In our last two entries we’ve been working toward making you a deeply skeptical consumer of information. Our hope is that you now look at every factoid that comes your way and think, “citation needed.” This kind of evidentiary mindset is, we believe, the only way to stay afloat in the echo chamber of opinion-affirming clickbait in which we marinate each day. That said, it’s crucial to focus your skepticism, to ensure that it leads to greater factual clarity and a keen awareness of the biases in the media you consume. Without such calibration, you can end up in nihilistic disavowal of all sources. In short, we’re just trying to help you avoid the costly and painful removal of a “trust no one” tattoo in a few decades.
So how do you decide how much skepticism is enough? First, be aware of the difference between the veracity of a report, and the biases of the reporter. Epistemologists are quick to remind us that no source is without bias—but that doesn’t mean that the facts presented are automatically false. It is primarily a matter of separating facts from opinions, and comparing reports from disparate sources. Thus, the biases of each source need not automatically disqualify the information they provide—in fact, they allow you to examine an issue or event from different angles, and arrive at a more nuanced understanding. This is essentially the final spanner in the skeptical ‘tool box’ we outlined in our last installment. Assiduous application of these techniques can make you a more savvy consumer of information—you may still get fooled on occasion, but it is less likely, and once you realize that you’ve been led astray, you’ll be able to find your way back more quickly.
Now, before we tear a rotator cuff patting ourselves on the back, let’s not forget that we all have biases as well. Often, they take the form of prejudice against certain groups of people, and it may lead us to discount their input without even considering it. Naturally, race, nationality, and gender are primary groupings that can inform such prejudice, but there are many other possible categories. For example, I am suspicious of those who take their whiskey with a chaser, or order steaks ‘well done’… and any man who still wears sock garters is on my personal blacklist. Doesn’t he know that elastic socks are one of the many great technologies that came out of WWII? How could I possibly trust the opinions of such a man?!
Such biases are what make it so difficult to escape the feedback loop of agreeable media. We are comfortable with our chosen sources because they affirm what we already believe. Although it can be unpleasant, and my corporate overlords will be displeased, I do encourage you turn away from the Planetary Broadcast Network occasionally to sample the growing rabble of other news programs now available to you. One cannot properly appreciate the light if they’ve never known darkness, so go out and sample the shadowy corners of your radio dial. Ply all of your new skeptic tools on their broadcasts, and when you have had your fill, return to us for a palate cleanser—we won’t hold it against you.