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Critical Thinking Universities

ACFAS on critical thinking (French)

ACFAS publishes an essay/interview with Normand Baillargeon on critical thinking On the French Canadian scientific community association’s website:

« Les vertus épistémiques : l’honnêteté intellectuelle, l’intégrité, la capacité de soumettre à la critique d’autrui ce qu’on avance, une certaine et indispensable méfiance à l’endroit de nos sens et de notre mémoire, la capacité d’envisager des hypothèses autres, la pratique du doute constructif, la reconnaissance du caractère faillible de nos connaissances, et ainsi de suite. »

Critical Thinking Information literacy Social media

Review of The Filter Bubble by Eli Parizer

I just finished reading The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser. It offeres a very interesting exploration into using various search tools and how we find the information that is central to our daily lives.

His main argument has to do with how “filters bubbles” emerge from the algorithms that supply the search results or news feeds for social media websites. Since 2009, Google for example supplies search results that are geared specifically to the user making the query. Gone are the days of obtaining “absolute” Google search results based on our terms (where everyone would see the same results). Now, the results we see are “relative” to our likes and features, as seen by Google – our browser, the location of where we are, and about 50 other variables Google uses to identify us as individuals. So, if two people type in the same keywords, they would see different results based on who they are. The Facebook “News Feed” works the same way, and Pariser has reason to believe that this is applied to other websites as well.

Here are some reading notes and quotes I found really interesting:

The filter bubble introduces 3 dynamics (p.9-10): “we are already in it”, “it is invisible” and “you don’t choose to enter the bubble”. In conjunction of how much information we produce, this leads to what Steve Rubel calls the attention crash (p.11).

On “our information diet” : “By definition, a world constructed from the familiar is a world in which there’s nothing to learn.” (p.15) In Robert Putman’s Bowling Alone, we are loosing (p.17) the “bonding capital” (being alike, creating bridges) and “bridging capital” (being able to talk to people not like us).

Facebook’s EdgeRank uses three variables: affinity (how much time we send interacting with someone); the relative weight of the content (relationship status updates vs. pokes); and recency (p.38).

“If trust i news agency is falling, it is rising in the new realm of amateur and algorithmic curation” (p. 66)

The CIA book on information analysis by Heuer (p. 81): The psychology of intelligence analysis also, check out this free version from the CIA website.

“Personalization can get in the way of creativity and innovation in three ways. First, the filter bubble artificially limits the size of our “solution horizon” – the mental space in which we search for solutions to problems. Second, the information environment inside the filter bubble will tend to lack some of the key traits that spur creativity. Creativity is a context dependent trait: We’re more likely to come up with new ideas in some environments than others; the contexts that filtering creates aren’t the ones best suited to creative thinking. Finally, the filter bubble encourages a more passive approach to information, which is a odds with the kind of exploration that leads to discovery.” (p. 94) Mentions The Art of Creation by Arthur Koestler.

Creativity generally has two parts: generative thinking (reshuffling and recombining) ; convergent thinking (survey options) (p. 103)

“If a self-fulfilling prophecy is a false definition of the world that through one’s actions becomes true, we’re now on the verge of self-fulfilling identities” (p. 112). […] “On sirens and children” by Yochai Benkler (p.112) “Autonomy, Benkler points out, is a tricky concept: To be free, you have to to be able not only to do what you want, but to know what’s possible to do.”

“fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute peoples’ behavior to their inner traits and personality rather than to the situation they’re placed in,” (p. 116)

“In the future, we want to be all well-rounded, well-informed intellectual virtuoso, but right now we want to watch Jersey Shore. Behavioral economists call this present bias – the gap between your preferences for your future self and your preferences in the current moment.” (p. 117)

“Priming effect” (p. 124) – getting people to learn a sequence of words with a theme primes them to think in a way.

“With information as with food, we are what we consume. […] Your identity shapes your media, and your media then shapes what you believe and what you care about. […] You become trapped in a you loop” (p. 125)

“If identity loops aren’t counteracted through randomness and serendipity, you could end up stuck in the foothills of your identity” (p.127) – adapted from Matt Cohler’s “Local-Maximum Problem” – when trying to maximize something – try to go up a mountain, you should always rise – byt you could be stuck on a hill next to the mountain.

Overfitting: being stuck in a class that does not fit us – “a regression to the social norm” (p. 129) “But the overfitting problem gets to one of the central, irreducible problems of the filter bubble: Stereotyping and overfitting are synonyms” (p.131) The problem of finding a pattern in the data that is there and the problem of finding a pattern that is really not there.

David Hume and Karl Popper in the induction problem (p.133) All swans I see are white, therefore all swans are white.

“Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose Notes from the Underground was a passionate critique of the utopian scientific rationalism of the day.” (p. 135) “But algorithmic induction can lead to a kind of information determinism” (p.135)

“China’s objective isn’t so much to blot out unsavory information as to alter the physics around it – to create friction for problematic information and to route public attention to progovernment forums. While it can’t block all of the people from all of the news all of the time, it doesn’t need to. «What the government cares about,» Atlantic journalist James Fellows writes, «is making the quest for information just enough of a nuisance that people generally won’t bother» The strategy, says Xiao Qiang of the University of California at Berkeley, is «about social control, human survailance, peer pressure, and self-censorship.»” (p.139)

“James Mulvenon, the head of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, puts it this way: ” There’s a randomness to their enforcement, and that creates a sense that they’re looking at everything.” (p. 140)

On governments manipulate the truth “Rather than simply banning certain words or opinions outright, it’ll increasingly revolve around second-order censorship – the manipulation of curation, context, and the flow of information and attention.” (p.141)

Sir Francis Bacon = “Knowledge is power” “If knowledge is power, then asymmetries in knowledge are asymmetries in power” (p. 147)

David Bohm On Dialogue “To communicate, Bohm wrote, literally means to make something common” (p.162-3) Jurgen Habermas “the dean of media theory for much of the twentieth century, had similar views”

«Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral”» (p.188)

“In this book, I’ve argued that the rise of pervasive, embedded filtering is changing the way we experience the Internet and ultimately the world. […] Technology designed to give us more control over our lives is actually taking control away.” (p. 218-9)

“Appointing an independent ombudsman and giving the world more insight into how the powerful filtering algorithms work would be an important first step.” (p. 231)

Critical Thinking Information literacy Inspiration

Reading notes: Information Diet by Clay Johnson

I just finished reading Clay Johnson’s book called The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption. The author provides for a light and interesting read, somewhere between a personal account, a self-help book and a deeper analysis of information consumption. I highly recommend it to anyone working on information literacy.

My favorite quote comes at p.120: “Hummanity’s darkest moments are the ones in which masses of people had the worst information diets.”

Johnson uses a driving analogy between the food we eat (i.e. our diet) and the information we consume. He quickly dismisses the phrase “information overload” as misleading – as with obesity, we are responsible for the information we consume :

It’s not information overload, it’s information overconsumption that’s the problem. Information overload means somehow managing the intake of vast quantities of information in new and more efficient ways. Information overconsumption means we need to find new ways to be selective about our intake. It is very difficult, for example, to overconsume vegetables. (p.26)

The author then points out, in chapter 3 (“Big Info”) that the major corporations in charge of producing news have slowly but surely affirmed their strategy to “give people what they want: entertainment and affirmation” (p.31) rather than balanced facts. Entertainment is self-explanatory but affirmation means providing reinforcement for pre-existing beliefs – neither ofwhich qualify as balanced fact-based news.

Still in chapter 3, Johnson covers “content farms” who aim to (1) drive traffic to a site, (2) maximize ad-revenue, (3) on low turn-around time with (4) a modicum of editorial quality (p.35). This leads new model is possible because of a software system called BlogSmith which looks at search queries in real time and identifies breaking, seasonal or evergreen topics. “It’s journalism, commoditized.” (p.36) He also decries in 2008 there were 69300 news analysts versus 275000 public relations specialists, creating a system where the professionals responsible for our news suffer from their own kind of obesity that leads to churnalism (p.40) – the tendency to plagiarize press releases and calling it news.

Based on this prognosis, Johnson dives in the social psychology behind our unhealthy information consumption habits in his forth chapter. “[D]elusion comes from psychological phenomena like heuristics, conformation bias, and cognitive dissonance.” (p.45) A heuristic is a rule of thumb, confirmation bias is the tendency to overvalue information that confirms our point of view (all the while disregarding what attacks it) and we hate cognitive dissonance – according to Wikipedia – “discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.” Johnson even links searching to a dopamine inducing process: “We’re information consumption machines that evolved in a world where information about survival was scarce.” (p.51)

Johnson’ 5th chapter covers the central theme of his book: information obesity. “Through trial and error, our media companies have figured out what we want, and are giving it to us. It turns out, the more they give it to us, the more we want it. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop. […] The result is a public that’s being torn apart, only comfortable hearing the reality that’s unique to their particular tribe. […] It’s a new kind of ignorance epidemic: information obesity.” (p.54)

“The new ignorance has three flavors – all of which lead us to information obesity: agnotology, epistemic closure and filter failure” (p.58) efering to Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University, Johnson defines agnotology “as the study of culturally induced doubt, particularly through the production of seemingly factual data. It’s a modern form of manufactured ignorance.” (p.58) Similarly, epistemic closure is, quoting Julian Sanchez of the CATO Institute,

“Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of had because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.”(p.59)

Johnson states “Epistemic closure is a tool that empowers agnotological ignorance. As certain information is produced, all other sources of information are dismissed as unreliable or worse, conspiratorial” (p.60). Finally, filter bubbles refers to Eli Pariser’s eponymous book (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You) and emerge from “the network of personalization technology that figures out what you want and keeps feeding you that at the expense of what you don’t want.” (p.61)

The first part of Johnson’s book closes with the symptoms of information obesity (chapter 6): apnea (how notifications of new email of text messages on your cell phone change your vital signs); a poor sense of time; attention fatigue; loss of social breadth; distorted sense of reality and brand loyalty.

The second part of Johnson’s book covers his “information diet” – and has the definite (and slightly annoying) tone of a self-help book.

Johnson’s 7th chapter covers data literacy – which has “four main components – you need to know how to search, you need to know how to filter and process, you need to know how to produce, and you need to know how to synthesize” (p. 80) For searching, he points out the value of government information. For filtering, he quoted from a Knight commission report called Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.

Attention Fitness is the crux of Johnson’s 8th chapter. Willpower can be improved but only by measuring our current state and providing for an information consumption plan or budget. One must eliminate interruption technologies and focus on giving us some productive time while planning to spend time of social media a few minutes on the hour. This training can take time, increasing the amount of productive work in relation to distractive tasks – all the while keeping moments to pause or exercise.

Of course, having a strong sense of humor keeps us sane and allows us to consider all options – particularly the least probable or anticipated, as Johnson explains in his 9th chapter, quoting from Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind, MIT Press.

Johnson’s 10th chapter provides details on how to consume and proposes an audacious (but tongue-in-cheek) scheme to provide “nutritional” labels in information products – very much as we have for food. In reality, one should consume consciously, that is by controlling our information intake and its source. Keeping a clean habit includes such important advice as to cut one’s subscription to cable television in order to purchase items à la carte. Keeping a journal is also a good idea – as it provides measurable feedback. Other bits of advice include consuming local (p.108), low-ad (p.111), diverse – mainly Khan Academy, TED Talks and Kickstarter (p.113-5) and balanced (p.115) sources.

Johnson’s conclusion (Part III – Social Obesity) attempts to depict the how his scheme might impact the political and social climate in the USA. Of interest in Chapter 11 (the participation Gap) is his take on transparency’s dark side:

“You can simply claim to be transparent, and create a halo of honesty about you, without actually being honest.
Two factors empower this dark side of transparency. […] The first is the deluge of information and facts disguised as entertainment. Even the most open and transparent systems must compete with buckets of information that are more interesting. The second is our poor information diets – that we choose information we want to hear over information that reveals the truth makes the competition all the more difficult.(p.132)

Johnson continues:

“[T]he thruth is that citizen-focused transparency initiatives have a miserable track record of fighting corruption. And citizens have a miserable track record of using those initiatives to make rational decisions about the people they elect.
Transparency isn’t a replacement for integrity and honesty; it’s an infrastructural tool that allows for those attributes to occur – but only if the public is willing [to] act upon the information that they recieve as a result of transparency in a conscious, deliberate way.” (p. 134)

and :

“The greatest political ideas have come from the constant search for synthesis and pragmatism, and the foundation of democracy is constant public participation. (p. 137)

Our information consumption habits thus shape the economics of information production – that is how we can shape the future of available information at the societal level.

Johnson closes with a letter to programmers and software developers – the “new” scribes that rule our information world, with a call to get involved in local and social issues with their skills – to fix real problems.