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A Crisis for Critical Thinking

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The ongoing revelations around the "fake news" that seems to have worked its way into the election cycle and may or may not have affected its outcome is the source of a good deal of well-deserved hand wringing, upset, and even paranoia for those concerned about our electoral process. It surely is disturbing, but it should hardly be unexpected. It is an obvious end point of our crowd-sourced media-saturated environment. Even before the Internet, print publications - including the New York Times - were increasingly selling space for advertisements and supplements masquerading as real news. Reality TV played a part in eroding the line between real and staged events. Fast forward to today and professional-looking websites can easily be published and search engines and social media platforms can be gamed so that you no longer need to be a billionaire to create an influential "news" organ. In fact, it seems you only need to be a savvy computer science graduate student from a former Soviet Republic.

But fake news has two sides to it. On the one hand there are the actual fake facts and/or fake framings of real facts that the sources set forth. However, fake news still needs real readers to ingest, regurgitate, and disseminate their misinfomation, either whole cloth or with amplified distortion. Even if all readers actually paid attention to the meta-news of a new industry of fact-checking, they are surely on the losing side of what is now an information and resource arms race. Evolved "reading habits" (skimming, power browsing, etc.) of our perpetually plugged in populace have further enabled a rise of shallow and fake news. All of this is amplified by our online filter bubbles, where fake stories from "trusted" confidants and the alignment of a catchy headline or video with our own preconceptions can help to relax any innate skepticism.

Thomas Jefferson is generally credited with being the first to say "eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty". It is also the price we need to pay for honest information and with that, informed debate. Fake news is a natural artifact of the relaxation of such vigilance, which generally falls under the title of "critical thinking".

Critical thinking is perhaps difficult to define, but I like to think of it as multi-stage process wherein first the facts of an issue or phenomenon are determined and then the issue of interest is subjected to a reasoned examination from multiple points of view. Underlying hypotheses and assumptions are continuously examined and re-examined, thrown out or reformed, contradictions are discovered or not. The hallmarks of critical thinking are debate and examination - perhaps with yourself, but often with others - and the construction of an argument, supported by facts, logic, and in the best case, great writing or oratory.

Critical thinkers don't shy away from the complexity found in most issues or phenomena. As such, the debates running up to the election and the election itself were essentially a repudiation of the importance of this skill. Complicated issues crucial to the survival of our democratic and diverse country were raised and continue to be front and center in the national consciousness. But in a world that expects or wants simple answers or only has time for simple answers, maybe simple answers generally win - even if they are largely unsupported by facts or reality. Immigration is a problem? Build a wall! Terrorists coming from Syria - Nuke them! Industries leaving for other countries or irrelevant? Force them to stay! Slogans make for great tweets and memes, but they hide the underlying complexity. Their truth or viability depend on a working out of the details. It's up to us to unpack them and to force their originators and forwarders to explain them and support them - to help us think critically about them.

Almost half the country voted for a candidate who did his best in every public venue to squash or make fun of critical thinking (why is someone who articulates the complexity of a political challenge caricatured as a "wonk" rather than a diligent student?). We see now that one-by-one, many of the simplistic and tweeted promises responses of Donald Trump to many of the complex challenges of a twenty-first century "flat world" have been walked (or flung) back to square zero. There they rest, poised anew (we hope) for a long and ugly and complicated process of due diligence, revealed once again for all of their complexity. Critical thought that considers all the many dimensions of these issues - economic, moral, emotional, and otherwise - has never been more important.

This seeming large scale erosion of critical thinking has left many of us in the academy - that is, the universities and colleges -walking about in a fog. We place a high premium on critical thinking, practicing it in our work, valuing it in others, and trying convince others (most importantly our students) that they should do the same. Given the centrality of critical thinking to our personal and professional lives, it is distressing to many academics to see it devalued in the broader media and political landscape.

Some of us may think that merely by engaging in critical thought ourselves, in our jobs as researchers, in the classroom, or more broadly as citizens, we thus do our part to help to raise the general level of critical thinking in the world. Unfortunately, this "trickle-down theory" for critical thinking is not enough - we must do more to ensure that critical thinking tools are widely available and used across society.

First and foremost, those of us lucky enough to have tenure need to remember this foundation of academic freedom and use that privilege to speak out when and where we can. Sure, op-ed pieces are fine (here I am writing another...), but perhaps the greatest effects are to be engendered by more direct communications. Some of us have research and teaching that is directly linked to larger social events and trends. Even for those of us whose traditional academic milieu may seem more on the periphery of "the real world", with a little bit of thought ties can sometimes be found. I'm not suggesting a kind of Cultural Revolution wherein our work is now only valued to the extent that it is socially relevant, but where it can be, I do believe that should be a part of it. Relevance is an important on-ramp to the discussion of all ideas, abstract or applied. A good example is the relatively recent appearance on the academic landscape of programs in "public humanities". Social action may very well provide new energy to the embattled humanities.

I also think that the academy needs to be more engaged in a grass roots way. When we work with the schools and our local communities, we build environments of critical thinking that extend beyond our university hallways and auditoriums. Examples of this already exist: "Let's Talk About It!" is a joint National Endowment for the Humanities and American Libraries Association program that brings local experts (often academics) into for book discussion groups. On the science (STEM) side of things, for the past several years I have run two large National Science Foundation (NSF) programs inspired by the success of "Let's Talk About It!" to bring informal science events to small and rural libraries around the country - venues often woefully underserved by informal science programming - focused on generating community conversations around science via related human interest stories and popular literature.

In these events all kinds of ideas - large and small - are discussed and debated. Participants become acculturated to and even grow to expect and admire the kaleidoscopic views that are revealed through debate and, yes, critical thinking. Critical thinking (and the consequences of disputation, compromise, and collaboration) is the foundation of democracy, and has replayed itself over and over again in our history, from the constitutional conventions to the nail-biting behind-closed-doors meetings of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Critical thinking is not just about policies and words, it's also the skill set that underlies a flexible mind able to address the emergencies on Apollo 13 or create a new cancer treatment. Critical thinking is a kind of agility of the mind. It helps to destroy the echo chamber. We are a nation formed and fostered by critical thinking.

Admittedly, we in the academy, and especially those of us at liberal arts institutions have a self-interest here. Many of us who entered the university world consciously chose engagement in the marketplace of ideas over the marketplace of material. We could all do more to bring the riches of careful and broad thinking more directly to society as a whole and with that, make our world a better place.

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