Ben Hsu

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

A Quick Guide to Critical Thinking OR How to Spot Bullshit

I recently had a couple of conversations that greatly disturbed me. One was with my former illustrator, Elaine Tipping, who mentioned that they’d never been formally taught qualitative reasoning, or the scientific method, and the other with my girlfriend, who seemed both impressed and surprised by the fact that I research and link to various articles for many of these blog posts. What surprised me is that both of these people are highly intelligent, even minded, and either college educated or currently being college educated. I was under the impression that basic critical thinking skills were taught, at the latest, the first year of college, and really, they should be taught much earlier. It’s probably a bit weird that I find a lack of training in the area of critical thinking so disturbing. In my defense, I only find it problematic because of the current social/political climate. In an age where the people in control are constantly crying, “Fake News” while pushing out their own unsubstantiated claims, it’s more important than ever everyone be able to deconstruct various arguments and come to their own conclusions. So, I figured I’d write a handy, little, quick start guide to critical thinking. Hopefully, this will give anyone who reads this at least the barebones basics on how to spot bullshit.

Step One: Defining of Terms

Google’s dictionary defines ‘critical thinking’ as: “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.” That statement (or similar statements) are pretty much the start of every terrible high school essay ever. It’s sad because while stating a dictionary definition of your topic for your opening sentence IS bad writing, it also highlights one of the most important things to do when trying to have a productive discussion: define your terms. You need to make sure everybody understands and agrees on the meaning of the words you’ll be using. It seems obvious, and in many cases this step can just be skipped, especially if you’re discussing amongst people of similar backgrounds. But it’s always good to double check and very often you’ll find you all meant something similar, but not exactly the same. This also prevents people from suddenly shifting their definitions to specifically support their argument.

Let’s say for example, I write an article entitled: “Trump is a mutant orange.” I’m going to guess most of you assumed ‘Trump’ refers to Donald J. Trump, ‘orange’ refers to a sweet, round, citrus fruit, and ‘mutant’ means to be biologically or chemically altered or changed in some way (in this case to be able to walk around and make statements). And, for the most part, these would be fine assumptions, but until you double check you have no way of knowing for sure. And because you don’t know for sure I can change my definitions as needed and say, “oh no, I meant Jr.” or “I was talking about Ivanka, obviously.” Worse still, I could wait until evidence appears, and then clarify my definition so the evidence proves my point. If, for whatever reason, the Trump family all submits to have their DNA analyzed and it shows they’re .001% related to clementine oranges I could say, “Aha! See! They have some orange DNA, and the rest is so mutated that we THINK they’re human.”  (For a quick reference: any given human will probably have DNA that’s about 60% similar to a banana, so at .001% they’re basically unrelated).

The important thing to note in this step is to be wary of people who either stay very vague on what they’re talking about, or keep changing their definition to suddenly make their claims valid. These types of people, at best, don’t know what they’re talking about, and at worst, are arguing disingenuously.

I also want to mention one of the more common, underhanded tactics I see during this step is to prey on people’s insecurities. People use language like, “Obviously I mean XYZ,” or “How do you not know, XYZ,” or other similar statements. These types of statements are designed to make the other person feel afraid and insecure, and subsequently agree with whatever they’re talking about. Don’t let anyone pull that shit on you. Anyone who has to resort to deeming or insulting language when you ask for clarification probably doesn’t have a leg to stand on for their argument, and definitely isn’t anyone worth talking to.

Step Two: Examine the Evidence

Any bit of news you come across is going to be presenting you with a series of facts. In an ideal utopia, that’s all the news would do, present you with clear, unbiased, provable facts. We don’t live a perfect world. Arguably, we don’t even live in a decently functioning world. Nowadays, most new outlets are trying to convince us of something, and they’re using their reports as evidence on why you should do whatever it is they’re implying. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean it’s up to us to decide on whether or not the evidence being presented is valid or ‘fake news.’ Technically, I could write an entire article, probably several, on what makes evidence valid, but then this wouldn’t be a barebones basic guide. Instead, just follow these two rules: ‘More is better than less,’ and ‘concrete is better than theoretical.’

‘More is better than less’ seems like an obvious rule to follow. The more people who say they saw, heard, or experienced whatever, the more likely it is to be true, that should be the end of the statement. Sadly, social media has made this rule incredibly hard to deal with; retweet/post/blog/etc. means a single point of data can feel like it has a whole mass following behind it. Taking the ‘Trump is a Mutant Orange’ example, I might write in my article that I’ve found seven people who think Trump is a mutant orange because Bob saw him drinking a bunch of orange juice, and Bob thinks that’s because Trump is an orange. That may sound like I have seven people supporting my idea of Trump being an orange, but only one of them actually experienced something that might suggest Trump is an orange, everyone else heard it from Bob, so really I’ve got one person supporting me, I’ve just got Bob. If we add in social media, we can get each of the seven people reposting it somewhere where each repost attracts seven more people, who them repost it, and you can very quickly end up with thousands of people who all think Trump is an orange because, hey look, thousands of people think he’s an orange so it must be true. If you’re jumping into the middle of this, it may seem like that there’s a ton of evidence supporting the fact that Trump is a mutant orange. After all I said, ‘more is better than less’ right? What’s actually happening is what’s called an ‘echo chamber.’ People are agreeing with each other, and using the fact that they agree with each other to prove that they’re correct. The truth is, there’s only one person who actually experienced something that’s even vaguely related to Trump being a mutant orange, Bob. It’s still just Bob. Now, I know my example is a little silly, but if you want to see this in action, follow any random celebrity, and see what happens to the next trend they mention on Twitter.

‘Concrete is better than theoretical’ is especially important to understand in today’s political climate. Generally speaking, it means that evidence that is gathered using the human sense (or tools built by humans) is more believable than evidence that comes from an idea. Going back to our ongoing example, Bob seeing Trump drink a lot of orange juice is not particularly good evidence. It’s true that it was gathered using one of our sense (sight), but in order actually link it to the claim, ‘Trump is a mutant orange’ you have to go through a series of ideas. The actual evidence would read something like, “Bob saw Trump drink a ton of orange. Orange juice is made from oranges, Trump is normally very orange, but was less orange when he drank the juice. He must have been replenishing his natural orangeness, therefore he must be a mutant orange.” In order to link Bob seeing Trump drinking orange juice to Trump being a mutant orange we have to navigate through a series of increasingly ridiculous ideas. Now, if we had a video of Trump getting shot in an assassination attempt, but instead of blood and gore, there was just orange pulp and orange juice, then we have concrete proof that Trump is a mutant orange.

Again, I’m making my example specifically ridiculous so it’s easy to follow. But using theoretical evidence is a favorite tactic of politicians that are fear mongers. Here’s a real life example: When marijuana was up for debate in Colorado a lot of people pushed the rhetoric, “If we legalize weed, more people will do weed, which will lead to more people doing harder drugs, which will lead to more violent crime, which will be terrible for everyone.” Sounds completely logical, but it’s all just theory, it’s an idea of what could have happened. In fact that didn’t happen at all, Colorado just kept chugging along like it always has. If you let someone tell you what might happen as the truth, then you might as well believe that Trump is, in fact, a mutant orange.

Step Three: Check Other Sources

Wherever you get your news, you need to check what other news sources are saying, and you need to check both sides of the political spectrum. Yes, that means you people on the left should be checking on what the right is saying and you people on the right should be checking on what the left is saying. It sucks, it’s gonna piss you off, but it’s very important that this happens.

What we’re doing in this step is double checking for the echo chamber effect. Theoretically, every news outlet has its own sources gathering evidence, and come to its own conclusions about whatever it is they’ve found out that’s worth reporting on. They may come to the similar or even the same conclusions, but the important part is they all independently verify what is happening, and that they come to their own independent ideas of what to think about it. If, however, you find that a grouping of news sources not only come to the same conclusion, but also use the exact same language, and often point to each other as sources of evidence…well, there’s a good chance that you’re experiencing the echo chamber effect. Once again, it’s just Bob.

So let’s go back to our hypothetical ‘Trump is a Mutant Orange’ example. Now, the scenario is that the unspeakable has happened, Trump has been attacked and mortally wounded. There’s orange juice and fruit pulp everywhere and no sign of human blood, bone, or meat. Worse still, instead of falling dead, giant vines covered in oranges and orange tree leaves sprout from the wound, quickly repairing the damage before attacking nearby bystanders. The incident is caught on multiple videos and circulated among the general public at a speed only the Internet can reach. In less than 24 it’s all any of the news outlets can talk about.

Given that you’ve read my blog post about how to spot bullshit and taken it to heart, you’ve gone ahead and done a quick glance at the Internet to see the specifics of each news source. You don’t need to read them, just a quick glance through will be enough. At a glance it looks like several news outlets are discussing whether or not a non-human can be president of the United States, several more are trying to reach out to various leaders for an idea of what to do next, and a whole host of them are in debate about how this could have happened, and whether there are more orange people lurking among us. All of them are continuously replaying footage of both the initial attack and the following plant on human carnage afterwards.

But there’s a group of news outlets that have the same mysterious expert from the Citrus Producers of America. The expert consistently claims that oranges are high in vitamin C and thus super healthy for humans in any form. They then go on to show to varying degrees how people can fake the video footage obtained, and that this is all a conspiracy to slander the good Citrus Producers of America.

Hey, remember that old Sesame Street song, “One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other?” Well, you should be humming that right about now (assuming you know it), because one of these things is not like the other. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, it’s the final group of news outlets, and they’re breaking pretty much all the various guidelines I’ve mentioned in this article. They’re not defining their terms, in this case “healthy” has a strange definition for someone who’s been strangled to death by an orange monster. They’re using a hypothetical, “this footage COULD have been edited like this,” and they’re all pointing to a single point of evidence: the “expert” from the Citrus Producers of America, whom I’m sure is named Bob. One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just might be run by mutant orange people.

I know, the absurdity of my example makes it hard to apply it to real world events. After all, if anyone suddenly sprouted giant, mutant, orange bearing vines that began attacking people, everyone would be talking about it. If the plant attack was caught on camera, no one would bother denying it. Plants pretending to be human and attacking people out of the blue is crazy, you’d have to be insane for your news organization not to cover it. Alright, so let’s use an example more grounded in the real world. Let’s say, semi-hypothetically, US Border Agents were accused of using tear gas on minors, and there was video footage to prove it. A quick glance at the news shows all the various news outlets reported on it, expect a few, that completely ignored it, or showed various examples of how it could have been faked. Sound familiar? One of these things is not like the other, one of these things is an unreliable news source and should not be trusted. Check all the news sources available, if a small grouping is not following the general guidelines I’m laying out, there’s a good chance they’re unreliable.

Step Four: Remember Everyone is Biased, Including You

I mentioned earlier that in an ideal world, news outlets would just present you with clear, unbiased, verifiable facts. Immediately afterwards I mentioned that this is not an ideal world; so that’s never going to happen. Everybody has an agenda. You, me, the news anchors, your senators, your next door neighbor, everyone. Fortunately, everyone’s agenda is really easy to figure out so we don’t need to get into conspiracy theories.

Everything basically boils down to two things. First, people want to live as long as possible, as comfortably as possible. Then, if that’s taken care of, they want resources (RE:money) and power. It’s that simple; it’s so simple that it’s actually insidious. These two urges are so primally ingrained in us as humans that most people don’t even realize that’s why we do what we do. Even me writing this piece is trying to push me ahead in those two areas. I started out writing this guide because I wanted a short piece on how to spot bullshit in the modern society. Which I still do, but it’s because I want more people to be able to see through bullshit, thus creating a more comfortable society for me to live in (and a society where I don’t risk getting the shit beaten out of me for being gender fluid). The real trick to this step is deciding if the methods of the person (or people) in question are in line with your agenda.

Let’s go back to our favorite, hypothetical, mutant orange that happens to be named Trump in this scenario. In our previous step, the various news outlets were reporting on the incident where he was attacked, grew several orange bearing vines and attacked nearby people. It’s really easy to follow my line of logic for most of the news sources. They’re talking about whether the mutant orange should be the president, what we should do about it, how we can stop this from happening again. They don’t want to be attacked and murdered by mutant oranges. Their agendas should be in line with your agendas. At least I assume none of you want to be attacked and murdered by mutant oranges.

Which just leaves us with the oddball networks that are promoting how healthy oranges are and pointing out how evidence of a mutant orange attacking and killing people might/could/should be faked. Sadly, in this case, we can only go by what we know, and have been told. As much as I joked in previous steps that they were controlled by mutant oranges, all we know is that they are not concerned about being attacked and killed by mutant oranges. They could be mutant oranges themselves, they could being paid by mutant oranges, or their families could be held hostage by mutant oranges, we don’t know, and we can’t say for sure until more concrete evidence comes out. Fortunately, we don’t need to know, the only thing we care about is the fact that they’re not concerned about attacked and murdered by mutant oranges. That very fact means their method of accomplishing their agenda is not in line with yours. If there is hard evidence (in this case multiple videos) documenting the fact that giant, mutant oranges are attacking people, and everybody but one specific group is worried about being attacked by a giant, mutant orange, you can probably treat the one group that isn’t worried with at least a little suspicion.

My example is actually reversed from what normally happens in real life. It’s much more common for people to fear-monger than it is for them to calm-monger. In another, semi-hypothetical, more realistic example: One group of people is consistently bitching about how immigrants are all murderers, rapists, and thieves, but everyone else is commenting about how there’s no evidence to prove it, and most of the data we find shows that immigrants are actually less likely to commit violent crimes. Running both groups through my amazing, “people want to live comfortable, and if that’s taken care of, want money and power” analysis we can pretty quickly figure out the secret agenda of both groups. The group not worried about immigrants probably just wants to live in a world where people seeking safety aren’t jailed, sexually abused, separated from their kids (who are then lost in a bureaucratic system), and tear gassed. Which makes sense, at any point in time they may be seeking safety and it would suck if that happened to them. The other group that’s…weirdly afraid of immigrants. Well, sadly it’s hard to say what their agenda is. If I had my guess, I’d bet they want to make us afraid, so we’ll vote for them under the promise of protecting us from murderers, rapists, and thieves. But there’s one thing we can say for sure, they are not worried being jailed, sexually abused, having their kids taken away, and tear gassed should they need to seek shelter. Which means that, whatever their agenda is, there’s a good chance it won’t mesh with yours (unless you want to be jailed, sexually abused, have your children taken away, and tear gassed whenever you’re seeking safety.)

Step Five: Accept It When You’re Wrong

This is the hardest step for pretty much everyone. Being wrong sucks, it makes you feel stupid, that everyone is laughing at you, and that you’re worthless. It’s especially shitty when you’ve become emotionally invested in whatever wrong idea it is you believe. At that point admitting you’re wrong probably feels like ripping out part of your soul. But you know what sucks worse than all of that? Sticking to your guns when there’s overwhelming evidence that you’re wrong. If you do that, you’ll find that you’ll slowly lose more and more of what’s important as less and less people want to interact with you, until you’ve got nothing but the feeling that you’re right and a tiny echo chamber of other like minded people, all of them named Bob.

You know what’s great about admitting you’re wrong? Well, first off, you get to be right immediately afterwards. Second, as soon as you stop being friends with anyone that thinks it’s okay to laugh at you, you can start working on being a better person.

I really want Trump to be a mutant orange. I want it so bad that I can taste his orange juice blood in the back of my throat as I go to sleep, and feel his orange pulpy flesh burst beneath my knuckles as I punch him in my dreams. But he’s not, there is no evidence to suggest that he is; if I wrote any even vaguely serious article to suggest as much I’d be laughed off as a complete crazy person. And the more I stuck to my idea that Trump is an orange the crazier I’d seem. So, I accept that I’m wrong, he’s a human being, and I move on with my life.

The sad part is that there are equally absurd ideas that hundreds of thousands of people believe in. Like Flat-Earth Theory(no evidence), anti-vaxxers (only a single point of evidence traced back to a Doctor that has since lost his medical license, AKA Echo Chamber, AKA It’s just Bob), the terror of immigrants (complete lack of evidence). My point is, everyone is vulnerable to buying into something that sounds completely absurd from the outside. As long as you refuse to accept that you may have bought into bullshit you’ll never know.

And that’s it, the basic guide on how to spot bullshit. It’s not a complete, or perfect guide, but it wasn’t meant to be. In truth this topic is way more complex and there are series of text books written about this that make my head spin. This is supposed to be a quick cheat sheet so those of us who didn’t get a chance to learn it in school so they at least stand a chance against the ever flowing waves of bullshit coming at us in modern times. The Cliff’s Notes, to the 101 of critical thinking if you will. Still, I hope at least someone finds this useful, just remember:

1. Define your terms – Make sure everyone is talking about the same thing and no one is trying to doublespeak you.

2. Examine the evidence – More is better than less, concrete is better than theoretical.

3. Check other sources – Is what’s happening valid, or do we have an echo chamber up in here?

4. Remember everyone is bias – Are they helping you to help themselves? Or are they making you afraid of something that isn’t there?

5. Accept when you’re wrong – Facts are facts, no matter how much you want to believe otherwise.

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

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