Dr. Brian Jones has a PhD in exercise science and is a full-time professor at the University of Louisville where he teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses. He approaches all his courses with a scientific mindset, emphasizing the importance of critical thinking.
Recently, Dr. Jones sent me a file containing one of his lectures on critical thinking. The lecture was for college students, but after reading the file I thought the subject matter would be great for everyone to know, not just those who are attending college. In the following interview, we discuss important points on critical thinking and approaches to knowledge.
I think most people know that the media is not the best source for reliable information. Yet, many seem to almost exclusively turn to the media for knowledge. Why do so many people continue to rely on the media for accurate information?
The reason that people rely so heavily on the media for information is equal parts naiveté and laziness. All media has an agenda. In our age the agenda is to sell something — a shampoo, a car, or a political candidate.
Most people lack training as critical consumers of information. They read, watch, or listen to obtain information without pausing to evaluate it. Others realize that the media has an agenda but don’t want to expend the effort to think critically. They simply delegate their decisions to someone else — someone who most likely does not have their best interest in mind. I suspect that most people fall somewhere in between.
In your excellent lecture on critical thinking you discuss the Halo Effect. What is it and how does it influence the dissemination of information?
The Halo Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which people assume, erroneously, that because a person is an expert in one field he is an expert in another field.
For instance if a neurosurgeon offers you advice on automotive repair, should you take it? Is that advice any truer than what you would get from your friend who has no degree but has had to fix his own car numerous times? Of course not. Neurosurgeons know neurosurgery. Unless the surgeon has training and/or extensive experience with cars his guess is a good as mine.
We fall prey to the Halo Effect whenever we attribute special status to information given to us by an expert even though the information is on a topic outside his field.
Madison Avenue knows about this and often uses professionals to sell products or ideas. In fact, advertisers are even aware that the trappings of professionalism will lend extra weight to what someone says. Dress someone in a lab coat or seat them in front of a bookshelf and suddenly you are getting expert advice. To be critical consumers we must always evaluate the source of our information.
How do you differentiate primary, secondary, and tertiary literature?
Primary literature is scientific literature. These are the actual studies done by researchers and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. As far as scientific evidence goes this is the gold standard.
Secondary sources are review articles or textbooks that are not actual studies, but summaries of the published research. Secondary literature always has an extensive bibliography so that those interested can see which primary literature supports the claims made.
Tertiary sources are popular books, magazines, and television shows which present information without any references at all. The information found in tertiary sources may or may not be legitimate and it’s often impossible to tell because sources are rarely provided.
Part two of the interview coming soon!
Photo by Matt Callow, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.