The Lost Art of Skeptical Validation
Imagine that you are walking on your way to work, wishing that you had a car so you wouldn't have to make the hour commute on foot every single day. Suddenly, a man appears, rather poshly dressed, and says he will give you a magic chicken. "What does the chicken do?" you ask. "It grants wishes!" says the man, stroking his beard. Already tired from the half-hour walk on your way to work, asking a magic chicken for a car doesn't seem bad. So you take the chicken, say goodbye to the man, and proclaim your wish. What happens? Nothing. Instead, the chicken scratches your face and leaves you wondering how naive you could have been. Now you have no car and a chicken to take care of, seeing as the only option is that it's coming home with you.
How can we make a reasonable review of assertions given as accurate, such as the posh-looking man's belief, to determine whether his claim has validity as confidently as possible? This fundamental question affects almost every aspect of our civilization. There are several claims, ranging from alien abductions to the presence of the Loch Ness monster to the ability to heal autism by eating wild boar meat. How do we "separate the wheat from the chaff" so that both preclude the acceptance of highly suspect assertions with no backing and allow the adoption of claims that are likely to be confirmed with some level of certainty and comfort? Well, the easy answer is skepticism.
Skeptical Validation: Is it something I need to do?
Skepticism, usually spelled scepticism, is the attitude of disputing knowledge claims made in numerous fields in Western philosophy. Skeptics have questioned the validity or veracity of these claims, pointing out what principles they are built on and what they actually establish. As claimed, they've questioned whether some of these beliefs are genuinely indubitable or necessarily true. They've questioned the professed rational foundations of accepted assumptions. Practically everyone is dubious of some knowledge claims in everyday life, or at least should be.
Skepticism is based on the concept of doubt, which is prevalent in today's world. There are questions about whether man-made climate change is genuine, whether immunizations are safe, if we can trust our governments or the media, etc.
Like the US government, the American press is corrupt and unstable. It is corrupt in the sense that it accepts bribes rather than in the sense that it is corrupt in the sense that it doesn't do what it says it'll do, what it should do, or what society expects of it. The news media and the government are entangled in a vicious cycle of mutual manipulation, mythmaking, and self-interest. For journalists to dramatize news, crises are required, and government leaders must appear to be responding to crises. Too often, rather than genuine crises, coordinated fabrications are used to create them. The government and the news media have devised a ruse to serve their own interests while fooling the public. Officials feed the media's appetite for drama by fabricating crises and staging their responses, so enhancing their own prestige and power. Journalists have a responsibility to expose these lies. The articles are self-serving ruses, and both parties are aware of this. Still, they fail to tell the public about the more complicated but uninteresting aspects of government policy and activities.
Paul H. Weaver, a former political scientist, claims that a culture of lying has arisen. "The rhetoric and behavior of officials wanting to enlist the capabilities of journalism in support of their goals, and of journalists seeking to co-opt public and private officials into their efforts to find and cover tales of crisis and emergency response," he says. It is the channel through which most of our public (and many of our private) businesses are conducted these days in the United States."
Becoming A Better Skeptic
Who can you trust if you can't trust the government, the news, or social media? You can trust yourself and work on getting the right news, not the news that is just available to you. And you can do that through skeptical validation. Skeptical validation is verifying claims when faced with information you previously haven't come across. We have compiled different ways in which you can harness that skeptic energy to save yourself from false news, statements, and just plain old lies:
Fact check everything yourself.
Following the 2016 presidential election in the United States, several journalists chastised Facebook for handling fake and misleading news items and propaganda in the run-up to the election. In 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was called to Washington to testify before lawmakers. After that, it was just a cascade of events highlighting how Facebook influenced public opinion by displaying misinformation on its platform. And as it always does, the public ate it up and did not think to question any of it. This is just one example of how believing everything you read on the internet can be harmful and have a hand in driving the political climate.
Facebook, since then, has upgraded its fact-checking policies, but with little to no effect. Some believe that Facebook's fact-checking algorithms include bias and are based on previously fed information, which can influence what the algorithm deems as accurate or not. According to the COVID-19 misinformation study, "Facebook's Algorithm: a Major Threat to Public Health," published in August 2020 by public interest advocacy group Avaaz, sources that frequently shared health misinformation — 82 websites and 42 Facebook pages — had an estimated total reach of 3.8 billion views in a year.
These events have taught us that we should do our own fact-checking. Misinformation can impact your opinion; therefore, fact-checking is crucial. As a result, your viewpoint might significantly impact your actions. You can easily make bad decisions if you base your actions on erroneous information. Unintended repercussions may result from these decisions. For example, suppose you share fake news on a social media platform, and others discover it. In that case, it may damage their perception of your trustworthiness. Alternatively, the fake news you spread could go viral and influence an election's outcome.
Conducting your own research is the most excellent approach to combating fake news. These sites will teach you the fundamentals of disinformation and fake news, how to evaluate information sources, where to get credible information, and where to search for fact-checking.
Use multiple search engines.
Although the internet appears to be an equal playing field, it is not. When Safiya Umoja Noble, author of "Algorithms of Oppression," used Google's search engine to explore topics her nieces would be interested in, she came face to face with that fact. She typed in "black females" and received a list of pages dominated by pornography. Noble, a communications professor at USC Annenberg, was shocked but not surprised. For years, she has argued that the web's values resemble its creators—primarily white, Western men—rather than minorities and women. Her book, as mentioned above, explains the research she began after that fateful Google search and analyzes the hidden processes that affect how we obtain information via the internet.
People often consider technology and search engines like Google unbiased and neutral. However, search engine algorithms and technologies reflect broader cultural biases. Many people are actively striving to reduce and mitigate the detrimental impacts of bias in search systems. However, this prejudice still exists.
Many of us turn to the internet first when we need to conduct research. Of course, you're not going to go to the library to do your research since you have everything you need on your computer. Though this may be the first place to seek essential information, understanding how the Internet works and how it may work for you is the key to using it wisely. The best way to combat this bias is to use multiple search engines for your research and compare the information you receive from each.
There are many search engines you can use apart from Google to aid you in this.
Ask the right questions.
A few more characteristics can be used to assess a site's trustworthiness.
Ask yourself the following questions when you're browsing the internet for information to make the process of evaluating sources even easier:
- Is the user experience prioritized in the site's design, allowing you to effortlessly browse and locate information about the site?
- Is it difficult to use?
- Is the site's material filled with technical problems (e.g., spelling issues, grammatical errors, headlines that don't match the content subject matter) to the point where there's no editorial oversight?
- Is there a degree of quality that is acceptable?
- Is the content on the site dubious, derivative, and repetitive, or is it genuine?
- Can you discover articles that have been modified to correct erroneous remarks or errors if it's a news source?
- Is there any original information on the site, or does it just link to other sites? Does a search on a credible search engine show the person's or organization's legitimacy for original sources? What is the individual's or organization's goal?
- Are the photos on the site low-quality and spammy, or do they relate to the content's subject matter and contribute directly to it?
- Is the site's target audience identified?
- Is it possible to search the site using the onsite search engine?
- Is there a valid security certificate on the site?
- When you contact the site editors, do they respond?
- Do you get redirected a lot when you try to access content?
- Is the site frequently down or inoperable?
- Do most links lead to dead pages?
You don't have to answer all of these questions, but simply attempting to answer some of them might help you determine the authenticity of a website. The goal is to become more critical and begin taking extra steps in the direction of certainty.
Tackle your confirmation bias.
What is the source of your beliefs and opinions? If you're like most people, you believe your beliefs are rational, logical, and unbiased, based on years of experience and objective examination of the facts accessible to you. We're all prone to a perplexing condition known as confirmation bias. When your emotions are strong and a healthy level of skepticism is absent, you're experiencing confirmation bias. Our beliefs are frequently founded on paying attention to information that supports them while ignoring information that contradicts them.
Consider the gun-control argument. Assume Sally is a proponent of gun control. She looks for news reports and opinion pieces that reaffirm the necessity for gun ownership restrictions. When she hears about shootings in the news, she interprets them in a way that confirms her preconceived notions. On the other side, Henry is a staunch opponent of gun regulation. He looks for news sources that support his viewpoint. He reads news stories about shootings in a way that supports his current point of view.
Hence, it's critical to examine your reaction to knowledge when studying any source. Is the source of information telling you exactly what you want to hear? Is it tough to notice that a source isn't as trustworthy as you think it is because of confirmation bias?
Suppose you want to grow closer to objective truths. You must be willing to accept when you're incorrect, especially when confronted with new evidence. You won't be able to create fresh discoveries in this world if you can't recognize defeat. Being aware of your belief systems, whether for a religion, a political ideology, a cultural worldview, or something else, might help you avoid prejudices. Allow oneself to be mistaken and be open to disconfirmation.
Make a hypothesis. We're usually more conscious of our assumptions than our biases. Still, assumptions, like biases, can prevent us from thinking correctly. Before Einstein's general theory of relativity, the prevailing notion was that the cosmos was static, not expanding or contracting. Einstein's calculations permitted a dynamic universe, but his concept was scorned outright. Edwin Hubble would later demonstrate that the universe is expanding. It's dangerous to assume your assumptions are correct. Always put your theories to the test. You can do this by looking for evidence that contradicts your hypotheses and putting together factually-supported arguments with new evidence that can help you prove your stance.
Political and religious principles are frequently reiterated for emphasis, intensity, and effect. This strategy is a sort of brainwashing. You believe something is accurate simply because you've heard it enough times. It's one of the human sensory system's many flaws. It's how dictatorships and cults work as well. Pay attention to patterns, and be especially wary of what strong individuals tell you repeatedly.
Avoid turning skepticism into cynicism.
Healthy skepticism, which involves questioning your assumptions and creating doubt, can benefit. However, sometimes, doubt becomes mistrust and paranoia due to cynicism. Avoid falling into that trap. Become an excellent skeptic by being able to take the finest available knowledge and determine what facts you require to be proven incorrect. Cynicism does not have to follow skepticism. Having doubts or uncertainty regarding fundamental assumptions should pique your interest rather than make you despair. You can balance the natural urge to dismiss contradictory knowledge by feeding your curiosity.
In an interview with the Pacific Standard, D.J. Grothe, a professional skeptic, explains the distinction between skepticism and cynicism and why misleading some people sometimes is always a bad idea.
"To me, the word is best understood by looking at its roots: it comes from the Greek word "skeptikos," which just means to inquire or to find out. We say that skepticism is the best way of finding out the truth and is precisely the opposite of just saying "no" to others' beliefs. On the other hand, a knee-jerk rejection of others' beliefs is more akin to cynicism, not skepticism, and is rather closed-minded."
Skepticism – and science, for that matter – require ongoing critical thought. It's simply examining assertions and topics critically. Consider going automobile shopping as an example. Intelligent and clever people will hire a mechanic to inspect a used automobile before purchasing it, or they will raise the hood and kick the tires themselves to ensure they are getting a decent deal. So, before buying someone else's view, why not take a close, skeptical look to see if it's worth it and holds up under scrutiny? This is what skepticism and critical thinking are all about: only trusting assertions for which there is solid proof. Skepticism should be applied to all statements heard regularly in one's life. Follow along the lines of this methodology. You will keep yourself away from being trapped by a cynical mindset and focus on purely acquiring the truth.
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