If you want to save democracy, learn to think like a scientist

Testing testing, one, two, three.
Testing testing, one, two, three.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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Fake news is running rampant on the internet, but blaming social media sites like Facebook for not filtering it out doesn’t address the larger issue at hand. Bogus news isn’t the real problem: The problem is that we undervalue the type of critical thinking needed to spot it.

We shouldn’t expect a social media site to tell us what is and is not real. We are bombarded with nonsense on a daily basis, and navigating through it is a life skill we must learn. We can’t expect others to do it for us.

A lack of critical thinking and skepticism creates problems beyond politics. It makes us vulnerable to scams and pyramid schemes as well as phony products like weight-loss drugs and “miracle cures” that are really only as effective as placebos. It leads us to ignore existential threats like global warming and perpetuates harmful conspiracy theories such as the idea that vaccines cause autism.

If there’s overwhelming evidence for something—like man-made climate change—and you don’t believe it, you aren’t being a skeptic, you are in denial. Being skeptical means demanding evidence, not ignoring it.

In this new age of social media, our news is no longer being filtered through major media outlets that have teams of meticulous and principled fact checkers. As a result, empiricism is more important than ever. We all must be trained to navigate through the false information, and we can do that by thinking like scientists.

We must be empiricists, not ideologues

Our ideologies blind us and bias our behavior. For that reason, we should all be empiricists, not ideologues. Empiricists form their beliefs and opinions about the world based on facts and observation; ideologues, by definition, are uncompromising, dogmatic, and committed to specific principles. They are therefore unlikely to change their views based on new evidence. By self-identifying first and foremost as empiricists, we commit ourselves to a worldview that is shaped by reality.

Unfortunately, we often don’t feel compelled to check the accuracy of something that already aligns with our ideals and worldview. This is bad practice. We must continue to demand evidence—even when the claims in question come from the side that shares our beliefs and values.

A recent Buzzfeed News analysis of Facebook activity found that while 38% of news shared on popular right-leaning Facebook pages was false, so was 19% of the news shared on popular liberal Facebook pages. Given that liberals have also been known to peddle pseudoscience and ignore facts, as can be seen by the anti-vaxxer movement and the success of homeopathic remedies, this should be no surprise.

But how do we all become empiricists without training? Scientists and researchers are trained to sniff out untruths, but you don’t need to be a scientist to do what scientists do.

We must create tests

When scientists want to understand how reality works, they devise experiments to test their questions. If they want to know if a specific treatment works—for example, if a certain diet makes people healthier, or if a particular medicine is effective—they design a study that will determine whether or not a hypothesis is true. If the hypothesis is supported, it becomes the reigning explanation while it continues to be tested further. This is an ongoing process that should continue until almost no uncertainty remains.

Derren Brown, a famous British magician and mentalist (think David Blaine, but more focused on mental tricks) is an expert at appearing to have psychic abilities. He is also a skeptic who exposes those who try to claim they have them for real. In an interview with prominent evolutionary biologist and outspoken skeptic Richard Dawkins, Brown describes a simple test that he has suggested to non-empiricists in the past.

“I think it feels unfashionable to talk to people about the importance of evidence, of testing things,” Derren said to Dawkins. “A friend of mine, who’s a psychic, told me she puts crystals in her plants and they grow better. So I said, well you’ve got loads of plants—have you ever put two in the same window? Maybe just put crystals in one and not the other?”

This anecdote illustrates just how easy it can be to start testing your beliefs.

It is also important to teach children to demand evidence and think critically from an early age. A few months ago on the Late Late Show with James Corden, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told a wonderful story about the way he and his wife gave their child a lesson in critical thinking.

After their daughter lost a tooth, they told her that they heard if you put a tooth under your pillow, the tooth fairy visits. That night the little girl did just that, and Tyson swapped the tooth for money while she slept. The next morning, after their daughter had shown them her gift, they asked her a question that prompted her to think skeptically. “How do you know it was the tooth fairy?” they asked, to which the daughter replied, “Oh no, I don’t know, I just know that there’s money here.”

With her curiosity stirred, their daughter began setting traps for the fairy—for example, foil on the floor to hear when it arrived—and when those didn’t work, she and her equally suspicious schoolmates thought of a test. The next one to lose a tooth would put it under their pillow—without telling their parents.

The next day, when the tooth did not turn into money, the children worked out that their parents were the perpetrators of the hoax. This doesn’t mean that you should crush all the magical beliefs that children have—it only means that you should teach them to question. As adults, we must do the same to set a good example. When something sounds outlandish or simply incredible, we must investigate. Without conducting our tests in controlled settings, it can be difficult to make any definite conclusions. But these steps will still likely help us identify many bogus claims without stepping foot inside a lab.

We must encourage others to be empiricists

It is often said that we should let people believe whatever they want as long as they aren’t hurting others. “Ignorance is bliss,” as some say. However, we can no longer ignore the fact that when people don’t think critically, it actually harms others. When candidates who peddle false information get elected into office, they are more likely to also ignore crucial evidence when making decisions or policy. Do we want the person making decisions concerning climate change to be someone who ignores all the data that’s been carefully collected by scientists? That’s a recipe for catastrophe.

We must therefore encourage our friends to think critically and to test things. When they make claims or decisions that ignore the evidence, they should be confronted. We speak up when someone we love has an addiction or some chronic bad habit. We should feel a similar moral obligation.

Lastly, we all must all demand that our celebrities, influencers, and politicians also think critically and refrain from making claims that ignore evidence. Spreading lies and misinformation to millions of people can have some serious real world effects. Conservative or liberal, there’s just no excuse for it. Consistency is crucial.

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Scientific advances come from critical thinking and curiosity. Science is also successful because it is self-correcting. When new evidence doesn’t support our previous conclusions, they must be abandoned and replaced by evidence-based assertions. Good science is also consistent in its methods, so that opinions and biases do not get in the way of logic and measurement. We do not get to pick and choose which rules to follow. Instilling these principles in society will bring about progress.