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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Independent Thinking - the Skeleton Key to Knowledge (Part One)


Two pieces came across my desk recently that made me decide to share one of the greatest gifts you can ever be given - the ability of independent thinking. The topic is very large, so I'll just touch upon some basics that'll hopefully be of value to you over the next three blog entries.

But first, let's look at the pieces that stimulated these blog entries...

The first piece that came across my desk was about a drug bust in Mexico. The bust uncovered 22 million dollars according to the article, in the very first few paragraphs. The article then claimed at the end that the money discovered could cover every US citizen's health insurance for 12 years. The person who showed me this article took this last statement for face value - forgetting the previously stated amount - as the source was an ever trustworthy news report.

Now the US has a population of about 310 million people. Unless my math is wrong, it must therefore cost about 7c to give a person health insurance for 12 years in the US. Don't know why Americans are complaining about health insurance! It must be the cheapest health insurance in the world. Pay less than 70c and you'll be covered for life.

The second piece given to me was about the debt a certain country was going into (not the US or Mexico this time). This country was going into debt (according to the opposition party) $X million a day. Quite shocking.

Now, I have been told by an economics student that going into debt can sometimes be a good thing - I don't actually know whether that is true or whether it applies in this case so I won't go into that argument. But what I do know is that when I again did the math dividing the debt by the population of the country, it was a few cents a day per person. Is that bad? I don't know. But neither do most of the people who read this propaganda and become outraged.

The Skeleton Key to Knowledge - Knowing what questions to ask!

Knowing what questions to ask when hearing/reading facts is the secret to uncovering a lot about the validity of the supposed facts and studies being presented to you. Let's look at three example questions to ask yourself, and why they're important for your quest for the truth.

1.) Who conducted the research or fact-finding, and why?

This is a question most people don't ask themselves when hearing facts, but perhaps the most enlightening. For example:

  • Studies showing how there is a shortage in housing are usually conducted by real estate agents.
  • Medical studies are often funded by drug companies, and the results could mean millions in profits or loss to them.
  • The news industry needs 'hysteria' to sell newspapers or sell magazines or get ratings or sell advertising space, and drama that plays on your insecurities and fears sells.

Everybody has a motive for putting money behind research, and not everybody's motive is for the expansion of humanity's knowledge, creativity or welfare. Well, it could be for your welfare, but who decides what that entails for each of us - it is a very loaded ideal.

2.) Who published the research or facts, and why?

Almost all 'facts' and 'surveys' that are presented to you are from extremely bias sources too, for the same reasons as above. In fact, often the ones publishing the research are the same ones that conducted the research (and perhaps in some cases, the same ones who answered the questions).

3.) How was the question framed? And what was the discussion leading up to the question?

You can ask people the same thing, but position it in different ways and you'll get different answers. For example, say you were doing a survey on freedom of speech.

If you wanted for people to say that there should be restrictions on freedom of speech, you talk to people about unpopular opinions like neo-nazism, literature that encourages hate and crime, and the negative subconscious influence some communication and entertainment can have on children and unstable people... Then you ask, "do you think people should be able to say whatever they want in absolutely any public domain?"

If you want people to support freedom of speech, you talk to them about the positive role of protesting in the development of our society, about how dictatorships and police states restrict varying opinions, and about who gets to choose what we can say and what we can't. Then you ask them, "should our basic right - the freedom of speech - be more closely restricted by the government?"

Bonus question: Who was asked? How random was the selection process?

The last bonus question to ask yourself is how random were the people selected. Did they put a blindfold on the interviewer, spin him around in a train station where he got off in a random suburb, and he asked the first 100 people he came into contact with. Because even that is not very random. For example, the time of day you're interviewing people will effect what demographic of people are out and about (and not at work).

So how were the random people chosen? The 'random' people being surveyed or invited into focus groups were most likely 'profiled' first to give a desired result. (100% of surveyed people love this article so far. 100% of surveyed people also happened to be writing this article and be me.)

There you go, choose tomorrow's headline! Stay tuned for part 2 where I'll look into some interesting research on how we formulate beliefs and the dangers of cold hard 'unbiased' stats.

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