Critical Thinking and the Difference Between Knowledge and Propaganda

vonnegutThis year, the CBC, which usually features illustrious and thought-provoking speakers in its Ideas series and the related Massey Lectures, disgraced itself by inviting an Australian ethicist, Margaret Somerville, to present a diatribe of right-wing political propaganda disguised as intellectual discourse. The thesis of the week-long series of talks was essentially that everything that the Catholic Church and other so-called right-to-life groups espouse regarding ‘family values’ is moral and ethical and should be encouraged, and everything they oppose in this regard (notably abortion and homosexuality) is immoral and unethical and should be made illegal.

There is a reason why intellectual debates usually shun such issues. They are matters of personal morality, and no amount of rationalization is likely to inform a debate on such a subject, or change anyone’s mind. So it was not surprising that Somerville wasted CBC listeners’ time stating her personal morality, over and over and over ad nauseam. I am sure that opponents of abortion and homosexuality were astonished and perhaps delighted, and that proponents of abortion and homosexually were as appalled as I was. She did not support her position with any information that one would not hear from a papal sermon, because it is impossible to bring information to bear that justifies any particular moral or religious view. There is a reason we call it ‘faith’. So we were presented with a week-long orthodox religious sermon, devoid of information, and devoid of ideas.

Somerville has been controversial before, and the muddle-headed people at the CBC defended their decision to allow the people’s money to be used for her religious tirade on the basis that ‘opposing views’ and free speech need to be respected. So I suppose we can look forward to future Ideas and Massey Lectures expressing opposing liberal personal moral and religious convictions, and likewise adding heat and no light to moral issues that have been around as long as civilization. It is not Somerville’s arch-conservatism that is at issue here ñ listeners would and should have been equally outraged to hear a left-wing moral harangue disguised as intellectual discourse. Both Somerville’s sermons and their liberal mirror image views, when misrepresented as new information and ideas, are simply propaganda.

It is alarming to realize that seemingly intelligent people no longer seem able to distinguish between knowledge and propaganda. Perhaps we can blame the trashy tenor of most tabloid newspapers, talk radio and blogs for confusing us. For those who need a refresher, propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause, or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause”, primarily through appeal to the emotions. Anyone who reads the tabloid press, listens to talk radio, reads blogs or editorials or attends sermons at the church of their choice knows what to expect. Much of the content in all these media is propaganda. It is designed to produce, as Calvin said in the cartoon in my post yesterday, “the sense of solidarity and identity that comes from having our interests narrowed and exploited by like-minded” people. The content of such media is carefully selected to include only information (and misinformation), often with emotionally-tinged word selection, that supports the author’s (and the echo-chamber audience’s) opinion.

We are all entitled to our opinion. There are many places for us to express it. But there is also a need for a forum for the exchange of information and ideas, what most of us call ‘knowledge’. Knowledge is information that enables us to do something more effectively than we could before we had it. And although there are contrarians who argue that everything is opinion, that there is no ‘objective’ knowledge, I think most of us can tell the difference between knowledge and opinion, whether the opinion is one we agree with or not. There are cases when we get both in a single package (e.g. most documentaries, lectures, textbooks and educational media of all kinds). We have, it is hoped, acquired enough critical thinking skill through a lifetime of experience to be able to separate the knowledge from the opinion, though sometimes we need to ‘park’ what appears to be one or the other until we can, through personal research or conversation, categorize it correctly.

We can tell when Exxon or Shell or Monsanto or Big Nuclear or Big Agribusiness or Big Pharma tells us what they’re doing is unequivocally good for us, that such whitewashing and greenwashing is pure propaganda. We can tell when mysterious ‘citizens coalitions’ launch expensive political ads to slander their opponents, that we are being had. When an esteemed public broadcaster seems unable to distinguish unvarnished personal opinion from knowledge, however, I think this is cause for alarm.

The last time I was dismayed by such confusion was when the US military ’embedded’ mainstream media in Iraq and used them as public mouthpieces for government propaganda. The US government and the military establishment certainly knew what they were doing (using the mainstream media for propaganda is well-established procedure, especially in wartime). But astonishingly, the mainstream media apparently didn’t realize they were being used. Some normally intelligent moderates were outraged at being accused of parroting propaganda. We now know (and more and more of the media are now admitting) that they were simply mouthpieces, made even more dangerous by the air of objectivity they portrayed. The consequences, for the US and the world, have been tragic. We keep thinking we won’t get fooled again, and then they fool us again.

The only defence against propaganda is good critical thinking skills. We cannot depend on laws or ‘rights’ or, alas, the media (of any stripe) to protect us against it. We cannot expect people to avoid using propaganda on moral grounds. And we can’t depend on the education system to teach us these critical thinking skills. So how do we acquire them?

There are courses you can take, but you know me ñ I prefer a self-managed approach. This is how I think I learned to be a reasonably competent critical thinker:

  1. Learn something new every day. The best way to get better at any kind of thinking is to do more of it. Practice.
  2. Think about how you think. Specifically, when you are making decisions, stop and think about how you are making them. What’s influencing you that shouldn’t? What’s missing that would help you decide better? What are you assuming that you know, that you believe, and that you don’t know? Do those assumptions bear scrutiny?
  3. Let-Self-Change. Or, more precisely, allow yourself to be open to change. Err on the side of skepticism and tentativeness.

Image: Kurt Vonnegut, a brilliant critical thinker who knew the difference between knowledge and propaganda, and was pretty good at both. He diedyesterday.

Category: The Media
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2 Responses to Critical Thinking and the Difference Between Knowledge and Propaganda

  1. Doug Alder says:

    That does it – they darned well better give equal time to the revealed truths of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or else I’m turning in my CBC listeners permit ;)

  2. Zane says:

    I agree that this year’s Massey Lecture was a great disappointment. I didn’t listen to enough of it to pass any judgement on her ideas, but I remember from the couple of brief times I did tune in

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