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Thursday, March 14, 2013

All advice is not equal

We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information. More new information is produced each year (perhaps in an even shorter time frame) than our grandparents would have been exposed to in their lifetime. Sights, sounds and words constantly fill our lives and an answer can quickly be found to any question that may come to mind.

All this information makes it vitally important that we think critically about the messages, images, information and advice we are exposed to, especially at times when we are under pressure. When we feel unsure or overwhelmed, our ‘critical-literacy-guard’ is likely to be down and we are susceptible to taking what we are offered at face value, sort of ‘grasping at straws’, only seeing or hearing the bits that fit with our world view of the moment.

Our children, growing up in the ‘Information Age’ learn to evaluate websites, to understand the conventions of film and television and how to interpret the message in written material. They learn to analyze and evaluate information and to develop an understanding that language, as a social construct, is never neutral. Behind the words are messages and we can use words to inform, persuade, entertain and even manipulate. Sometimes what isn’t said has more importance than what is. We need to make sure we too evaluate and think critially, even though many of us have become digitally literate a little later in life than our children. 

In these times of information excess it is a simple matter for anyone to publish their thoughts in one of the many forms of media. Anyone can present themselves as an ‘expert’. The problem with everyone being an ‘expert’ is that everyone feels qualified to give advice.

The reality is not all advice is equal.

We need to assess not only the qualification of the person giving the advice, but any hidden agenda they may have, any constraints on the information they can or do share, the way it is represented (perhaps as the ‘only logical solution’) any connotations attached. And what they might not have said.

When we are new to something, or feeling overwhelmed by a situation, it can be easy to accept what we are told, without placing it in context, or thinking about it from different angles. Social media, while it can be a great way to find support and even information, can also increase the likelihood that we will succumb to ‘group think’, the tendency within a group to reach a consensus decision (and avoid conflict) without actually critically evaluating other points of view or really considering alternative courses of action. Or be influenced by a point made repeatedly, whether it is helpful to us or not, let alone accurate.

We have all done it, grasped what looked like ‘the’ answer, only to find later that it was actually a part of the answer, or that the information it contained led us down a path that turned out to be a detour.

Here’s a few things to keep in mind as you evaluate advice or information, especially relating to your child or a situation you would like to see changed.

Details matter – consider the difference between the word ‘will’ and ‘may’ for instance. As far as policy goes, this is a big one but it also applies in many other situations.

Question authorities – everyone has an agenda. Sometimes even those we might consider ‘experts’ don’t know what they don’t know. Consider information in the light of what else you know and other information that is available.

Beware of sweeping statements – very few things apply equally to us all. It can look comforting if we are told that a particular option or intervention works for ‘everyone’, but in reality, it rarely does. Even attending school which is a fairly universal experience in modern cultures isn’t for everyone.

Watch for bias – our own as well as that of the person offering the advice. It can influence what we hear as well as what is said.

Our intuition can be a good guide too, if we tune into it, especially if we couple it with a good dose of critical thinking.

How’s your today?


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