By Ralph Hertwig, Anastasia Kozyreva, Sam Wineburg, and Stephan Lewandowsky
The web is an informational paradise and a hellscape at the same time.
A boundless wealth of high-quality information is available at our fingertips right next to a ceaseless torrent of low-quality, distracting, false and manipulative information.
The platforms that control search were conceived in sin. Their business model auctions off our most precious and limited cognitive resource: attention. These platforms work overtime to hijack our attention by purveying information that arouses curiosity, outrage, or anger. The more our eyeballs remain glued to the screen, the more ads they can show us, and the greater profits accrue to their shareholders.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, all this should take a toll on our collective attention. A 2019 analysis of Twitter hashtags, Google queries, or Reddit comments found that across the past decade, the rate at which the popularity of items rises and drops has accelerated. In 2013, for example, a hashtag on Twitter was popular on average for 17.5 hours, while in 2016, its popularity faded away after 11.9 hours. More competition leads to shorter collective attention intervals, which lead to ever fiercer competition for our attention – a vicious circle.
To regain control, we need cognitive strategies that help us reclaim at least some autonomy and shield us from the excesses, traps and information disorders of today’s attention economy.
Critical thinking is not enough
The textbook cognitive strategy is critical thinking, an intellectually disciplined, self-guided and effortful process to help identify valid information. In school, students are taught to closely and carefully read and evaluate information. Thus equipped, they can evaluate the claims and arguments they see, hear, or read. No objection. The ability to think critically is immensely important.
But is it enough in a world of information overabundance and gushing sources of disinformation? The answer is “No” for at least two reasons.
First, the digital world contains more information than the world’s libraries combined. Much of it comes from unvetted sources and lacks reliable indicators of trustworthiness. Critically thinking through all information and sources we come across would utterly paralyse us because we would never have time to actually read the valuable information we painstakingly identify.
Second, investing critical thinking in sources that should have been ignored in the first place means that attention merchants and malicious actors have been gifted what they wanted, our attention.
Critical ignoring to make information management feasible
So, what tools do we have at our disposal beyond critical thinking? In our recent article, we – a philosopher, two cognitive scientists and an education scientist – argue that as much as we need critical thinking we also need critical ignoring.
Critical ignoring is the ability to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities. Critical ignoring is more than just not paying attention – it’s about practising mindful and healthy habits in the face of information overabundance.
We understand it as a core competence for all citizens in the digital word.
Without it, we will drown in a sea of information that is, at best, distracting and, at worst, misleading and harmful.
Tools for critical ignoring
Three main strategies exist for critical ignoring. Each one responds to a different type of noxious information.
In the digital world, self-nudging aims to empower people to be citizen “choice architects” by designing their informational environments in ways that work best for them and that constrain their activities in beneficial ways. We can, for instance, remove distracting and irresistible notifications. We may set specific times in which messages can be received, thereby creating pockets of time for concentrated work or socialising. Self-nudging can also help us take control of our digital default settings, for instance, by restricting the use of our personal data for purposes of targeted advertisement.
Lateral reading is a strategy that enables people to emulate how professional fact checkers establish the credibility of online information. It involves opening up new browser tabs to search for information about the organisation or individual behind a site before diving into its contents. Only after consulting the open web do skilled searchers gauge whether expending attention is worth it. Before critical thinking can begin, the first step is to ignore the lure of the site and check out what others say about its alleged factual reports. Lateral reading thus uses the power of the web to check the web.
Most students fail at that task. Past studies show that, when deciding whether a source should be trusted, students (as well as university professors) do what years of school has taught them to do – they read closely and carefully. Attention merchants as well as merchants of doubt are jubilant.
Online, looks can be deceiving. Unless one has extensive background knowledge it is often very difficult to figure out that a site, filled with the trappings of serious research, peddles falsehoods about climate change or vaccinations or any variety of historical topics, such as the Holocaust. Instead of getting entangled in the site’s reports and professional design, fact checkers exercise critical ignoring. They evaluate the site by leaving it and engage in lateral reading instead.
The do-not-feed-the-trolls heuristic targets online trolls and other malicious users who harass, cyberbully or use other antisocial tactics. Trolls thrive on attention, and deliberate spreaders of dangerous disinformation often resort to trolling tactics. One of the main strategies that science denialists use is to hijack people’s attention by creating the appearance of a debate where none exists. The heuristic advises against directly responding to trolling. Resist debating or retaliating. Of course, this strategy of critical ignoring is only a first line of defence. It should be complemented by blocking and reporting trolls and by transparent platform content moderation policies including debunking.
These three strategies are not a set of elite skills. Everybody can make use of them, but educational efforts are crucial for bringing these tools to the public.
Critical ignoring as a new paradigm for education
The philosopher Michael Lynch has noted that the Internet “is both the world’s best fact-checker and the world’s best bias confirmer – often at the same time.”
Navigating it successfully requires new competencies that should be taught in school. Without the competence to choose what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attention, we allow others to seize control of our eyes and minds. Appreciation for the importance of critically ignoring is not new but has become even more crucial in the digital world.
As the philosopher and psychologist William James astutely observed at the beginning of the 20th century: “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to ignore.”
Ralph Hertwig is Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Anastasia Kozyreva is a Cognitive scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development; Sam Wineburg is Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University, and Stephan Lewandowsky is Chair of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Unfortunately, the voters choose to ignore critical thinking!
Dennis C Rathsam says
For all you folks over 55… What the hell was wrong with the education we recieved? We were all pretty sucessfull, some more than others. What has happened to reading, writing, math, science & most important HISTORY! How can our children servive all this indoctrin woke crap? We have a great country, rich in history, we must stop all the folks who try to recreate, what really happened. Without the past, we wouldnt be here right now…The past is relavent to the future. We learn from our mistakes, we made things better.Our parents were from the Worlds Greatest Generation! They held the USA togeather, through war & peace, everyone contributed, we all worked for the sucess of the America,s They did a hell of a good job, they saved the world. Its time to return the god fearing country we once were, if we dont things will continue spiral out of control.
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to ignore.” Ooooh, good one! I’m still learning!
Kids, put your phones in your lockers in the morning, and retrieve them at the end of the day. Parents, take over from there.
Why are adults at work with their cell phones in use for private conversations, TicTok and gaming? Why is this allowed? If you use your cell phone for work purposes, fine. That should be it.
I must have a love/hate relationship with YouTube. They are well aware I like cabbage recipes, but I hate commercials. God bless the skip mode. I only play “free games” on my phone when I’m waiting for my husband shopping, or whatever, but after each game, here come the commercials. On my leg face down. I do know how to ignore quite a few things!
Keepin It Real says
Really! The history I know now has opened my eyes to what wasn’t taught! Critical thinking is taught in law school not in K thu 12 nor in colleges unless you as a student chooses a class. Coded language and buzz words by divisive politicians using the media on multileveled platforms charge the energy. It hasn’t been pie in the sky for many and America is working on great! It’s been a work in progress. It’s come a long way to being great. But the fear of a more inclusive US is in danger because of not accepting true history and racial bias. America is the greatest depending on the skin you’re in!
We all practice critical ignoring. However, people have developed a lack of trust in the media and in science not so much because it’s “difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic.” On the contrary, it’s all too apparent that the media and experts are not themselves balanced. All to often it is the media and expert types who are quick to label differences of opinion, different views of evidence, as “disinformation” or “lies”.
Those same media and experts want you to ignore what is inconvenient to their agenda. That is the central truth. Critical thinking is still the only way to sort through the obfuscation from all sides.
How many times in the last 10 years have there been stories categorically called false? Then a bit later, it’s revealed that there’s a bit of truth about those “false” stories. Then even later, we find those “false” stories are indeed true. So sometimes the truth of a matter is “time will tell us, who is trying to sell us”.
Other times, applying critical thinking, reviewing research, helps to sort through the truth and falsehood of things. This is very true in scientific studies. We are told to ‘trust the science’, yet anyone who studies science knows there are often disagreements about scientific results. This is compounded by researchers’ failures to follow the scientific method. If one seeks out scientific studies, reads them, and then follows up by reading competing research one can get a real sense of the debate in scientific circles. Debate that goes unnoticed if one relies on the popular press for scientific knowledge. Of you accept the “false” or “lies” labels.
This is compounded by shoddy research. The editor of the Lancet recently called out shoddy research saying that around 50% of medical research findings are not valid. How can this be? One reason is the publishing of studies that cannot be replicated. Replication of results is a key element of the scientific method. If a study’s findings cannot be replicated, the study has not been validated. Yet, researchers sometimes refuse to share their data making replication impossible. Their response is a ‘trust us’ response. Critical ignoring of a different kind.
Another failure in scientific research is what has been called the crisis of peer review. Some today even call it ‘pal review’, where researchers get their friends to review the research. That review is not rigorous, nor does it call out inaccurate research.
Another failing can be identified by comparing the research abstract with the research findings. Those are two different parts of a research report. The abstract is a summary and is at the beginning of the report. Abstracts and findings have been know to disagree. Press reports are generated usually from the abstract. Hence a shady researcher can get publicity for the findings that were not actually found.
Regrettably all these unscientific practices are quite common (do you own web searches and you’ll find that). However, those following and supporting those assaults on the scientific method want you to engage in critical forgetting and trust the experts.
The truth of matters always comes out over time. Then it becomes true that “time will tell us, who is trying to sell us”.
The shady salesperson wants you to make a decision NOW. We know why that is. And we know why some want us to engage in critical forgetting. BUT do so at your peril.