I feel increasingly strongly, dear reader, that a growing number of people in the world are losing, or have lost, the ability to think independently. It seems that more and more, people look to mass opinion to validate or fortify their own thoughts on a subject. And if their personal thoughts do not fall under the bell curve, they modify and adapt theirs to meet the generally accepted ones.
As I have written previously, there was a time when the news media was responsible, objective, and independent – not attempting to sway or influence people. They merely reported the facts and allowed their readers or viewers to formulate their thoughts and opinions on their own. As people observed what was happening in a particular situation and took notice, they would begin to read articles on it and watch news reports on it. There was no internet to use to Google it or YouTube it; objective, factual reporting and free thought was all that was utilized to decide one’s opinion. On particularly difficult or emotional issues (think back to the ‘60’s with civil rights, the Vietnam war, and the Cuban missile crisis) people would have open and honest discussions with others who’s opinion they trusted to help provide a keel to their own thoughts. But they did not walk up to strangers on the street and ask how they should feel about the situation, which is essentially what going out on Twitter or Facebook for opinion is doing.
New words spring up daily in our societal lexicon; one of the latest that drives me crazy is “influencer”; a person on social media who is adept in posting quotes, pictures, videos, and allegedly real-life stories that attract the moods and emotions of media surfers. Once they have “followers”, they begin to utilize their influence upon them, typically leading to endorsing products, done for a silent and hidden fee from the manufacturer. Not being a follower, I am not certain where it all began, but I suspect it was with the likes of Paris Hilton or the Kadashians; high visibility pseudo-celebrities that bored people with wide bandwidth. found attractive and interesting.
The point is, we have spawned a culture that turns to Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube to initially validate their opinion, and now (sadly) to formulate their opinion. When they awake in the morning and hear something about… pick one: flat earth, vaccines, the coronavirus, or politics, they immediately log into their social media platform of choice and read what their favorite influencers are saying about it all. And rather than harvesting facts and data, thinking about it, and researching it, they let a stranger on the internet tell them how to feel about it. I am sorry if this offends some, but by now you know me and you know I just write what I feel. And no – I am not attempting to influence anyone here on what to think and how to feel about it. What I am trying to do is encourage independent thought and opinions formulated on empirical, established facts. And I think the very fact that you are here, reading this dear reader, firmly plants you in the independent thinker arena!
Every generation takes something that the previous generation holds close, and trashes it; it is a rite of generational passage. It is an attempt to mark one’s current generation as bold and perhaps a little rebellious; not doing things they’ve always been done. I think, probably because it is the inherent nature of how we think and partly because I am boomer, that the ‘60’s are a good example of this. Think of the civil rights rallies, the war protests, free love, drugs, the hippies, and all the chaos that came with them. Not that these were all good choices, but they were independent choices, found through (mostly) independent thinking. Yes, there were followers back then; sheep who were willingly herded behind an fast talking egomaniac wanting to play God such as Jim Jones or Charles Manson. But without the widespread availability to these people, the damage was limited – the count of blind followers was low. Can you imagine the consequences if Manson or Jones was around today on social media?
That is not to say that masses cannot be herded without the internet, witness what happened in Germany with the rise of the Nazis in the ‘40’s or the iron hand of the Communist regime in the USSR through the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. It was no social media influencing people in those horrors, but there was government owned and controlled news media. That, coupled with the abuse of power through the Gestapo or the KGB, allowed the abusers to forcefully control their citizens.
My point is, a free and prospering society needs free and independent thinkers. We cannot, will not, flourish if everyone is going to choose to not think, not ponder, not examine, not question, or not evaluate the truth and instead, chooses to go see what the users on Reddit or Twitter are saying to think and believe. I think everyone should question everything, but not with the mindset so prevalent on YouTube where everything generally accepted as fact is there considered a lie and a gigantic cover-up by “the establishment”.
It widely began with the moon landing of 1969. The one I watched live on TV. Through the years. people began to circulate the rumor that it was staged; that NASA yielded to the pressure of Kennedy’s challenge to place a man on the moon within the decade. Never mind that Kennedy was dead at that point and his “challenge” was not particularly championed by either of the next two presidents. Add to that the impossibility of staging something that massive AND keeping it quiet. And not keeping it quiet for a week or a month, but quiet for fifty years. And not quiet by ten or even one hundred people for fifty years, but literally thousands of people. I spent my entire career in an organization that employed up to five thousand people. There is nothing that could be kept a secret there for more than five minutes. People talk, it’s what they do. The moon landing was not faked; were that true hundreds of people would have spoken up by now – either drunk, stoned, or on their deathbed.
But some paranoid person decided that it was indeed faked, and he began to gather his evidence to prove so. And that is fine, it is part of questioning everything and examining it closely. But the key ingredient to critical thinking is to adhere to the facts. If something is questionable or not understandable in the current context, you can’t then choose to dismiss it or embrace as factual to suit your needs. But with the moon landing, gaps were bridged with surmising and conjecturing and then the result was embraced as the only possible conclusion. But with that first leap, that chain of critical thinking was broken and the validity of thought went from fact to fiction.
There are certainly times that the analysis of fact is beyond our personal level of education of understanding and we need to turn to experts for help. Examples would include the field of science and mathematics; there are not a large number of people who can perform differential or integral calculus or who can successfully calculate the distortion of sound waves in certain solids or liquids. The field of medicine is another good example, requiring many long years of schooling followed by an equally many long years of internship. People turn to the web far too often for medical diagnosis or opinion. Happily, the medical community recognized this and began to sponsor some websites that offered feedback that was at least based on some sound medical knowledge, not that it could ever supplant a live physical examination by a real doctor.
Given the cost of medical care and the fast-paced lifestyle of many people, I understand why people turn to the internet for medical information. If nothing else, it can help someone decide if they really need to go see a doctor. But what I don’t understand is taking the advice of non-medical people to self-treat oneself. Folks go out on the internet, receive misinformation with absolutely no basis in science or the study of medicine, and elect to treat themselves with all sorts of odd and nonsensical remedies. Most of the time the so-called remedies are completely inert and innocuous, but sometimes they can actually exacerbate the problem and people become severely ill as a result.
Consider vaccination; a hot-button topic these days. Measles had essentially been eradicated from our society through the responsible use of vaccines. But somewhere, someone became convinced that the measles vaccine has greater side effects than benefits; that is, in fact, harmful. There is no scientific or empirical data to support this alleged fact. Yet there exist numerous channels on YouTube with influencers graphically demonstrating why the vaccine is harmful and that you are endangering your child if you vaccinate them.
Yes, people allowing a complete stranger with absolutely no medical training or scientific background tell them how to best care for the medical well-being of their child. Prior to the development of a vaccine in 1963, there were major epidemics of measles every couple of years, which resulted in around 2.6-million deaths each year – the majority being children under the age of five. By the time the vaccine became the standard treatment for our children, resulting in almost eradicating the disease. But suddenly people began to question the vaccine and shunning it. And measles returned with a vengeance. There were over 140,000 deaths from measles in 2018, mostly all children under the age of five. And all because their parent chose to not vaccinate them.
That is the potential impact of the misuse and abuse of social media and a direct result of abandoning independent critical thinking. A result in letting others decide what you think about something; people who you don’t know and who have no legitimate business providing information claiming to be factual. Many in our society are reaching for that instant pudding (a term I coined in work for looking for the quick and easy instant solution rather than doing the hard work to get the desired results). They are busy and find it quicker and easier to open an app on their phone to fulfill their need immediately. But in doing so, they are giving up their ability to think for themselves.
Another component to this is social shame; no one wants to be “that guy” who takes an unpopular stance in social media. The retribution is quick and decisive; taunting and ridicule floods in at the speed of light. Judge and jury, the social influencers embarrass and humiliate those with an outlying opinion and everyone quickly jumps on board with the derision. I’ve seen it time and time again on the various platforms; people are surprisingly mean-spirited on platforms meant to be uplifting and communal. So if there are hundreds of posts of how voting for proposition one is going to ruin our way of life and is evil, many people will not even bother to research what the proposition is, never mind its potential repercussions on their personal life, and will choose to vote against it. All thanks to social media pressure. Thankfully, this describes our minority; most people in our society still critically assess concepts and ideas before choosing to embrace or reject them. But I greatly fear for us with this growing minority of sheep, lemmings who if left unattended could someday lead people we care about off a cliff. Or worse, lead us all off a cliff.
I’ve written this before – a good friend once asked me my opinion on how he should proceed with an issue at work. When I gave him the answer (which he already knew deep inside) he sighed and said, “doing the right thing is hard”. And it is; it is hard. It’s like the ads you saw as a kid in comic books to buy x-ray glasses for fifty cents; you knew it wasn’t true – just too absurd – but sometimes we’d buckle and buy a pair to try them out. And of course, it reaffirmed our original thought that the whole idea was ridiculous. Same thing these days with ads for five-minute abs or instant weight loss with some trendy diet; all attempts to do something that requires hard work, the easy way. If you want abs you have to exercise a lot and fine-tune your diet; if you want to lose weight you have to eat fewer calories and/or burn more calories. We all know that and yet we can sometimes get caught in the trying the quick and easy way – the instant pudding.
While it’s one thing to waste fifty-cents on plastic x-ray glasses, or even $39.99 for the instant abdominizer, it’s quite another thing to play roulette with your health, or you child’s heath, based upon finding the quick and easy way. The latest, and I just finished confirming it, is that people are receiving advice via the internet that the cure for hemorrhoids is to stick a potato up your….well, up the target area. Yes – you read that right. And people are doing it and ending up in emergency rooms. And no doctors are having to do public service spots trying to convince people not to insert a potato in their butt.
God gave us all an incredibly powerful brain with which to perform detailed and intricate considerations and calculations; we don’t need an app to think or to make up our minds for us! Caveat Emptor dear reader, let the buyer beware. Do the hard work, do the independent thinking, and do the research using accredited sources. Let social media serve its purpose for sharing pictures of family and good news, and leave the important research and information to empirical and factual data.