Journalists take their obligations seriously to try and discern the facts from the lies or misinformation, but that doesn’t mean only double or triple-checking sources and bits of data.
What journalists really need are critical thinking skills, says Jonathan Haber, author of Critical Thinking, the 50th title in Essential Knowledge Series from MIT Press.
“Given the time we’re living through, where you have competing information that can have life-or-death consequences, the need to think independently and critically, rather than believe what we’re told, is more crucial than ever,” Haber says.
Think of the world of science, with its structures and methods for taking a question and driving toward a confirmation or dismissal of a hypothesis. Science is “more of a culture, a culture of ways and ways of checking your own thinking and ways of thinking that diminishes the likelihood that you’ll believe something that’s false,” Haber says.
Journalists, like teachers and people in other skilled professions, have internalized some concepts and facets of critical thinking into their approach to work, but it’s not embraced or necessarily taught on a systematic level, Haber says.
“Facts are the lifeblood of journalism. They’re terrific, they’re important, I’m a big fan of fact checking sites, but facts are not enough,” he says. For example, if someone wrote an editorial arguing that social distancing measures put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 were not effective because the death toll is still rising, the facts made in the editorial are true: people have been social distancing for a month or more, and the death toll has continued to increase.
“Those two premises are true facts. Fact checking would confirm that the facts are right,” he says. “But if you look at the conclusion, it’s clearly false. Why is it false? It’s false because the facts, the evidence doesn’t prove enough reason to believe the conclusions. Nobody promised us that social distancing would work immediately, we were told it would take time. The argument is invalid, it’s a weak argument.”
No efforts toward fact checking are wasted, Haber stresses, but that’s only one part of the process for truly thinking critically about an argument, a statement or a policy.
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell talks to Jonathan Haber, author of a new book on critical thinking from MIT Press, about how journalists can use critical thinking to improve their reporting.