critical thinking

I was reading this article by Chelsea Manning about six years in prison (for leaking classified US army information to wikileaks). One interesting quote from the article -

And through it all, one thing has remained clear: It is important to read everything. To absorb everything. Act as your own filter for information. Search for your own answers to questions. If we rely on others to digest information for us, than we can’t say that we truly understand why we have done what we’ve done and where we will be going. We cannot, and will not, understand the world looking at information filtered through one lens.

These days information is spread through the masses through facebook and whatsapp. I feel the most recent election in Kerala was the first where Social Media would have played such a big role – there was a news that 71 constituencies out of 140 would have significant influence due to social media (even this needs fact check). Everything someone said or did during campaign or in the past was discussed at length. Every issue has two or more sides of arguments taken up by armies of social media activists. One example was the “Somalia” comment made by PM Modi. Opposition used it immediately to attack – comparing a progressive state like Kerala to Somalia, stats of Kerala Human Development Index to Gujarat, trolls which went viral. #PoMoneModi was trending in Twitter and it became national news. No one checked what he actually said (comparing child mortality rate of Kerala adivasis in Attapadi to Somalia). In post election analysis, NDA was counting this as a failure to counteract swiftly. They came back with data points – that LDF leaders had said the same thing two years before, actual state of affairs in tribal communities etc. But it was too late, damage was done. I am not justifying whether he was right or wrong, but this is a data point – one example of how information is consumed now - through memes/trolls. It is quick, takes 2 seconds, enough to make an opinion. No need to read in depth articles exploring different sides of the issue or listening to an entire speech than the sound bites taken out of context. It has come to a point where even detailed articles are summarizing the points in a meme as a lead to get people to click.

Another recent read was a book review of How to lie with statistics. A quote from that -  

He argues that just five simple questions can be used as litmus test.
The questions are
1.      Who says so?
2.      How does he know?
3.      What’s missing?
4.      Did somebody change the subject?
5.      Does it make sense?
I think these questions are applicable beyond stats. We need to apply them for any kind of news or analysis that we read these days.

Recently after two years of NDA govt, there were slew of articles giving stats on everything ranging from GDP growth, number of bank accounts created, LPG subsidies, highway miles created – all saying there is progress. At the same time, many of these same numbers are taken out of context – things have been either consistent or better in the past. In GDP case, it seems the method of calculation itself changed and comparison is with something which is not calculated using same method – then it is random number comparison. It doesn’t necessarily prove the point that things have become better. It is said that the lies travel faster and truth has to catch up. Many of these numbers can be fact checked with sources online. But who would bother to search for it?

Social Psychology and Behavioral Science is used effectively by marketers and campaign managers. Campaigns are being managed more professionally – we hear about PR/marketing and ad agencies, ex-IIT/ex-IIM, US-returnees etc involved in campaign management. It is not bad – more educated folks getting involved in political process, helping to shape the future. But it is also dangerous to try with a population who may not know that their opinion is being formed by a marketing team.

Exaggerations and choosing data and facts conveniently/selectively have become a serious problem. Emotion can trump facts. Only way out is to read much more than facebook posts and whatsapp images, listen to opinions of those who disagree with your line of thought also and make up your mind yourselves.


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