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Sharpen your BS detector

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“I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.
” Groucho Marx

The world is suffering from an epidemic of experts. Experts bring a conviction to their ideas and an art to their expression that is hard to challenge. But we must. Why? Because the influence of experts can be dangerous.

Experts once told us not to cuddle our children if we wanted to be good parents. Experts once told us that the solution to the ‘slum problem’ was to build a very tall concrete tower and put all the poor people in it. And a particularly evil self-appointed ‘expert’ told us that the world’s problems would be solved if we simply gassed all the Jews, gays, and gypsies.
Expertitis on steroids
It’s not the internet that makes our expertisis epidemic more dangerous. Ideas have always gone ‘viral’. Some of these are well-intentioned; others are not.
When the general population got hold of Darwin’s theory of evolution they turned it into a worldwide movement called ‘Social Darwinism’. The basic premise was that ‘primitive’ people around the world were at the end of their evolutionary road. Our job was to ‘smooth the pillow’ while they died out – or that was the official version. The more common interpretation was that it’s fine to shoot Aboriginal people because that was just helping to move the world along the natural order of things a little quicker. It’s easy for excellent thinking (Darwin) to become appalling thinking (racism).
No, it’s not the internet that is the problem. The problem is how we receive ideas – and usually, it is without much critical thinking.
It’s understandable that we snatch at rainbows
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to experts, or seek them out. Nor am I saying that we need to critically evaluate every idea we read or hear about. That would be exhausting.
However, I am saying that the most important skill we all need right now is the ability to critically evaluate the ideas that have the biggest influence.
We are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the world’s problems. We need to find solutions and good ideas to solve big problems such as global warming.
I get it. When I feel overwhelmed, I grab onto ideas as they float past. They carry me along for a while. Some really stand up to inquiry: Buddhist philosophy for example (although not its practice as a religion.)  Others deflate the minute you prod them.
With so many problems and so many solutions, we need to know how to prod ideas, and test just how robust they are.
Triaging ideas
Check your sources
As a journalist, one of the ways I test ideas is to trace them back to their source. The idea that depriving children of cuddles stemmed from the distortion of theories about preventing contagion among orphans. (I think. At least that is what I read!) Trace ideas back to their source to find out how they have been distorted in their transmission from one person to the next.
Follow the money
Who stands to profit from widespread acceptance of the idea you are questioning? What is their motivation in providing their advice and promulgating their expertise. The fact that someone might profit from an idea doesn’t degrade its value. It just puts it in context. And that context might lower or increase its value.
Show me an example
Ideas are all theories until we put them into action. It wasn’t until the slums were bulldozed and the towers built that we understood the impact of social dislocation and dehumanising architecture. Show me your idea in action, and let me question its beneficiaries. Then let me search out those for whom your idea didn’t work.
Can we be critical and positive
Journalists are often accused of being negative, and many are. But I believe we can be critical and positive if we have a growth mindset, a robust idea about learning shared by the author, Carol Dweck. In this context, it means that we are willing to be proved wrong (or right). For inquiry to be valuable, it has to be without bias, at least as much as possible. We all look through the lens of our cultural assumptions. The trick is to let as much through our filter as we can stand.
Am I talking BS?
I am professing expertise in BS; now it’s up to you to decide if all that I say is BS. Good luck.


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