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Why “obvious” research on critical thinking should be done anyway

I’m scrolling through the latest science news with my morning coffee when I stumble upon this gem: “Study finds lack of critical thinking skills linked to belief in conspiracy theories.”

Being the psychology geek that I am, of course I devour it, then post it on my social media feed.

Studies like this seem to do nothing but show the obvious, and the people who read them (including me) often complain that they give us no new information. Responses to this research are usually something like “well duh. “

But no matter how obvious these studies appear, the reality is that they are not obvious at all. And that’s the problem.

Again, you’re probably thinking “well, duh.” But hear me out, because there’s more to it.

First, the people most likely to believe in conspiracy theories are also the most vocal about their own critical thinking skills. Many have learned lots of psychological terms for biases and point them out in others, all while blissfully confident they are free of them. This isn’t just me complaining, this is well-documented in the research on motivated reasoning. Maybe some hard data showing a clear link between a specific conspiracy theory and lack of critical thinking can nudge the people who believe it (and all of us really) into a little self reflection. Which is, when I think about it, really the core skill for critical thinking.

There’s another reason to keep doing “obvious” research on critical thinking: it helps us to clarify just what it is. As someone who has done a bit of research I can attest to the hours spent agonizing over how to precisely “operationalize” a vague but important term. And as someone who has read the lit on critical thinking I know how poorly defined it really is. The same problem exists for terms like “conspiracy theory” or “fake news.” The more scientists work on this the more clarity we can get on some pretty important stuff.

Finally, studying conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and misinformation matters more than ever because we are dealing with them more than ever. They are everywhere. From PTA meetings to presidential tweets, to doctor’s offices, the problem is not just in your high school friend’s posts anymore, it has gone fully mainstream and it is literally killing people.

Researchers are taking notice too. In the past 18 months there have been as many studies published on the problem of misinformation as in the past decade.

We need obvious research, as much as we can possibly get, to really grasp the nature of this problem and what to do about it. Because the only thing that is really obvious about it is that we have a huge problem to work on and we have nowhere near enough information about it.

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