Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Measles, Vaccination and the Importance of Critical Thinking

It's hard to listen or read the news lately without coming across news of this winter's measles outbreaks and the issue of vaccination (though this week has been a bit quieter). It's certainly seen a lot of discussion in my house - both because my wife is a public health nurse and because we have two young children. My son is two and a half and therefore has only had one of the two MMR shots. My daughter is six months old and is too young to have received her vaccination. So let's just say the growing number of people rejecting vaccinations is concerning for me and my wife.

But aside from the specifics of measles and vaccination, this story hits on a broader problem faced by people of my generation. For reference I was born in 1982 which by most counts makes me the among the first members of Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (which usually refers to those born between 1981 and 2000). This generation has grown up with computers, the internet and some form of social media. Among the key values Millennials embrace are tolerance, diversity, authenticity and personal experience. They also tend to be suspicious of authority and institutions.

Now as I've been thinking about the news I've been reminded that it's these values that have played so strongly into the movement questioning the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.  It all has to do with the question of authority, who to trust and where we get our information.

Let me give you an example. As an early member of the Millennial Generation I can remember a time before the internet as well as the early days of 'the world wide web.' For me those early days were when I was in high school (all restrictions on who could access the internet in North America were lifted in 1995). I still remember the frustratingly slow dial-up internet connections and getting disconnected if someone picked up the phone to make a call (on a land line).

I also remember being told by my teachers that as appealing a resource as the internet was, it was not a source of reliable information that had been thoroughly fact checked. We could use the internet to track down books and print articles, but essays and research papers need to be based on information found on paper. This opened up a bit when I was in university. At that point we could use any information from the online portals of scholarly journals (which you could only access through university's paid subscription for these services). Any other information from the internet was to be used with care, and most of your sources still had to be in print form or from those scholarly journals. And you never quoted Wikipedia as a reliable source of information (seeing as Wikipedia had just launched when I started my undergraduate in 2001).

I'm familiar with all of this because I'm an early Millennial. But those born after me have little or no experience of this, especially those born after 1990. For later Millennials the internet is the primary, if not only, source of information. Few younger Millennials have the same caution about online sources that I or members of older generations do (though admittedly many older people are just as ready to believe anything online as Millennials). Combine this with the Millennial value of tolerance, which includes putting value on all view points, as well as a suspicion of traditional authority and you have a potential problem.

And that's because everything online is not of equal value. One hazard of the internet is that an accredited, peer-reviewed scientist and a crack-pot who thinks the earth is flat have exactly the same ability to publish their views. And the second person may actually have more ability to get their message out if they know how to make a slick website with persuasive writing, good visuals and video, and have a mastery of social media.

Now I'm not exactly saying anything radical here. But it does need to be said especially in this time where confidence in traditional authorities and institutions is at a historic low. More than ever people need to practice critical thinking when they come across a piece of information presented online (or in person for that matter).

Yes, all information should be evaluated critically, including that given by established authorities. But this is especially true of perspectives and information circulated online by people who have no formal training, qualifications, or expertise. Personal experience and opinions can are an important source of information, but they must be carefully evaluated. Accredited experts can be wrong and mistaken, or corrupt and distorting information for their own benefit,  but at least there is a system of checks and balances for scientists, doctors and public officials. It may not always work, but at least it's there and it can be appealed to when it fails.

But for people online who are posting their own opinions, or those they've picked up from others, there is no system of checks and balances other than an individual's ability to think critically.

And let me say that having an education does not guarantee that one has the ability to think critically. Indeed it can lead to people thinking they are experts on all things simply because they have a diploma or degree with their name on it. Education can help people develop critical thinking skills, yet this must be a priority for both the educator and the student.

Now many atheists and agnostics might laugh at the idea of a Christian minister encouraging people to think critically, but using one's mind to test what is true is an important part of the Christian tradition. "A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained." (Deuteronomy 19:15) "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1) On top of that, my own particular Presbyterian tradition places a lot of emphasis on rational thought, thorough debate, and high quality education.

I'm also deeply appreciative of my training as a history major. One of the most important tasks that a historian has is sorting through stories to try to find out the truth. Historians have to evaluate every source they encounter, weigh the evidence and decide what is good evidence and what is of lesser value. Either way I do place a high value on critical thought, and thorough fact checking.

So when you come across an opinion, or what purports to be a fact online ask some questions:

  • Who is this coming from? What's the original source? Can you find the original source? Does it come from someone with expertise in this area or are they an amateur? Amateur's can be correct and experts can be wrong, yet this distinction matters.
  • Is this information hearsay or is it supported by others who can attest to it? Has it been borne out by the scientific method?  Has it been proven by repeated testing, under controlled conditions, that has produced the same results consistently?
  • Is this information accepted by other experts in the same field? Has it been reviewed and evaluated by others who understand the subject (ie. medicine, engineering, physics, social science, history etc.)?
  • Is this a widely held view or that of a minority? Popularity of an idea is no guarantee of truth, and the majority can often be wrong, yet given enough time and the free distribution of ideas, the truth does tend to be persuasive to a majority of people.
  • What is the agenda or perspective of the person giving you the information (or the agenda of the person they got it from)? What is their bias? Are there signs that this agenda or perspective has distorted, or strongly influenced the information they're giving? Who might benefit from this information being accepted as true? Everyone has a perspective and no one is entirely objective, yet some ore more objective than others, and certainly there are people who more or less selfish and self-seeking than others.

This list of questions is not exhaustive but they are a good start for evaluating any information you come across online or anywhere else. Because as I said above, more than at any time in recent history, my generation and those after will have to test everything to determine what is true, both for their own sake and for that of their neighbors and fellow citizens.

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