Critical Thinking: Did the man really bite the dog?

“If you really want to be a critical reader,” Paul Graham writes in The Submarine, “It turns out you have to step back one step further, and ask not just whether the author is telling the truth, but _why he’s writing about this subject at all_.”

Why? Because the news isn’t immune from fallacy or deception. For example, a good chunk of non-topical news (especially those describing buying trends) are not spontaneously generated by seasoned, pavement-pounding journalists, but are canned press releases generated by PR firms and fed to apathetic reporters to regurgitate:

If anyone is dishonest, it’s the reporters. The main reason PR firms exist is that reporters are lazy. Or, to put it more nicely, overworked. Really they ought to be out there digging up stories for themselves. But it’s so tempting to sit in their offices and let PR firms bring the stories to them. After all, they know good PR firms won’t lie to them.

A good flatterer doesn’t lie, but tells his victim selective truths (what a nice color your eyes are). Good PR firms use the same strategy: they give reporters stories that are true, but whose truth favors their clients.

It is also important to always check your sources, even when it comes to topical news items, as George Monbiot as found out in Junk science. After David Bellamy, a typically reputable botanist, cites an arcane statistic stating global warming is codswallop, Monbiot decides to uncover the source of the figure.

It is a fun journey, where we discover that the statistic is a forgery passed off from a quack scientist to a convicted felon, which was then published by a conspiracy loving ex-architect on his website, which in turn was cited by Bellamy, who then threw in a typo to spice up the figures even further. Nicholas Wolverson calls this “a recurring theme of those using ‘science’ to justify the continued existence of their convenient world-views”:

It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals.

It appears even the scientists themselves need to remember to keep thinking critically. Bellamy has since retracted his statements, but not before two conservation organizations gave him the heave-ho.