On the Importance of Critical Thinking

This morning I saw a post claiming that, "Over half of all mobile searches lead to a purchase." I found this claim to be bold beyond the point of believability. Taking myself as a single data point, I do many searches on my mobile phone each day and rarely - almost never - do they lead to a purchase of anything. Perhaps I am a crazy outlier, but I called BS on the poster and asked him for a source to back up such an audacious claim.

The poster sent me a link to this page, which turned out to be just a blogger's summary of some research published by Google in 2010. Leaving aside the use of four-year-old data being used as "facts" today - which would be quite a big leap in and of its own right - I quickly found the reference being promoted by the original poster. According to this blogger, "Google says that 9 out of 10 mobile search users have 'taken action as a result of a mobile search, with over half leading to a purchase.'”

By this point my spider senses were really tingling. Did Google actually say that? And, if so, did they actually mean it the way the blogger - and ultimately the re-poster - communicated it? Unsurprisingly, a Google search for this particular research report returned the correct document as the top search result. A brief scan of that document revealed that the blogger was referencing quotes from pages 17 and 18.

On page 17 of the report, Google claims that, "9 out of 10 searchers have taken action as a result of a smartphone search." This result was obtained from 5,000 survey takers in response to the question: "Which, if any, of the following actions have you taken as a result of conducting a search on your smartphone?" Apparently 9 out of 10 respondents said they had ever taken some action as the result of a smartphone search.

On page 18, the slide title is, "More than half of Smartphone Searchers Purchase." This conclusion was drawn from responses to the same question. Apparently 5.3 out of 10 respondents said they had ever purchased something as the result of a smartphone search.

The author combined these two quotes - and misquoted them - to write, "Google says that 9 out of 10 mobile search users have 'taken action as a result of a mobile search, with over half leading to a purchase.'” In so doing, he implied that more than half of all mobile searches lead to a purchase, instead of the true meaning, that more than half of people who use mobile search have ever purchased something as a result of mobile search.

At best this is sloppy journalism and, at worst, it is willful twisting of meanings to further the blogger's own agenda. Either way, it was blindly picked up by the re-poster and posted without any source checking or diligence.

This is a long anecdote about something pretty trivial but it reminds me of the changing nature of "information" today. It used to be that we had to search high and low for most information and there were only a few, trusted sources of well vetted information, like encyclopedias. Now, an instantaneous search will yield millions of pages of information about any topic we seek, many ostensibly from "authoritative" sources. So finding information is no longer a critical skill; finding good information is much more important.

Critical thinking is the key to filtering such information overload to find the good nuggets. Critical thinking is further complicated by our very human tendencies toward confirmation bias. We tend to be much less critical and much more trusting of claims that reinforce our existing beliefs. Likewise we tend to be much more critical of those sources of information that cause cognitive dissonance for us, often resorting to ad hominem attempts to discredit the source or other fallacies.

I wonder how much of the art of critical thinking is being intentionally developed in our young students these days. I know of one teacher who specifically teaches a high school course on critical thinking, but I wonder how exceptional she is. If we spend all of our efforts teaching students legacy skills like information regurgitation for standardized tests, then I fear for our next generation. If that's the case, then I'm buying Google stock, because there will be a lot of people blindly spending way too much on mobile search advertising soon . . .

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