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Where has Critical Thinking Gone?

Updated: Aug 2

Hey, hi, hello, long time no type! There has certainly been a lot going on in the world these past few months, definitely not a shortage of things to write about, I just haven't been able to organise my thoughts or had the spoons for any research-dependent pieces.


Why are people so quick to believe whatever they read online?


This question is a very important one in the age of social media, deliberate misinformation, and cancel culture. It would seem that people have forgotten some basic skills that are taught first in elementary school: always cite your sources! There is literally no reason to not do this in the year 2020. However, it's important that your sources be reliable, which is why we were never allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source (to which I say, just cite their sources and you are golden!). You should always be critical of where you're getting your information from, because almost everyone has a bias. For example, when I wrote my senior capstone paper on the PATRIOT Act (yes, it's actually a convoluted acronym) and NSA surveillance, I had cited John Yoo without knowing who he was in my first draft. Turned out, he's the author of the so called Torture Memos which were used to justify the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo, so just a bit biased, you might say.


Identity-Protective Cognition


Then you run into people who will only believe "their" facts, as in, ones that engage in confirmation bias. I was involved in a thread earlier today regarding the existence of more than two sexes in humans. There was a man being adamant that there's only two sexes, that being intersex is not a legitimate sexual category (bullshit, I know). I had started the thread by saying ask any biologist, geneticist, neurologist, etc. and they will say there's more than two sexes. Random man appears asking for sources. I tell him to ask the biologist that had commented down thread from me, as the only biology class I took was in high school. He refused, and immediately assumed my argument was invalid as I hadn't provided him any sources. So then I looked for this really amazing intersex condition chart I remember seeing once. It was published in Scientific American. I also told him I'm sorry he doesn't know how to google in 2020, because it literally took 30 seconds to find it. He then says a Google degree is nothing compared to his nursing degree. There was no winning, but it was honestly a hilarious exchange (with other people also calling him misinformed).


I believe this was an example of Identity-Protective Cognition in action. Coined by Yale Law professor Dan Kahan, he defines this, "As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values." Basically, people form their identities around sincerely held beliefs, so attacking their beliefs with facts is perceived as an attack on their very identity. To protect their literal sense of self, they double down on their false beliefs. Now, to some extent we all do this, but it's exceptionally common among those on the conservative end of the linear political spectrum. When you realise someone is engaging in this thought process, it's best to just leave the argument, because you cannot win, not because you are wrong, but actually because you are correct.


What's this have to do with "cancel culture"?


Everything. Cancel culture thrives off of accusations being believed before there's any proof. Look at what happened to Johnny Depp. Everyone pretty much liked him, right? Sure, there's been a few too many Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and we're going to forget about The Lone Ranger, but most would agree that he's a solid actor and a well-liked person.


Then enter his now ex-wife, Amber Heard. I had no idea who this woman was before she accused Depp of assaulting her during the peak of the me too movement. Suddenly, everyone was attacking Depp, swearing they'd always gotten creepy vibes from him, calling for his roll in the Fantastic Beast franchise to be recast (he plays the main villain), promising to never watch his movies again. Suddenly everyone loves Amber Heard, whose biggest role to date is still whoever she played in Aquaman (I honestly don't care, that detail isn't important).


Fast forward a few years, they've just wrapped up a trial in London where Depp is suing a tabloid for calling him a wife beater in writing. Yes, as it turns out, Depp was actually the one being abused, and Amber Heard is a trash heap of a human being. Yet there is no similar level of outrage at her making up allegations, ruining someone's reputation, and in my opinion, doing it all for the media attention. Once cancel culture comes for, justly or not, you are done.


Remember the Duke University men's lacrosse rape case? I do. That happened when I was in middle school, before anyone had heard the words "cancel culture". For those who don't know/remember, three white players were accused of raping a Black woman. It turned out the whole thing was made up, but there was massive media attention. Those men are lucky social media was nascent in those days; Twitter didn't even exist yet and Facebook was still for college students only. Where that to happen today, people would doxx them, get them fired from their jobs, break up their relationships, and generally make life a living hell. Ironically, the woman who accused them is currently in prison on a second-degree murder charge for stabbing her boyfriend.


There are definitely celebrities who have been, and will be, victims of cancel culture for legitimate reasons. Many of those who complain about cancel culture are the rightful victims of it. But often it goes too far, with people just immediately believing the first thing they hear and refusing to incorporate new information into their thought process.


How to Think Critically


So how can you combat these ways of thinking? It's really not complicated. Don't believe everything you read on the internet. Find sources for claims people are making, reliable ones. Don't bother continuing an argument with someone engaged in Identity-Protective Cognition. Don't immediately jump on people being cancelled. Essentially, ignore any of your knee-jerk reactions. Slow down and think for a minute. Ask yourself if something makes sense. Look at the possible biases of those making the claims. I promise you the thing you're outraged at will still be there after taking five minutes to think critically, and you'll be smarter for it.


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