I have 20 years experience teaching critical thinking. Today I teach critical thinking at one of the most prestigious universities in the UK, and the rest of the time I travel, teaching critical thinking to students in poor and rich countries around the world. I do this because I believe understanding how to identify fact from fiction is not just helpful – it is essential.
Most would probably agree that critical thinking (being able to separate facts from fiction and thus make informed decisions) is important, but unfortunately this skill is largely missing in the general public.
A Need for Critical Thinking
In 2014, Cambridge International Examinations research revealed that teachers across the globe believe critical thinking is the skill their students most lack when they begin their post-16 courses at school, and 56% of teachers said students were still unable to think critically when they entered university (source).
A 2011 study by sociologists from the New York University and University of Virginia concluded that 45% of students graduated “without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event” (source).
More recently, a 2017 study by MindEdge, an online learning company founded by Harvard and MIT educators, found 44% of college students could not correctly answer 6 of 9 questions designed to gauge their ability to detect fake news (source), and a report by The Wall Street Journal the same year found large groups of college seniors have “basic or below-basic levels” meaning “they can generally read documents and communicate to readers but can’t make a cohesive argument or interpret evidence” (source).
It is easy to focus on the students here, but if the majority of students are unable to critically think at 16 years of age, and are still unable to critically think when they enter or leave university, it follows that parents, teachers and other adults that they regularly come into contact with are also failing to effectively demonstrate how to do so.
That is not all. A report by the Foundation for Young Australians in 2015 found the demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates has risen 158% in 3 years (source) while a 2016 Stanford University report found college students actually performed worse than high school students at distinguishing “between a news story, an ad, and an opinion piece” (source).
This is extremely worrying when we consider that the growing nuclear threat and a lack of trust in political institutions are two main reasons scientists have set the doomsday clock at 2 minutes to midnight for 2018 (source).
The need for students and non-students to understand global events is indeed increasing, while the ability for the general public to act on truth, it seems, is actually declining.
The Ability to Act on Truth
Let us take one of the most important events unfolding in the world right now as an example – missile strikes against the Syrian government.
France (source), the UK (source) and the USA (source) claimed they had evidence that a chemical attack did take place on April 7th in Douma and that it was carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Meanwhile, Russia said this evidence comes only from media reports (source), and presented testimony from two medics who said the video broadcast of survivors being treated for chemical exposure had been faked by intelligence services, with Britain directly involved (source).
Is it possible that media outlets reported on a fake video about a chemical weapons attack that did not even take place so that the US-led coalition could justify attacking the Syrian government?
Critical thinking is the “The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement” (source). It is therefore first important to acknowledge any assumptions or conclusions we may already have based on prior conditioning (not facts). For example, a preconceived idea that our governments and media are the good guys and would not lie.
Next is the ability to find fact-based information to investigate the topic or argument to discover what the facts, not assumptions, actually are.
Evidence of Media Manipulation
In 2013 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) released a documentary called Saving Syria’s Children with staged events and fake video footage of an an incendiary bomb attack that featured British doctor Rola Hallam, who not only lied about incendiary bomb victims around her, but also turned out to be the daughter of Syrian rebel supporter, Dr. Mousa al-Kurdi (source).
A similar event took place in 1990 when nurse Nayirah gave testimony that was used to justify bombing Iraq in the Gulf War. It turned out her testimony was also fabricated, and her father was in fact the Kuwaiti Ambassador to Washington (source).
The U.S. government has certainly been manipulating the media since the 1950s (source), and in 2010 it was made public that the CIA “now has relationships with reporters from every major wire service, newspaper, news weekly, and television network” and has “persuaded reporters to postpone, change, hold, or even scrap stories” (source). Modern journalists confirm this (source) and according to former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, the BBC is now one of the first organisations that the CIA goes to when they want to influence the news media (source).
Evidence of Chemical Weapons Attacks
In 2013, PressTV reported on a leaked document revealing a UK-Qatari plot to fund rebels and fake a chemical weapons attack from the Syrian government (source). Later that year, Carla del Ponte, leading an investigation for the U.N., found no evidence Assad had used chemical weapons but strong evidence coalition-supported Syrian rebels had carried out a Sarin nerve gas attack (source).
According to award-winning journalist Ben Swann, as of Feb 2018 there has been no evidence of Assad using any chemical weapons (source), and Professor Theodore Postol at MIT released a 6-page document providing evidence that the White House Intelligence Report from 2013 and 2017 were both blatant fabrications (source).
Postol also reminds us that false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction “led to a US attack on Iraq that started a process that ultimately led to a political disintegration in the Middle East” and only days ago, CNN reported that the US-led coalition in fact proceeded with military action in Syria without having any certainty about the alleged chemical attack (source).
Facts Not Assumptions
The final stage of critical thinking is to be able to make a conclusion based on the facts and not on any preconceived assumptions. According to University of Minnesota Professor Nan Gesche, this means having an open-minded “beginners mindset” without bias and prejudice (source).
This is the hardest part of critical thinking because of cognitive dissonance, which is the human’s tendency to argue black is white rather than hold a view that goes against their previous conditioning/assumptions.
Nevertheless, if we look at the facts, we must conclude “Yes. It is possible” that the media reported on fabricated evidence, and it is also possible that the attack was completely staged by intelligence services and did not take place at all.
Why? Because the facts show that all this has happened multiple times before. Please watch my video below to see why this matters and what we can do.
WUWE is a project to promote critical thinking and inspire positive personal and systemic change by raising awareness of facts not covered in the mainstream; please support me on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, or subscribe for my latest updates here.