Letter To My Daughter About Critical Thinking

You heard that antiperspirant causes breast cancer? Oh wow. Great. I thought I had until you were on Facebook before we’d have to have ‘The Talk’. You know, the one about learning to fact-check information as told by friends, family, sometimes even teachers, and dig out the truth instead.

Okay. Realizing I no doubt have umpteen biases, here’s a basic lesson on critical thinking and fact-checking on your own. Seeing as technology and science etc., change constantly and fast, I’m hoping this won’t be outdated by next week.

First off the good news is, if you can get this habit nailed down early you will be ahead of the majority of people on the planet. The discouraging, frustrating news is, you will be pretty much ahead of the majority of people on the planet.

  1. As the Tumblr post above says, Google it. Always. Look mainly for info from science-based literature. If it’s a bit of fantastic quote or info from a specific individual, Google both the person’s name and expertise as well as their claim itself. If you plunk in a couple key words, hit Search, and a Snopes.com link comes up you pretty much know the claim is at least a bit false. Regardless, find at least one more source since Snopes’ managing editor herself says they “don’t pretend to be, nor do we want to be, the final word on any subject. We would like to be a starting point, though.” Wikipedia isn’t great, either, but it also gives you points from which to narrow down your search.
  2. Be curious. What you do with the information you find is up to you, but in my experience the full story is always ALWAYS quite interesting and much more complicated than the short one. Be excited to learn things even if they are inconvenient. Find a friend who will let you talk their ear off about things you discover.
  3. If you’re not sure which mainstream media outlets are best, just find the list of which ones President Trump banned from White House briefings in early 2017 and go with one of them.

Hahahahaha just kidding, except kind of not.

Or, try one of the middle-ish ones in this handy infographic (which is… pretty much the list of media Trump banned from White House briefings).

(Click here to see the creator’s original Facebook post and her excellent explanation on it).

The thing about mainstream media is they tend to pare stories down, highlight the exciting, and lose some really important (boring) details. So even if they’re essentially neutral they might leave out what could be considered essential info. For instance, when I worked at the pharmacy it became legal for pharmacists to prescribe medication; there was all sorts of fuss and media excitement about it. And the media was pretty consistently getting the information a tiny bit incorrect – yes, pharmacists could prescribe medication.. but only in specific instances so you could have enough of a current medication that a doctor prescribed to tide you over until your doctor’s appointment. Not just prescribe something completely new, or that you haven’t taken in years.

Media was not completely wrong, but also not totally accurate, right?

Now, I did not spend how many previous blog posts saying ‘every person deserves respect’ only to go against that now.


What do you do when the information you discover contradicts what another person believes/shared as truth?

This entire topic is similar to seeing grammar and spelling mistakes and bringing them to somebody’s attention – just because you notice them doesn’t mean you should automatically point them out.

If it’s a friend or family member and the conversation is online, take the time to private message them rather than talking ‘out loud’ where their other friends can see. I would bet most of the time people are more upset at how you made them look dumb in public than they are about the actual information. Exactly zero minds are ever changed in an online, ALL CAPS fight; weigh your words carefully if you use them at all. You have to decide just how wrong a belief is and how bad of a consequence there could be if you don’t speak up. Assume people you respect will be seeing this interaction – the internet has a funny way of being a LOT more public than you may anticipate.

If you want somebody to actually hear your differing opinion on something you need to be careful in how you approach it – you have to be calm, polite, and give up all opportunities to make snarky, sarcastic comments. Bummer, I know. You may still not be heard but at least it wasn’t because of your attitude; just speak the truth as clearly and rationally as possible. Take into account what you know about the person you’re speaking with – why would they have this belief? Do they have other faith-based beliefs that you know of? What are the chances of this conversation actually going anywhere – is it likely a waste of time and mental energy? Are they over 50 years old and related to you (again. Hahahaha, kidding but not really)?

Yes. They might still get mad and defensive. It depends on how attached they are to their belief. Some people can’t separate ‘having their beliefs questioned’ from ‘being personally attacked’. Some people will react the same as if you had attacked their religion (more on that below), and in turn try to go after you personally. Which, honestly, is a win. As Margaret Thatcher said “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single (political) argument left.”

Now I’m all about caring about people but there are some disreputable crooks who lack conscience, get rich off of peddling lies, and are the root of much of the misinformation you will ever run into.

Without even needing to Google, how to spot a crook or one of their loyal followers:

  • They are freaking out and DUCKING LOUD (yeah… I’ll just leave that autocorrected).
  • They make over-the-top claims, both scary ones and ones offering miracles.
  • They even (often proudly) admit their information is against mainstream medical knowledge.
  • They ridicule the mainstream medical and science establishments.
  • Their claims aren’t proven, only anecdotal. When you Google their results you will find the experiments and testing led to no quantifiable effects of their ‘miracle cures’.
  • The products they endorse are available primarily on websites and multilevel marketing.
  • The crook is named on Quackwatch.org (and suddenly my autocorrect in the first point seems intentional..).

You do have to give some grace to people who believe con men/snake oil salesmen: the talented ones are profoundly charismatic and and have umpteen loyal followers because they truly are believable.

Generally speaking, by contrast, science people:

  •  hedge their words. They use qualifiers like ‘may’, ‘often’, ‘usually’ and ‘sometimes’. They leave room for new evidence which in some ways is a flaw – “current studies show this medication may have a 30% success rate” sounds a heck of a lot less promising than “this alternative medicine cured my Gandma’s psoriasis (although it was taken in conjunction with a prescription medication but I left that part out)!”
  • Can come off as condescending because they really do know their shit and they care about stating facts, not about your feelings.

An article being published does not make it necessarily reputable or believable; there are sketchy websites, called ‘predatory publishers’, that will publish virtually anything if they’re paid enough. Here’s an ongoing list of predatory publishers.

For example, this article, although not exactly politely and carefully stating the facts, both debunks a myth and explains the role of ‘pay to play’ predatory publishers which can really throw fact-seekers off if they don’t know to check the website itself and whether or not it follows standards and guidelines of accuracy in reporting.

Speaking of people who would wholeheartedly believe a debunked article.. a long time ago at a gathering, a friend declared that she believed vaccines caused autism and then put me on the spot and asked me what MY opinion was (which she already knew full well). My reply was that in my family’s case it’s genetic, and as far as vaccines causing it in other families the ‘global experiment’ that was happening (where vaccination rates dropped in multiple countries) would play out and we’d find out one way or another within the next few years which one of us was correct.

Sure enough, vaccination rates dropped, yet autism rates remained the same or went up (because of improved diagnostic methods, among other things).

That friend didn’t change her mind, though, because why? Because motivated reasoning: you don’t have to believe the science and evidence if you really really REALLY don’t want to. And there’s a lot of motivated reasoning going on with vaccines still, with GMOS, with climate change. And yes they’ll play out but, um, the price of ‘just letting them play out’ is pretty high. This right here is incredibly discouraging.

Like I said here, I’m all for people doing whatever the heck turns their crank when it comes to alternative medicine for themselves individually, but I have real issues when a commonly-held, popular belief based on bad science starts affecting laws, hindering progress, and negatively affecting other people and society as a whole.

Make sure your own beliefs on real world sciency/medical things can stand up to scrutiny and aren’t based on faith and anecdotal evidence and theories alone – when your belief is only based on faith and not evidence then you have religion, not science.

Which is where I have cognitive dissonance because I HAVE a faith-based religion so I’m not one to bash the validity of faith, per se. The difference here is that my faith in practice means I care about people and is not leading me to do things that would hurt other people.

Anyway, feeling like this is not at all clear but better than nothing, I’ll wrap this up with a Neil Degrasse Tyson quote.

Be brave enough to think for yourself, doing what is right and important even though it often may be difficult.

❤️ Mom (Sue)

PS – Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk

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