Consume the news through a scientific lens: Sharpen your critical thinking

Updated: 3 days ago

Key learning terms: Availability bias, Negativity bias, Halo Effect, Occam’s Razor, Confirmation Bias, Critical Feeling

Do you know when you are getting spun? or maybe its the objective truth you’re after. You can sharpen your critical thinking capacities by applying scientific reasoning to your news consumption rather than being a passive consumer.

Scientific Thinking

Science is the refining of reason to understand the world around us, and scientific thinking refers to both thinking about the topic and the reasoning processes that permeate that topic. Scientists employ critical thinking tools to build credible theories, interrogate text, evaluate research, and conduct reliable experiments by means of inductive and deductive thinking, causal reasoning, concept formation, and hypothesis testing. So why not learn to think in this manner? and then apply it to your daily news consumption. Become a critical thinker by using your reasoning capacities to achieve optimal outcomes.

By making simple changes to your way to consume news, you can sift through the barrage of media and make well-rounded evaluations like any good critical thinker. You can make wise assumptions and escape from ignorance, superstition, and fallacy by understanding how a critical thinker sees the world.

Facing the barrage of news

Fake news is the spreading of misinformation, and modern technology is making it easier for anyone to create, edit, and publish content without the evidence to back it up. It is becoming a genuine issue to society which can shape our views and opinions from an early age. Research out of Stanford University showed 75% of students were unable to identify a real news story compared to a fake one.

We are susceptible to cognitive bias which causes us to be misled by untrustworthy information or make unreasonable conclusions based on small amounts of information such as news articles or a twitter post.

We can also get stuck in echo chambers, especially those of you who spend a lot of time on social media. So, here are 6 simple concepts you can learn to challenge your bias and assumptions, and apply critical thinking to the onslaught of media content.

Availability bias – "Just because you thought it first doesn’t make it true"

Human beings make estimates about the probability of an event based on how easily it comes to mind. Like most cognitive biases, this has an evolutionary purpose, as it is favorable in some situations. But where does it go wrong?

Availability error often causes us to make unreasonable assumptions, for instance; holidaymakers that read about a shark attack are less likely to go for a swim, even though your chances of drowning are significantly higher. Kahneman and Tversky labeled this phenomenon the availability heuristic, which is a mental shortcut that relies on instantaneous examples that comes to an individual’s mind when evaluating a topic.

Ask anyone “what are the most important topics in politics today?” and it's likely they will offer the news headlines, right? This is a misconception caused by the availability heuristic, as the media are choosing what to report based on the creed “if it bleeds, it leads”.

For a good example, think about the refugee crisis in Europe, which dropped out of the topmost pressing political issues simply because the media stopped reporting it. So that’s the end of that problem… or is it? no one solved the problem, refugees are still fleeing war, famine, and suffering, but we just stopped reporting it. So nothing changes except it stop being the most available topic in your mind.

Research published in Political Communications found once militarized interstate disputes go public, the probability of fatalities rises considerably. If it bleeds, it leads… a well-supported hypothesis that most news bureau abide to.

Not only that, but the combination of cognitive bias and journalists’ choice of what to report can also have negative consequences on our mood, anxiety, risk perception, learned helplessness, and desensitize us (check out You are what you read for more).

Don’t let the news outlets decide on how you see the world. If they are reporting on all the bad stuff, remember the positive news doesn't sell, so they won't show it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

It doesn’t have a ring to it! Remember... "If it bleeds, it leads" a policy that drives news reporting.

Negativity Bias - "We are hardwired for negativity"

Have you ever found your self dwelling on negative feedback or an insult… even in light of positive feedback or a compliment? A twitter post could receive thousands of supportive messages, but one criticism can torment the author's attention.

This is because negative events have a larger impact on our brains than positive ones. This is known as negativity bias which is the tendency to register and dwell on negative stimuli and events over the positive.

Research shows negative stimuli elicits the mobilization of our attention resources over positive or neutral stimuli, this is due to the interaction between emotion and attention in the face of negative events. Negativity bias can impact on or decision-making, behavior and mental state, and lower our motivation.

We are considerably more susceptible to believe the news is true when it's negative… which is most of the news. Since negative news takes our attention, we are more likely to consider it as having greater validity.

Differences in political views can be explained by negativity bias. Research published in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences argues that people with a conservative political ideology are more likely to register negative stimuli over liberal ideologists. Conservatives, sometimes considered the supporters of tradition and stability, are more likely to devote psychological resources to the negative features of their environment.

Overcome negativity bias

Like many cognitive biases, an evolutionary perspective considers these to have developed as a helpful mental-shortcut to help us avoid danger and pay closer attention to threats. Overcome negativity bias by changing your mindset. If you find yourself ruminating on negative news, unable to get past the pessimistic outlook of the world. Take a step back from your regular news routine. And actively seek out some positive news.

One strategy to make a more rational judgment is to count. Yes, count... or quantitative thinking.

If the world, according to the media, seems like doom and gloom, count the number of reported incidents versus the number of no incidents. For example, the news reports an assault in your local area, and a friend insists “this neighborhood is going downhill”. The alternative hypothesis is that this area is not going downhill, right? So, to measure this, try counting the number of people that were not assaulted.

The world is not falling apart, in fact, measurements of life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. The reason this is hard to see is that mainstream media plays into our cognitive bias with prophecies of doom. For more on this, I recommend Steven Pinker's, Enlightenment now.

Halo effect – “Don’t judge a book by its cover”

Marketers are masters of manipulating consumers into buying their products, and the halo effect is one strategy they use to get your attention. Consider a product endorsed by a celebrity… do you have positive feelings about that individual that are being fused with the product? Skincare is a good example in this case (Are you seeing the smoothing effects of a product on Beyonce's skin? or a highly skilled video editing team?)

Halo effect is another cognitive bias that causes us to subconsciously make judgments and decisions about one attribute to another, unrelated attribute. For instance, an attractive person could be perceived positively as more intelligent or agreeable, or negatively such as vain or manipulative. These impressions are based solely on the first impression of physical appearance.

Hence why this bias is often referred to as the physical appearance stereotype.

Research shows better-looking waiting staff are more likely to receive higher tips. One study found men rated higher in attractiveness are more likely to get a job call-back, whereas women don’t share the same beauty premium. Another study showed perceived student attractiveness can affect how a teacher’s grades school work.

Think about how this bias may affect impressions of political candidates, or how you are influenced by the news reporters. Be conscious of this cognitive error when judging a person, and ask yourself, which attributes are you basing your impression on. This will help you make more informed, objective conclusions.

Occam’s Razor - "a thought tool you can apply to everyday thinking”

Isaac Newton reasoned: “We are to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances”, in other words, among competing hypotheses and theories, the simplest is the most plausible.

Occam’s Razor, also known as the law of parsimony, is a philosophical principle that enables the user to solve problems quickly and efficiently. In layman terms, Occam’s razor takes the simplest explanation to theory as the preferred option to the more complex explanation.

The classic example of Occam's razor is the selection of the heliocentric theory of the solar system over the geocentric model. Both models were used to explain the movement of the planets. You can see below, the heliocentric model (sun at the center) was adopted because the movement of the planets was much simpler to explain. For the geocentric to be true, some crazy math is required.

Here’s an example:

As you leave for work, you notice one of your tyres are flat. Before you assume serial tyre-slashers have sabotaged your vehicle, think about the possible explanations.

1. The nail protruding out of the tyre let the air out.

2. The tyre had a slow puncture.

3. The tyre is old, as you have been putting off getting new ones.

4. Someone slashed your tyres.

5. Your rival work-colleague slashed your tyres so you would be late for work.

6. The neighbor's cat did it…. I knew that cat had it in for me!

Some people are more likely to jump to the less plausible explanations such as “someone’s slashed my tyre”, when the nail in your tyre is generally the one that requires the least assumptions.

This principle is widely used in many fields that apply scientific thinking and you can think of it as probability theory. For instance, the probability of the event happening is based on the assumptions, so the more assumptions you have to add to your theory for it to become true, the higher the risk of error.

This is a great way to make sense of the world but remember, Occam’s razor is not a law, and the simpler explanations are not always correct. Occam’s razor is not your proof, instead, it serves as a heuristic, a mental short-cut or guideline. It will help you analyze competing explanations but offers less in the way of understanding complex ideas.

So, the next time you're contemplating over the big news story, don’t simply take the word of the reporter, apply your own reasoning. That way, when discussing the news with a friend, you will have considered the story from several positions and removed any unimportant and unknowable theories. If Occam's Razor interests you, I recommend The Ethical Skeptics work on the concept.

Confirmation Bias - "Stop ignoring information that challenges your belief"

This bias makes it more likely for us to confirm claims that fit with what we already believe. It impacts our political views, how we seek out health information online, wrongful convictions, and many more aspects of life.

Confirmation bias has a useful purpose, as the world would be a pretty overwhelming place if we weren’t able to find shortcuts to the information most useful to us. But it also keeps us in an echo chamber, especially when using social media, the information we receive often props up vague, recycling narratives of an unfolding story or event.

Recent research published in Nature Neuroscience identified the mechanisms underlying the behavioral tendency to confirm bias was related to reduced neural sensitivity in the posterior medial prefrontal cortex to the strength of the opinion of others that dis-confirm their own.

Scientists overcome this bias by finding a “thinking partner who isn’t an echo chamber”

Check out Margaret Hefferman's ted talk for a great example of this in practice. Be aware of your own tendency to cherry-pick information and try this as an exercise; Seek out a friend (or enemy) who will critically oppose your view or argument. You don’t have to find agreement, just be open to their views, and they may help you to generate a more balanced and eclectic perspective on any given situation.

Critical feeling - "use feelings to gather information and optimize outcomes"

How can we use our feelings strategically? Critical feeling is the use of feelings to enhance lives and communities and is bound to critical thinking, after all, our thoughts, memories, and experience are entwined with our feelings.

Critical feeling influences all aspects of human life, from education to art, well-being, and religion.

Don’t be suspicious of emotions, critical feeling is the ability to monitor our own feelings so that we can concentrate those emotions when we are attempting to understand another person or perspective.

Therefore, don’t just think critically, but integrate critical feeling too, to fully appreciate the experience of another human being. For more on critical feeling, check out Rob Reber's book, Critical Feeling.

Bottom line

Believe it or not, there are journalists out there trying to break the mold of news outlets spreading disinformation, pseudo-news, and biased reporting. Check out the discussions coming out of Rising, who are bipartisan hosts discussing news and political agenda, that focus on bringing open conversations between the new left and new right.

For those of you feeling confused about the diverse spectrum of thinking around controversial topics, tune in to the voices of the intellectual dark web, who are willing to disagree fiercely but have an honest, open, and civil discussion.

A final word from Upmanship:

When discussing contentious topics, ask yourself… did you make up your own mind? Don’t let others' passion and emotion drive your perspective. Don't be intellectually lazy in the face of spoon-fed information. Remember, critical thinking and critical feeling will create an intellectual depth in your thought processes, and by challenging your own biases and assumptions you will dramatically expand your thinking.

"Everything you read is partial, everyone you meet can teach you something new, and your daily decision-making should consider new sources of information"

  • Facebook

©2020 by Upmanship. Proudly created with