Critical thinking

Someone I know recently posted an interesting fact: “Google searches for the word “pornography” are higher in Utah then anywhere else in the United States, by a wide margin.” Considering the direction this person’s thinking seems to be taking lately, he was possibly looking at this as some big expose on Mormon hypocrisy. And I’ll admit I took the finding at face value at first, though I wasn’t as alarmed by it.

But I got to thinking how many of the “facts” that get presented these days are not always what they seem. And based on the spam for porn sites I get, it occurred to me that people looking for porn might not actually search on the word “pornography”. So I did a potentially risky thing. I Googled “pornography” to see what came up.

Based on my revised thinking, I was not surprised at what came up. Very little of it linked to actual pornography. The first page was predominantly definitions (Wikipedia pages), discussions on pornography addiction, statistics, and various video works with “pornography” in the title. Not exactly titillating stuff, and certainly nothing that would be incriminate Mormons, who are very concerned with pornography as a social problem.

That’s the difference between what passed for critical thinking these days and actual critical thinking. So much “fact” gets posted online and elsewhere by bloggers, partisan groups, mainstream media, and universities who are more than happy to tell you what that fact means. But critical thinking requires that we question those assumptions and perhaps do a little research of our own.

Critical thinking requires, in this example, that we not just assume that the fact that Utah searches more on “pornography” than anywhere else means they are all into porn. It may very well mean that, but it may not. Google’s information is incomplete. It doesn’t show, for example, how many people searching on a given key word feel that the search results satisfied what they were searching for. We don’t know how many Utahns searching on “pornography” were disappointed they didn’t get to see pictures of naked people come up. Maybe most of them. Maybe few of them. But the search results themselves indicate there are different reasons for executing that search besides looking for actual porn.

Asking further questions to determine what you really can and cannot deduce from a given fact is what critical thinking is all about. Evidently that’s not taught enough these days. More often we get “thinking critical”, finding evidence that supports our critical opinions. A single data point is seldom proof of anything. The fact about Utah searching habits neither proves nor disproves that Utahns are seeking porn more often than other states. It is a point of data, no more, no less.

This could be joined with other points of data, of course. Like my earlier reference to my spam file. I’ve also have some training and experience in internet searches and how keywords can be used to drive traffic. While it’s possible that porn sites are including the word “pornography” frequently in their pages in order to rank highly on that word, I doubt it. “Porn” would probably be one they might use. But they have probably spent a great deal of money to find what search terms people are using most often when searching for porn. Based on my spam files, “hot naked celebrities” is probably more likely a search phrase, and a more likely set of keywords the site would use.

But even there, this is extrapolation and supposition on my part. I could do further research to gather more evidence, but I’m not going to. It’s not a topic I want anything to do with (although I’ll probably see lots of new search traffic based on the density of “pornography” and “porn” in this post, unfortunately. Those people will be disappointed with what they find, and probably won’t stick around to see if they like anything else I talk about). But it makes what I hope is a reasonable point.

We need to be more careful about the assumptions we make based on the data we find. We need to question our own biases more. We need to think for ourselves and not take everything we are presented at face value. I’ve seen reports on medical studies where the headline claims that X increases the chances of Y, only to find out that the difference was perhaps a few percentage points, and the scientists conducting the study report their results as inconclusive but suggestive of a need for further research.

We are consumers of a vast amount of data every day. We have more available to us today than at any time in human history. But that only means we need to be that much more educated in our approach to that data. “Question authority” was never more relevant than it is today. “Question everything” is more likely the motto we should adopt.

We need no more proof of that than the numerous interpretations (both left and right) of Paul Ryan’s few lines about the Jainesville auto plant in his convention address. The actual text is open to interpretation, but depending on who is doing the reading that interpretation is positive or negative. Even the text cannot be entirely trusted, as much  can be communicated with tone of voice and inflection.

So when it comes to the mass of data and the interpretations being thrust at us each day, our response should echo that of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: “So certain are you!”