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An Interview with Daniel J. Levitin

02.23.17
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We recently asked Daniel J. Levitin, Program Director of UC Berkeley ExecEd's Critical Thinking Program, to weigh in on some very topical issues such as "fake news," the "post-truth era," and "the new normal". His thought provoking answers are shared here:
 
EXEC ED:   What’s your reaction when you hear the media talking about “fake news” – what is it and how does it relate to your work on “critical thinking?”
 
LEVITIN:    I object to the term because it is not simply another variety of news, like “breaking news” or “political news” or “celebrity news.” It isn’t news at all — it’s a lie. Thinking critically begins with not enabling the purveyors of distortions, lies, and made-up "facts."
 
EXEC ED:   Given the backdrop of the most recent election, what lessons can we learn about misinformation and the power it has to shape decisions?
 
LEVITIN:    Some voters are gullible. We always knew that. But lies have become weapons in the war against facts and truth, and a variety of people with their own agendas use them to manipulate us into believing things that aren’t true, or for voting against the things we’re really interested in supporting. Misinformation disrupts decision making. But so does information that we misinterpret. We all need to take responsibility for the information we use to make our decisions — to consider its source, its veracity, and its relevance.
 
I like Louis CK's take on this. Democracy doesn't mean that I get my way all the time. We understand that the leadership of the country isn't always going to be the one we want and that's ok. The purpose of government is to ensure order, the rule of law, and to maximize the chances that we can achieve happiness, security, and health. To some that means big government, to others it means small government. In a democracy, with freedom of the press and an informed electorate (and informed by facts, not nonsense) that choice comes down to the voters and it's the best system we have.
 
EXEC ED:  Is Facebook or Twitter to blame for socializing lies and “fake news” or is the fault really in the gullibility of people to believe without applying critical thinking?
 
LEVITIN:   This is less a question for a neuroscientist and entrepreneur than for a scholar of new media studies. But as a private citizen, I feel they should have been more proactive about vetting content. Now there are difficult questions surrounding who will do the vetting and what criteria they should use, but that doesn’t mean that the vetting should be ignored. I look at it this way: I live in a neighborhood in Los Angeles that has a community feel. There’s an old-fashioned community bulletin board in front of the little market, and people post notices on it about lost cats, babysitters wanted, bicycles for sale, and handymen looking for work. Now if one of the posters behaves badly — suppose the person with a bicycle for sale turns out to be a predatory criminal who robs people when they come to see the bicycle — we in the community have the expectation that the owner of the market will take that notice down, and prevent the person from posting there again. There’s an implied social contract here that by providing the bulletin board, the market is taking some responsibility for its content. I’m not saying that a lawsuit would hold up in court — that’s the difference between morality and law — but I think the internet community has a reasonable expectation that things we read on these major sites are truthful. And it’s not as though it would cause a financial hardship for Facebook, one of the richest companies in the world, to open up a “truth first” division.
 
EXEC ED:  In your most recent book “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age” you discuss the 3 main types of misinformation: Numerical, Verbal, Scientific. As business professionals, are we at risk of misinterpreting information in all three areas or is one more prevalent than another? How about in our personal lives?
 
LEVITIN:   As entrepreneurs and business people, we probably deal with numerical and verbal information (and misinformation) more directly than we do scientific information. But the third part of my book aims not to make readers into scientists, but rather to show them how the scientific method can be used to work through decision making.
 
EXEC ED:   I understand you’re going to change the title of your most recent book to: “Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era” – could you tell me why you are changing it and what it means?
 
LEVITIN:   The reception to the hardback book was very strong and gratifying. We always planned to re-release the book in paperback in order to provide a more affordable and convenient format for those who wanted it. Given that Oxford Dictionary just named “post truth” its word of the year, and that “fake news” has been in the real news so much, it seemed like a good opportunity to retitle the book to help potential readers to see its urgency and its relevance. We need to think critically and carefully now more than ever. The phrase “Weaponizing Lies” speaks to the dangerous power of lies — in business, investment schemes, social relations, and yes, elections. Falsity can have tremendous destructive power. It's behind witch hunts. Faulty investment instruments. Exploding air bags and diesel engines that pass smog tests but then pollute the air far above what regulations allow.
 
EXEC ED:   Is “Critical Thinking” the art of seeing through lies OR is it the art of discerning the truth?
 
LEVITIN:   They are two sides of the same coin. Not everything that is untrue is a lie — some things just aren’t known yet. Does Vitamin D help combat mood disorders? There’s evidence for and against. It wouldn’t be a lie to say that it helps. But there’s not enough evidence yet to say it’s undeniably true.
 
Lies and truth can be seen as equivalent in their reach, but that just makes lies seem inherently more powerful than they really are.  Lies can ultimately be stopped.  Truth is much harder to stop.
 
EXEC ED:  How will your “Critical Thinking” program best equip business professionals for their every-day decision making as well as their long-term strategic decisions? Why should they take this program?
 
LEVITIN:   Business leaders and managers, at all levels of an organization, rely on data for all kinds of decisions — competitive analysis, pricing, supply chain, marketing, personnel hiring, borrowing and lending, opportunities for mergers & acquisitions, long-term corporate strategy. Data used to be hard-to-come-by and you used whatever you had. Now we have big data, which is not always good data, and we have an overwhelming amount of information coming at us faster than we can deal with it. At the same time, falsifying data and charts and numbers has become easier than ever. Business professionals who take this course will develop a razor-sharp focus to separate the wheat from the digital chaff, to recognize the common sources of distorted data or data that lacks evidentiary support. Taking the course will give people a competitive edge in business.
 
EXEC ED:  The Oxford Dictionary states that “post-truth” is the word of the year (2016) while NPR recently ran a story about the word of the year being “normal” as in “the new normal” and “normalize”.  Would you like to comment on what these words/phrases mean and in light of your work on “critical thinking”?
 
LEVITIN:   The word “post-truth” is a kind of Orwellian double-talk that is insulting to anyone who values knowledge and expertise. It says that it doesn't matter what the facts are and that truth doesn't matter. Does that pilot know how to fly this aircraft? Is that person holding the scalpel really a doctor? Truth matters. Facts are facts.
 
The word “normal" is a trickster because it means two completely different things to us. To a statistician, it describes a mound-shaped curve, something like an inverted U, that describes what we expect to find when we look at groups of things. The heights of people, the number of hours a light-bulb will last, the fuel efficiency of diesel engines are plotted on graphs and under many circumstances, we obtain a mound-shaped curve that meets certain mathematical criteria that allow us to call it the “normal” curve. This is quite technical. Because the normal curve is so ubiquitous in nature (and in manufacturing), because there is a tendency for observations to cluster around some central, average value, the normal curve has been used, particularly in medicine, to refer to what is “customary” or “healthy” or “optimal.” If your child’s height is not within the center part of the normal curve, it becomes a cause for worry. 
 
When the media report that school shootings are the new normal, or that long lines at airports are the new normal, or that a president-elect is conducting delicate diplomatic negotiations in 140 character tweets, they are not (necessarily) saying these things are “healthy” or even “optimal”, they are saying they are “customary” now, that they represent the average experience. 
 
Critical thinking means that we need to understand how words are being used, especially when they can be used in different ways. And we should ask people to use words that aren't ambiguous. I’d avoid using a word like “normal” and opt for one of the unambiguous related words, depending on the communicative intent.

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