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The Need for Critical Thinking in the Age of Conspiracy Theories

Updated: Apr 19


"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." Different people supposedly made this quote. Some claim the words are from Mark Twain. Others suggest they are either from Jonathon Swift or Winston Churchill. Regardless of the statement's origin, there is much truth to it. Recognizing how swiftly information, misinformation, and conspiracy theories travel on social media and the internet today, the quote is more relevant now than ever. A slew of information and claims constantly bombard us, so the ability to think critically is vital.


The New Thought/Ancient Wisdom spiritual philosophy, of which Unity is a part, takes the position that it doesn't tell people what to think; instead, it seeks to teach people how to think. But what does it mean to practice critical thinking? We can use Byron Katie's first two questions of her self-inquiry framework for "The Work" for critical thinking. One place to start is to question the premise of the presented information. The first question is, "Is it true?" The second question is, "Can you absolutely know that it is true?" So, if an organization or television personality shares some numbers about the pandemic, it behooves us to check if they’ve manipulated the criteria that led to the report. If a politician makes a charge about another politician or policy, seek to check the source and its credibility to assess whether it’s valid.


A good friend of mine tells how an otherwise intelligent person said to him that a politician signed a bill that made it okay for doctors to end the life of a baby that was still alive on the delivery table. He asked that person to send him the name and bill number for the legislation. Of course, he never heard back from the gentleman who bought into a group's conspiracy theory ecosystem without any critical analysis. This may be an extreme example where the purveyor of questionable information did not apply any crucial thought before spreading the information to other people.


Healthy skepticism, short of automatic knee-jerk contrarianism, is an essential aid in critical thinking. Appropriate skepticism is vital in today's world. But we don't want to take an opposite position simply because we want to make the other person or group wrong; that does not help us become better critical thinkers either. For example, suppose reputable weather forecasters say to expect a sunny day. In that case, one shouldn't immediately grab an umbrella simply because the forecasters happen to take a political position with which you disagree.


Reasoned skepticism is always appropriate. Of course, balance skepticism with mental flexibility and openness to new ideas. If we're not open to new ideas, we can miss seeing needed paradigm shifts, legitimate innovations, and significant breakthroughs. Nevertheless, critical thinking requires healthy probing. If we don't, we won't be able to distinguish between great ideas and dangerous ones. So question premises. Recognize the difference between emotional attachment to a position or cause and clear thinking. Then follow that thinking with a natural progression and conclusion.


Critical thinking is a fantastic self-development habit. Don't leave home without it.


Peace and Blessings,

James

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