Sifting through the Noise

We all face the problem of “epistemic flooding,” in which we are overwhelmed with information through online algorithms that appeal to our biases. Whether from the right or the left, it is incumbent on us to be diligent in our approach to information and how it’s presented. Being critically engaged with that information requires more than just recognizing any logical fallacies that might be at work. It requires stepping outside our “preferred” outlets and challenging not only views that we oppose but also our own grasp of the issues.

A fine piece appearing on Medium today, written by my dear friend Ryan Neugebauer, addresses this problem. “Sifting through the Noise: Thinking and Engaging in the Age of Mass Media and the Internet” focuses on how the mass media cultivates an atmosphere in which “people have fallen down the rabbit hole of online conspiracy theories,” placing many of us in an “emotionally charged echo chamber” of confirmation bias, which “closes us out of information/perspectives contrary to whatever we may hold dear …”

Ryan asks: “[H]ow do we strike a balance that sifts through the noise, helps us to think better and be better informed, keeps us out of reinforcing echo chambers, and preserves our sanity and decency when engaging in the process?” The essay provides various strategies for achieving this.

One strategy in particular strikes me as crucial. In critical engagement with those whose ideas we oppose, we should not strawman their arguments. It is best to “steelman” our opponent’s perspective and critique their arguments in their “strongest form possible.” Charitable readings are helpful in more ways than one:

Even using the term “opponent” can come across as too antagonizing or adversarial. It’s better to think of each other as conversation partners in disagreement or in a quest to figure things out. Let’s not approach the situation like we are in an arena getting ready to destroy the other, but rather in an open-ended conversation trying to figure out the best position. That invites friendly, civil dialogue rather than each person being put on the defensive and getting increasingly agitated or angry. Additionally, each person is looked at as someone who has something to offer the conversation rather than someone who is simply wrong and in need of correcting. This also lowers the temperature in the room and makes each person feel valued.

I can’t think of a more humane way to approach our interlocutors in an era of immense divisiveness. The whole essay is a worthwhile read—including the resources it reveals. Check it out here.

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