope's vehicle pulled up. How can this be a surprise event if a news team had time to get assigned to drive across town and set up a camera before the pope arrived? Likewise, how did the crowd get there? Nothing against the pope, all politicians use orchestrated media events but the rest of us need to be more critical.
  3. Why was this shot selected? The Syrian boy can't have been the first refugee to die trying to get out of that hellhole of a country. Is there good reason to believe that a news editor chose this shot for its emotional impact. If yes, see question 1.
  4. Does this photograph change my understanding? I already knew before I saw it that there are desperate refugees all over the world trying to get out of their countries. I already knew that some of them die making the attempt. I do not have a single new fact as a result of seeing this photo. Actually, it's worse than that: an explosion of false information accompanied this photo.
  5. Are the things I am tempted to say after seeing this photograph or video new? Am I saying or thinking anything I wouldn't have said or thought yesterday? If the only thing that is different is the intensity that I feel them—"Something must be done!"— I should just stop talking and see how I feel 48 hours from now. (Actually, this is true of most news stories. It's reasonable to act immediately to a storm warning but just about everything else can wait until the day after tomorrow and then the decision will most likely be to do nothing new.)
  6. Are my judgments really about the situation or are they about me? Photos like this trigger massive public response and the temptation to engage in virtue signalling—that is narcissistically demonstrating my virtue by showing everyone how outraged I can get about something.

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