PLANNING AHEAD: Critical thought as applied to social media [Column]

There is a lesson in critical thinking that I date back to earlier experiences when I was a teacher.

Many years ago, before I became an attorney, I was a social studies teacher to high school students in South Philadelphia. One day for my sixth period class I instructed the students in the all-female class to bring their paperback textbook, something they rarely needed to do since most of my classes were by lecture. My students dutifully brought their books to class and I told them to read from a section of the text describing a past event.  Then I told them to close the books and I stated “Now. This is what really happened.” The students were somewhat confused. Finally one of them raised her hand. “Mrs. Colliton,” she stated “could someone publish something in a book that wasn’t true?”

I think I know what she was thinking. She probably thought that a publisher examined the content in detail and would have rejected any untrue accounts in the book. In this case, that was not true.

To this day I regard this as my proudest moment as a teacher. Hopefully it made students reflect. Maybe it made a difference in later years. Then I said, “If you do not learn anything else from this class I want you to know this.”

That thought continues today as I consider statements made on social media  — Facebook, Twitter and several other sources. Critical thought needs a resurgence.

When drafting a column I try to be aware of this, especially when checking and rechecking sources. If there are not at least two credible sources for something I plan to write I generally go back until I find them or I may drop the idea for the story altogether. The idea or fact needs to be confirmed.  What this does is it sometimes means columns may be delayed or even eliminated but that is better than printing something that is not true.

One easy source for my work is statutes. If the law makes a statement in black and white then, even if we disagree, I know what it is saying — literally. An area where I struggle is predictions — what will be the effect of a given law. Sometimes results in real time are different from what I expect, but at least I can know and report what the law says and how it is being interpreted. Sometimes I just repeat what is said and give it attribution without necessarily adopting the result.

As applied to us as a society, it may be that many of us look to social media and other sources including television more for entertainment than for accurate reporting, but there are some rules we could follow to analyze statements and supposed real life events. Here are a few.

• Consider the source. If you question what you read or even if you do not, look to the person or persons making the allegation or statement. Sometimes you do not know but sometimes there is a description of organizations to which the person belongs or honors they have received. You can also conduct some research on your own. Even if you ultimately decide the reasoning is correct, you at least can know where it is coming from and adjustments can be made accordingly.

• Consider the motivation. For many years apologists for the tobacco industry, for example, argued that cigarettes did not cause cancer. If the speaker, writer or other source is being paid well for taking a given position or even if the mere fact of making noise and getting attention causes the source to make more money or gain status, these facts can be considered in deciding the truthfulness of the source. Also, with social media especially, the likelihood that the account can be a fabrication increases when the source is anonymous and there are no negative consequences.

• Consider the results. If you follow a thought “down the rabbit hole” and consider what is the ultimate result you can come to a conclusion whether it makes sense or not.

Finally, there are rules of reason and logic that describe fallacies. These can be used by those who are interested in knowing more and in ferreting out the facts.

Janet Colliton, Esq. is a Certified Elder Law Attorney.  Her practice, Colliton Elder Law Associates, PC is limited to elder law, estate and retirement planning, life care, special needs, guardianship, and administration, with offices at 790 East Market St., Ste. 250, West Chester, 610-436-6674, [email protected] She is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and, with Jeffrey Jones, CSA, co-founder of Life Transition Services LLC, a service for families with long term care needs.

 

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