Afraid and Clicking – How to Navigate the Information-Flooded World and Live More Courageously!

About the Author: William J. Toth, PhD, BlueDragon Chief of Research & Development

It is a gross understatement to say that humans currently have unprecedented access to information. This information can be quite positive, allowing for education and awareness on virtually any topic. This access comes with a dark side, however, as misinformation and disinformation are mixed with that which is legitimate and trustworthy.  

We can still be prone to misinformation and disinformation even when we use investigative questions such as: How do we tell the difference?  What is the intention of the content providers, and how does that intention affect the value of that which we are consuming?

As an example, scientific studies regarding what causes might prevent cancer are popular in all forms of media.  Researchers Shoenfeld and Ioannidis (2013) conducted a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies of 50 common food ingredients.  The results were compiled in an article presented by Vox which resulted in the scatter chart presented as Figure 1.

Figure 1. Relative Risk of Cancer (Crew, 2015)

A person with a positive and confident personality may look at the chart and boldly declare that their breakfast of steak, eggs, and coffee is health food!  The more likely response would be from a less secure person who would be concerned that the same breakfast puts them at high risk for cancer!  Which is true?  The answer for any individual is complicated and depends on the quality of the studies, genetic predispositions, and other lifestyle factors.  In short: simple answers are simply not possible in complex circumstances.  The term “click” in the title, of course, refers to the noise that the computer mouse makes as we interface with information technologies. 

The example above is but one of many where individuals must discern the answers to several key questions:

      • Who conducted the study?
        • Was the individual or organization reputable?
        • Was the study conducted by individuals with expertise in the field?

        • Who sponsored the study?
          • Was the study conducted by an organization with ulterior commercial motives (e.g., the conflicting studies between the sugar and artificial sweetener industries about health effects (Mandrioli et al., 2016))
          • Was the study conducted with ulterior political motives (Trei et al., 2021)

          • What was the confidence interval of the study (as influenced by the “N” value or size of the study)?

          • What organizations are trustworthy for information?
            • How do we evaluate trustworthiness?
            • Do universities and laboratories have higher trustworthiness than journalists?

          For most people, having satisfactory answers to the questions above and answers to other questions that determine truth or accuracy is far too difficult, given the time necessary to make all these evaluations.  Traditionally people have trusted institutions for answers to complex problems.  For example, if a person were interested in the effects of a specific disease process, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) might be consulted.  In recent times confidence in institutions like the CDC and many others has reached an all-time low (Jones, 2022).  Due to a strange twist on a phenomenon called confirmation bias, we rightly or wrongly abandon traditional institutions and organizations having expertise and click wildly for sources that give us the answers that we want to hear.  Confirmation bias is defined as “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of ones existing beliefs” (Pearsall & Hanks, 2001).  In this modern internet and social media-informed world, we click wildly to find information that conforms to our beliefs.

          Fear is a natural motivator driving a search for information and understanding of a complex world.  Who among us has not tried to self-diagnose medical conditions responsible for odd symptoms by performing a Google search?  In another subject area, we may hear of a disturbing trend in crime or accidents and search frantically for information.  Most of the time, our fear is not calmed; rather, we are even more alarmed because we don’t have the mental tools and processes to sort out and make sense of the sea of information.  We, therefore, frantically click away, trying desperately to assuage our fear, but most of the time, we end up making the situation even worse.

          Political outrage is a profitable business, and many have written on this topic.  A summary is offered by Zilles (2022), but many others have written with the same message.  The modern information technology business makes money from keeping people afraid, angry, and clicking!  Virtually everything about our engagement with the modern, information-rich world is antithetical to critical thinking, and only critical thinking skills and a bias towards rationality and calm will bring us out of our state of being afraid (and angry) and clicking. 

          One practical method for learning and applying critical thinking skills is to engage in training, practice, and the community offered by the Blue Dragon Integrated Problem Solving (Blue Dragon IPS) Method (https://bluedragon1-ips.com/).  This method offers some very powerful tools that allow for the following.

              1. Organize and evaluate all the sources of information and accommodate bias.  No source is without some sort of bias.  The fact that there is bias does not invalidate the source; rather, the ignorance of the bias invites its misuse.

              1. Clearly describe the temporal dimension of problems.  In almost every complex circumstance, timelines are essential.  Understanding sequences, precedence, and a broader historical context are necessary for the fullest understanding.  BlueDragon IPS encourages the use of timelines to address this dimension of complex problems.

              1. Complexity is more easily tamed when we consider all relevant systems.  Rarely do problems exist in one systemic domain.  For example, health problems are rarely only about genetics or physiology.  Lifestyle, environment, stress, and culture are descriptions of other systems that also have important effects.  In organizations, accidents rarely, if ever, are only technological.  Human systems are nearly always part of the ultimate cause and should be considered.

              1. Asking good questions is essential.  We all search for meaningful answers, but are our questions good enough?  Blue Dragon IPS uses all the elements listed above to formulate better questions through lines of inquiry that link common elements and show important patterns.

            BlueDragon IPS, as described, may sound like a complex tool meant for complex organizational circumstances, and it certainly is quite useful for this.  But it has, at its core, a philosophical orientation that can be enormously helpful even at the individual level.  If I consider the sources of the information that I’m consuming; think about the historical context for my acute problem; consider the many systems and individuals that might also have relevance to what I’m considering; and ask informed questions, I will become calmer and less likely to click wildly without aim or purpose.  This process is active and forward-leaning, not isolating and passive.  Blue Dragon IPS-trained individuals are emboldened by these powerful tools; they are not “armchair quarterbacks.”  Critical thinking naturally calls one to action.  Armed with better ways to evaluate a complex world and better questions, I boldly move out into the world and become a better citizen.  Good citizens are not chronically afraid.  Good citizens click a lot less.

            For a live discussion on Afraid and Clicking, watch this video on our BlueDragon YouTube Training Channel: https://youtu.be/_unXvJ1AHfI

             

            About the Author: William J. Toth, PhD, BlueDragon Chief of Research & Development

            Dr. (Bill) Toth is the former Manager of the Project, Program Management Office for International Nuclear Nonproliferation programs. Bill supports the development of programs and problem-solving concepts that  help sites important to national security with the proactive identification and mitigation of external threats to these most secure facilities.

            References

            Crew, B. (2015). Everything we eat both causes and prevents cancer. Vox. https://www.sciencealert.com/everything-we-eat-both-causes-and-prevents-cancer

            Jones, J. M. (2022). Confidence in U.S. institutions down; average at new low. GALLUP. https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx

            Mandrioli, D., Kearns, C. E., & Bero, L. A. (2016). Relationship between research outcomes and risk of bias, study sponsorship, and author financial conflicts of interest in reviews of the effects of artificially sweetened beverages on weight outcomes: A systematic review of reviews. Plos One, 11(9), e0162198–e0162198. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0162198

            Pearsall, J., & Hanks, P. (2001). The New Oxford dictionary of English. In

            Schoenfeld, J. D., & Ioannidis, J. P. (2013). Is everything we eat associated with cancer?  A systematic cookbook review. The American Journal of Cinical Nutrition, 97(1), 127-134. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.112.047142

            Trei, D. T., Hornung, J., Rychlik, J., & Bandelow, N. C. (2021). From political motivation to scientific knowledge: classifying policy labs in the science-policy nexus. European Planning Studies, 29(12), 2340-2356. https://doi.org/10.1080/09654313.2021.1941785

            Zilles, C. (2022). How social media sells your fear and outrage for profit. Social Media HQ. https://socialmediahq.com/how-social-media-sells-your-fear-and-outrage-for-profit

            Contact us at: info@robbluedragon1-com
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