Do you find emails in your in box that make you gasp with amazement that something so terrible could actually be true? Are you amazed to discover that one of your political leaders is even more unscrupulous than you had suspected? Are you disturbed to discover that your worst fears are supported and that there is, in fact, a giant conspiracy operating? Or are you just sleeping less soundly at night because the Mayan’s have predicted the end of the world in 2012?
These emails are often the result of well-meaning friends reposting something they came across on the internet. They repost it to their friends, their friends repost it to their friends and on and on – suddenly it’s gone viral because we were all vectors for infection!
Maybe there has never been a more important time for us to deepen our thinking. One of the Habits of Mind tells us to gather data through all our senses. I would like to add a little to that and suggest we need to gather data through all our senses AND all our sources. And keep in mind that it is data we need to be gathering, not just opinion.
These emails are often filled with a kind of data – quotes, descriptions of events, sentences from press releases – but I remember being taught at school to go back to primary sources and documents whenever possible. And why is this? Because it is so very easy to completely distort the message if you change the context. Let’s take a recent case. The author and television presenter Clive James, was recently interviewed by Radio 4 in London and in the course of the interview he mused on his own mortality and the fact that he was a lot closer to the end than to the beginning. This interview with its nuances, tones of voice, pauses, laughs and the like was then taken up by a print journalist from the Daily Mirror and without all these subtleties his written article looked as though James was teetering on the edge of the grave. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9349291/Clive-James-Im-not-dead-yet.html. James was highly irritated by the rumours of his imminent death that this article sparked.
Teachers encourage their students to question what they read and hear. They are skilled in helping young people drill through the surface layers and get to the sources. One of my most useful web sites to help with this task is www.snopes.com. Here you can type in the latest rumour or viral ‘fact’ and begin to test its veracity and reliability. Snopes will provide information about where it came from and what other information is available to help us decide if it is ‘true’, ‘false’ or ‘undecided’.
Skilled thinkers ask questions and take in data through all their senses and from all their sources. The internet serves the rumour mill like nothing ever has before. Thinking is the tool that can apply a vaccine to control viral emails. Think before you hit the ‘send’ button.