Dr. Daniel J. Levitin

Thinking Critically in the Post-Truth Era: An Interview With Daniel J. Levitin

by Zoe Weil

Daniel J. Levitin is Founding Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, and a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley. He is an award-winning neuroscientist and educator, and his latest book is Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post Truth Era.

IHE recently added Dr. Levitin’s book to our graduate program curriculum, and he kindly agreed to answer a few questions:

ZW: Given our current political climate, with “alternative facts” and “fake news,” your book is more important than ever. Do you think that we’re witnessing fuzzier and more magical thinking due to the ways in which we obtain information now, and that critical thinking is on the decline, or does it simply appear this way because fact-checking allows us to uncover and share untruths more readily?

DL: The former — we’re witnessing fuzzier and less rational thinking in many spheres. Part of this is information overload — we don’t feel we have the time to check things out, and we’re overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information being thrust at us. But part of it is that most of us don’t know where to start. That’s why I wrote the book.

ZW: You emphasize the importance of bringing “careful thinking” and “time” to information verification. For those dedicated to verifying information, but with little time available, what recommendations would you suggest for when and how to negotiate fact-checking and validation in today’s world?

DL: There are some “quick probe” assumptions you can make that don’t take much time.

Ask yourself: is the source credible? If the only place you’re reading about an EU membership tax of £350M is on the side of a bus, it’s probably not true. Legitimate journalists would want to cover such a story — there’s a reason they didn’t.

Second, ask yourself if it is plausible. Hillary Clinton running a child sex slave ring out of a pizza parlor in suburban Washington D.C.? Given her speaking fees —$200,000 an hour and more — there are easier ways for her to make money with less risk.

ZW: Critical thinking is hard work. As you explain in your book, many forces and human tendencies inhibit our best efforts. What are some tips for staying vigilant about critical thinking?

DL: The first step is to recognize that we have these tendencies, these cognitive foibles. Then put systems in place to help prevent ourselves from succumbing to them. Finally, critical thinking isn’t something you do just once. It takes practice.

ZW: What assignment would you want graduate students in the field of humane education — who are teaching the next generation not only to be critical thinkers but also systems thinkers and compassionate problem-solvers for positive change — to complete after reading your book?

DL: I’d want them to take upon themselves not to forward or “like” a social network post until they’ve verified that it is true. I’d also like to see them try to teach critical humane thinking to others.