Tales from the Internet, Part 3 - Sez who?

By Erik Jay
web posted May 1, 2000

As with the sorry stories about America's public school systems and their illiterate, dysfunctional graduates, only so much good can come out of making laundry lists of failure. After almost thirty years of that particular sort of whining and gnashing of teeth that took root in "60 Minutes" and spread like a virus throughout broadcasting -- after a solid generation's worth of investigative reporting -- the analysis of the government schools' failure can proceed no further. That's why the news shows have moved to other topics.

But I wish now to take you and your critical faculties from the laundry list to the intellectual laundromat itself, where we will proceed to extricate you, should you need it, from the purposeful, continuous spin cycle of the contemporary media, and from the influence of those inside and outside its purview who prey upon ignorance and fear.

Let's recall our definition from Part 1 of this series: "Critical thinking, based in common sense, focuses on establishing facts through primary resources, removing extraneous arguments and fallacies (ad hominems, appeals to emotion), seeking and sifting both corroborations and contradictions, and double-checking everything." Except for the fact you may wish at times to triple-check things, that sums it up fairly well.

How do you "establish facts"? Well, how about this for starters: When you get an e-mail, a letter, a phone call, or hear a story or a soundbite or what-have-you, ask yourself, "Sez who?" Then consider the source -- does the talking head, tale-teller, pundit, or reporter have an agenda, hidden or advertised? Then pursue any claims, facts, figures, quotations, citations, or references all the way back as far as possible, as close to the original source as you can get.

If you learn no Latinate references to fallacious arguments, no debating society pointers, or the like, you can go pretty far simply applying the simple first step of source/resource checking. And now, to spare you the first forays into the information superdumpsite (it's more that than a highway, don't you think?), allow EtherZone and me to point you in the right direction vis-a-vis clear, sharper cogitation.

For starters, see the fabulous CNET special story that Matt Lake wrote in February. In it, he lists all the recent hoaxes, scares, lies, deceptions, and urban myths that have propagated on the internet like bacteria in a petri dish. It is a fascinating article, and as he has no discernible political ax to grind -- of course, as with anything I read, I asked myself the standard questions, beginning with "Sez who?" -- this is a call to critical thinking with no ideological spin. In other words, you can tell your liberal friends about it with less explaining than passing along one of my columns requires. You dig?

Another invaluable resource for checking sources and resources is your address book, leatherette and/or virtual: Ask people questions when you're unsure about something. Ask acquaintances. Write letters to smart people on the net. Call your Mom. Call a friend like Bob Duplantier, my old chum who's a veritable clearinghouse of useful data.

When I called Bob, he proffered the following wonderful list of debunkers, straight talkers, clear thinkers, and nonsense-slayers, all available over the internet:


In this day and age, when the criminal intent of some online miscreants is merely to befuddle you, you are not always defending against crimes as classically understood. That is, it is easier to spot a scam that asks for money or credit card numbers than one that appears to alert you to some danger (computer viruses, e-mail charges). Remember that larceny is only one motive for online scammers; being destructive and annoying jerknoids seems to be right up there on the motive list, too.

Those of us who seek to barter and trade and broadcast in the marketplace of ideas (I've taken to calling my net journal, What Next?, "the deli section in the marketplace of ideas"), as well as those who merely shop there, must be particularly careful about what we consume there. One should show at least the same diligence in weighing ideas as weighing a choice of cantaloupes: you pick them up, feel them, ask the grocer where they came from and how fresh they are. Why not be as careful with the words, concepts, copywriting, and canned sounds we routinely imbibe?

I sincerely believe there are political -- rather, philosophical -- impacts to be expected should a significant number of our fellow citizens, of whatever present political stripe, begin a discipline of judicious, deliberative, contemplative thinking (not redundant when you consider the present state of "thinking" today). The compelling moral and intellectual cases for free enterprise, limited government, and sovereign individuality are hard to make on a foundation of half-truths, evasions, shabby thinking, and poor critical faculties.

On the other hand, what starts to become apparent to people initiated into the wonders of thoroughgoing and disciplined thinking is their responsibility for their own education, edification, refinement, and fulfillment. From the acceptance of this fundamental responsibility flow the many blessings awaiting those who are brave enough to dream dreams that require hard work and dedication to attain.

Upon this foundation a free nation was built a couple of hundred years ago.

What do you think is possible for America's future if we can get five, ten, or twenty percent of our fellow citizens to think straight?

Erik Jay is editor of "What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage" which you can subscribe to by visiting http://erikjay.com.

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