Let’s Hypothesize: Critical Thinking and Truth on the internet

In the first part of the ‘Let’s Hypothesize’ series, I discussed the impact of the internet, which can be read here.

I find ‘critical thinking’ a difficult topic to discuss since it seems very vague to me. What is considered to be critical? One idea that I repeatedly hear is that people that attend University are taught to think critically. However, I am not sold on this idea just yet. To me, it seems as if institutions teach you a set of rules to apply to study or understand phenomena and when these rules are actively used it is considered to be critical. And different institutions teach different rules to adhere to when, for example, handing in papers or projects. In my experience, thinking outside the box (rules) barely gets you credit. You might hear words of disapproval such as ‘you clearly didn’t understand the essence of this exercise’ or ‘no, you’re interpreting [insert writer/scientist/painter] wrong!’. I personally felt agitated when literature teachers would look for deeper meanings in famous writers’ texts. I mean, did the writer really intend to ‘add’ a deeper meaning to their texts.

Another anecdotal story is when I visited an art museum. This museum had an entire floor dedicated to medieval art. Those who have been exposed to medieval art might now that the perspective tends to be off and you can run into the occasional fish-human, or goats flying through the sky. So some of these paintings really made me laugh when studying them. However I got very dirty looks from the other museum visitors. And then I wondered, did Jeroen Bosch really want me to take his art that seriously? Or was he genuinely poking fun at the world? Why are we so serious when it comes to art and literature? Or do we have to scrutinize every single aspect of the painting and look for deeper meanings?

 Social media and politics
One of the areas I am most interested in when it comes to the use of scrutiny in regards to analyzing situations or objects, is politics. Right now news outlets spend a lot of time covering today’s happenings in politics. So the public is exposed to this information and there seems to be a demand for it as well. With the existence of spaces on the internet (e.g. social media) where people from most parts of the world can engage in discussion, not only are we exposed to information that is supposed to be factual but also others’ opinions. And this creates new and interesting phenomena when it comes to forming attitudes and critical thinking.

Am I normal?
I feel like on of the important aspects of the internet is that people who felt excluded can look actively look for others just like them. Entire communities erupted that shared the same interest, and sometimes even met up offline through conventions. Nowadays so many different hobbies and interests exist that it seems as if humans are becoming more complex in what they take pleasure in. Individuals who might have initially felt somewhat left out because of their interests can now talk to people online about their favorite topics. I recall a time on Facebook when ‘that awkward moment when…’ was a widespread discussed topic. Same goes for ‘I do this thing where I…’ to express the ‘weird’ things that they do. And what happened? A lot of people pointed out that they felt the same way. And using many online communities online, people could suddenly ask millions of people, anonymously, how to fix all sorts of issues. While before most teen magazines would cover such problems through ‘Ask [insert name]’, now it is much easier and faster to simply browse through questions asked by others.

Being exposed to many different opinions people can also become much more polarized in their attitudes. For instance, before people would solely discuss their political beliefs at parties or family events. But now you can look for others alike and talk about your shared beliefs. Though this might become an ‘echo chamber’, where everyone just repeats the same idea over and over. And we have this tendency to start believing things if we hear them enough times. It is also easier to avoid those who have different beliefs, so it is possible to continuously ignore these opinions. So not only will those who hold extreme views start to feel ‘more normal’, they might also become even more extreme.

New online news sites and objectivity
There seems to an increase in new forms of news sites, there are sites that affiliate themselves with extreme political views. The issue with this is that authors might become more biased in order to justify their political views. There are news sites that aren’t necessarily tied to a political ideology, but it seems to be difficult to write a news article without picking a side. The question is, does objectivity really exist? I fear it does not. Whether you want to add a certain meaning to a text, people will interpret it however they want. Though, I do think it is possible to strive for some kind of objectivity. I am aware of the fact that this sounds very vague, but this is an issue of ethics. If you misinform your readers to fit your ‘agenda’ by (creatively) changing statistics, photoshopping images, or deliberately cutting a video to your liking, what are you trying to tell and sell?

Real truth, science, and philosophy
According to several individuals we have entered a time of reflexive modernization (Giddens, Beck, Lash). In this type of society we are constantly evaluating everything around us. This means that before a policy is implemented it will be scrutinized to ensure that it won’t pose any risks to anyone. We constantly want to create buffers before problems can happen. Because if they do, groups of people will be blamed and will be held responsible. An opinion I often hear from parents on scientists is: ‘with my first child I had to make sure that I positioned him like this and that in their crib, but with my second child I had to do the exact opposite! It is like scientists can’t make up their minds!’. Besides, you want to do the best you can and follow orders from your doctor,
but they cannot anticipate everything, unfortunately!
But then we reach this state where truth becomes this philosophical concept. Because when is something really true? Before you come up with a definition, I can write an essay on how our senses are fallible and that we see and hear things that aren’t even present in the ‘real world’. So when do we observe the absolute truth? Because studies have shown us time and time that we see what we want to see or are primed to see. The image above is a representation of this, why do we perceive a triangle in the top image and a sphere in the bottom image? (This is considered to be Gestalt Psychology)

Critical thinking and truth
I am curious to know whether critical thinking has always been a favorable thing, or was it considered defiance in the past? And will we move to a new phase in the cycle where such thinking will again be reprimanded. I often see the word ‘sheeple’ used as an argument when people have a different opinion in a discussion. Through a quick Google search you will find that sheeple are considered to be people who just follow the crowd and are unable to form their own opinions. But still, what is critical thinking really? Is it when you have an opinion that doesn’t match those the majority hold? Google gives me the following definition: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement. But what is objectivity if we cannot observe the truth?

‘Let’s Hypothesize’ is part of an article series in which I do not rely on scientific references. Instead I will speculate on topics related to consumer behavior. Plus I will include more historical facts and sociological theories.

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