A Little Less Conversation

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From Climate Scepticism


You would think that someone such as myself, someone who had recently finished a Steven Pinker book on critical thinking and then boasted that he already knew most of what it had to say, would be a pretty switched-on type of guy; the sort of guy who would leave all others in his wake, choking on the dust kicked up by his success. But I’m not. I have a stupid brain that does lots of stupid things. For example, only the other day I was browsing my bookcase (which veritably heaves with switched-on guy reading material) and I came across a book titled ‘The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload‘. The irony, however, is that I had completely forgotten that I had bought such a book. And so there it was, still untouched and still unread months later. A book that was supposed to save me from information overload had simply contributed to the problem. And my stupid brain had allowed it.

There are a number of possible lessons to be learnt here, one of which is to buy fewer books. But the main one is that knowing everything there is to know about critical thinking obviously wouldn’t be enough to enable me to cope when trying to attend to too much stuff. Attention, it seems, is a finite resource. Eager to pursue this idea, I trawled the internet and quickly came across the following article on The Conversation website:

When critical thinking isn’t enough: to beat information overload, we need to learn ‘critical ignoring’

My stupid brain was intrigued.

It’s irony all the way down

Now, I may not know much about the art of critical ignorance, but I do know enough to understand that being familiar with an author must give some clues as to whether an article is worth ignoring or not. So when I saw that one of the authors was the climate sceptics’ very own guardian angel, Stephan Lewandowsky, my stupid brain’s inquisitiveness quickly changed direction. At that point, I knew that my search for wisdom had reached a dead end, and yet there was still some prospect of uncovering the perniciousness that often hides within the shadows of pseudoscience. That promise proved enough to keep me reading. At the very least, there was still the possibility that the article could unpick the irony of having a website called The Conversation that fanfares the virtues of ignoring people. This was still a rabbit hole worth investigating.

Or so it seemed. The reality is that Lewandowsky and his pals had nothing of any great originality to say. It was all very familiar stuff, so stop me if you have heard it before.

Apparently, the internet is a great source of information but there are also a lot of bad guys out there who are seeking to misinform you and benefit from gaining your attention, and so it is important that you learn to discriminate between the trustworthy and the wicked. One way would be to read carefully through what they say and employ your critical thinking to work out for yourself whether what they are saying is likely to be truthful and useful. However, Lewandowsky et al warn that this is already too late. You just won’t have the time or the attention span to implement such a strategy and, besides which, you will have already fallen into the evil trap:

“Past studies show that, when deciding whether a source should be trusted, students (as well as university professors) do what years of school has taught them to do – they read closely and carefully. Attention merchants as well as merchants of doubt are jubilant.”

And if you were to rely upon critical thinking, can you trust yourself to get it right?

“Online, looks can be deceiving. Unless one has extensive background knowledge it is often very difficult to figure out that a site, filled with the trappings of serious research, peddles falsehoods about climate change or vaccinations or any variety of historical topics, such as the Holocaust.”

The solution to this problem, says Lewandowsky and his self-appointed myth-busting crew, is to know in advance not to bother. And the way you do this, apparently, is to use the internet to deal with the internet. Put simply, ask the internet whether or not this is a bad guy, and if it says he or she is one of the baddies, then ‘critically ignore’ them and just move on. The Lew crew call this ‘lateral reading’, so eat your heart out de Bono.

The reality, of course, is that there is nothing clever or original about any of this; certainly, there’s not enough originality or value to justify coining a term for it. It’s just what you tell people to do when there is an orthodox view to peddle and you don’t want anyone to challenge it. As such, it is actually a very old and dangerous idea.

In fact, Lewandowsky’s concerns go as far back as the invention of the written word, some five thousand years ago. Thamus, the king of ancient Egypt, argued that the written word would fill the heads of the Egyptian people with fake knowledge. Plato, an orator by trade, was none too keen either. He wondered how anyone could trust the written word when the author wasn’t on hand to answer questions. The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger bemoaned the output of the book-writing attention merchants, claiming that ‘the abundance of books was a distraction’. He recommended focussing only upon a small number of good books, though he didn’t have the internet to hand to advise him which these might be. He probably just had his own works in mind.

So I’m sorry, Stephan, but you are five thousand years too late. Worse still, it is five thousand years during which the evidence of the perils of ‘critical ignoring’ has been stacking up. Yes, of course there is a problem with information overload and the reliance one can place upon one’s own evaluation. But an appeal to authority as a means of discrimination (even the collective authority offered by the supposedly respectable branch of the internet) can only serve to suppress valuable heterodox views along with the noise. It will be the Matthew Effect writ large.

Whilst Lewandowsky maintains that critical thinking is still important, I think you will find that, through the magic of ‘lateral reading’, the internet will tell you that the failure to think critically is only to be found in the folk who Lewandowsky despises. The irony is that sites like Cliscep are devoted to the promotion of critical thinking but will find themselves increasingly marginalised by techniques of censorship that the Lewandowskys of this world are drooling over.

That’s the third irony I have mentioned so far. In fact, it is irony all the way down. Lewandowsky claims to hold critical thinking in high esteem and yet he proposes a solution to the information overload problem that renders critical thinking redundant. If you have selected your reading material based upon the recommendations of an authority, you can relax and take it all in uncritically, confident that you are missing nothing important. Calling this ‘critical ignoring’ doesn’t make it an extension of critical thinking.

Don’t turn your back on your stupid brain

My stupid brain will continue to do stupid things, but at least I am dedicated to using it rather than outsourcing all my judgement to others. I’m not that stupid that I will insist on sticking to my guns when just about everyone who should know better says I am wrong. But, there again, I am well aware that there are processes that are perfectly capable of generating a consensus that doesn’t actually stand up to critical evaluation. It’s a very odd phenomenon, I’ll grant you, and one which I find fascinating.

I’d love to spend a lot more time with you, discussing the perils of worshiping the gods of authoritative wisdom and picking at the thin veneer of science that Lewandowsky likes to apply to his otherwise naked prejudices. But you must forgive me now, because I have a book that still needs reading, and I note on the back that it must have cost me £9.99.

That is something that I cannot critically ignore.