Curated vs horizontal information spaces
We are all living in an increasingly information saturated world, literally at our fingertips. With a touch of a screen, we can delve deeply into any area of interest, and find answers to even random curiosities. Part of the uniqueness and beauty of this historical moment is the horizontal, participative way these vast resources of information are being continuously constructed, mostly on a voluntary basis. Whether one is 16 or 66, an expert, a newbie, a professional, or an amateur, all can contribute to this relatively open space provided by the internet and social media.
In the past, medical, scientific, technological, and other types of specialized knowledge were mostly only available in curated spaces, such as journals that were regulated by certain kinds of professional standards. Journalists of mainstream broadcasting companies also had some ethical standards of fact-checking to adhere to, in order to be published in the mass media that reached most of us. Official narratives and propaganda were easier to distribute and control as there were fewer channels that enjoyed enough legitimacy or readership to seriously challenge them.
Tabloid sensationalism relegated to the sidelines
Tabloid papers, on the other hand, thriving on sensational headlines, overt celebrity gossip, and even far-fetched fantasy claims held an entertaining, popular appeal for audiences that felt alienated by the more sophisticated, yet dry intellectualism in mainstream mass media. They enjoyed a persistent if marginalized position in public discourse. If looking for serious information on a topic, however, it was pretty easy to identify and filter out information coming from tabloid sources as unreliable, due to their muddy reputations.
Wild-west of the internet
However, the internet has upended that landscape. The sheer volume of information being constantly generated and posted online, makes it nearly impossible to efficiently fact-check what ends up there, not to mention free-speech protection in most modern democracies. This function is rather left to the information consumer. It is a Wild-West, largely unregulated frontier. While seemingly good news for those suspicious of political or other types of censorship, or even just mainstream narratives, at the same time, it leaves us quite exposed and vulnerable to other kinds of manipulation and distortion from people that are quite skilled at capturing our attention. Some of it may be coming from well-intentioned but simply misinformed people, positioning themselves as experts in fields that they actually have relatively little knowledge of, others may be purposefully misleading or click-baiting for personal profit and/or name and fame.
People that would have never picked up a tabloid newspaper to read seriously can find themselves seduced into reading posts forwarded to them by trusted peers and friends that are similarly sensationalized and distorted. Often such posts use a savvy, manipulative mix of just enough facts or plausible information, frequently taken out of context, to lend seeming credibility and legitimacy to otherwise outlandish claims.
Particularly, in the past year, dissatisfaction and frustration have been increasingly building up in the population around the world, due to the restrictions that the pandemic has imposed on our personal lives and economies. Naturally, the sense of powerlessness in the face of an invisible enemy can lead to a number of psychological responses, including denial and anger. In some cases, people minimize the actual risks, become numb to the incomprehensibly large death tolls, or negate them altogether. In others, the frustration and anger they experience seek a simpler target to blame, such as institutions, corporations, or the scientific community. This creates a situation ripe for exploitation by those seeking to position themselves as influencers, opinion leaders, or experts and gain large online followings. Significant segments of the population are primed to believe information that validates needs like the ones mentioned above. As a consequence, there has been a notable rise in the popularity of disinformation. Even if people do not completely swallow the messaging coming from those sources, they have been effective in seeding enough doubt, mistrust, and skepticism to seriously undermine public health initiatives.
Using Neohumanist methods to distinguish critical analysis from deceptive disinformation
How can we apply Neohumanist methods for rationalistic thinking to navigate this informational sea with effective discernment and offer clarity in this confusion? How to discriminate between valid critical analysis of exploitative institutions and structures and deceptive disinformation that can actually lead us away from Neohumanist objectives?
In Liberation of Intellect, Shrii P.R. Sarkar offers several important tools for rational analysis. First, he emphasizes the necessity of study, both in the usual, intellectual sense of the term as well as to contemplate wisdom teachings. Throughout this important seminal work, he discusses the cultivation of rationalistic mentality. This can be understood as a firm grounding in a spiritual perspective that recognizes our common bond to all other people and beings, giving us a perennial source of strength to challenge toxic, but powerful sentimental narratives that accord superiority or enmity to particular nations, races, social groups, or even humanity itself, thus keeping us divided and unable to solve the problems facing us as a species.
He also points out the potential pitfalls inherent in studying. In particular, he identifies the risk of constructing knowledge on defective, partial knowledge when the writer or authority’s knowledge that we rely on is flawed. He defines this as the defect of ignorance. He also points out the importance of being aware of the context of time, place, and person, as relying on obsolete knowledge can similarly produce defective thinking. Indeed, as all mundane knowledge is relative, rather than absolute, it is all eventually subject to becoming out of date. In our fast-moving informational environment, this risk is even more elevated.
Next Shrii P.R. Sarkar discusses the importance of being able to take a critical stance during study, in order to be able to detect exploitation. And finally, he stresses the importance of firmly establishing oneself in the perspective of collective welfare over individual selfish interest, when evaluating decisions.
All of this points out the important responsibility Neohumanist thought leaders have to develop accurate, methodical study habits that embody the rationalistic mentality delineated by Shrii P.R. Sarkar. We must be careful and discriminating in questioning sources of information. This is all the more important in the current informational free-for-all.
As Neohumanism takes a critical stance towards the currently dominant worldview of capitalism, which contains inherently exploitative tendencies, this leads to an openness in considering alternative narratives and views. Some of these can be useful, insightful, and indeed expose distortions or exploitation present in mainstream messaging.
Applying critical thinking outside of the mainstream
However, it is extremely important, to apply the same level of critical thinking, not only to conventional, capitalist influenced perspectives but also to those coming from alternative sources. In the current world context, it is quite interesting, yet sobering to note that those on the extreme left and the extreme right, both suspicious of the mainstream establishment but for very different motives, are finding themselves meeting on very strange common ground in conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
Fast and slow thinking
In order to become more discerning in how we consume, digest, and further propagate information, it is helpful to become aware of the subconscious ways our thinking can be influenced. As mentioned above, Shrii P.R. Sarkar identifies three types of movement in our cognition – instinct, sentiment, and rationalistic mentality. The first two move very rapidly, impulsively, often quite unhindered by conscious, rational thought. However, the last type of movement is relatively slow and takes time. In that process, it is very helpful to have a good working understanding of the various logical fallacies and biases that can influence our thinking, so that we can recognize and guard against them.
The writer David Kahneman similarly describes two “systems” for processing information – in his book “Fast and Slow Thinking”. System one is a fast, seemingly intuitive, but often deeply flawed approach to thinking as it relies on different mental shortcuts (heuristics) that we subconsciously cultivate for being able to make rapid, efficient decisions, vs system two in which we carefully activate our analytical ability to clearly see an issue and come to a conclusion.
Both commercial marketers and social change workers have studied these phenomena in-depth, as a clear understanding of how our brain and neurology are wired to more easily make sentimental versus reasoned choices can be used both for commercial gain or for encouraging positive social change. Some recent resources for further studying of mental heuristics and their more positive uses can be found in “Change for Good” by Bernard Ross and “Factfulness”, Hans Rosling,
These works reinforce the necessity of slowing down to take the time to do a careful analysis, when needing to make important moral decisions that have implications not only for ourselves but also for those looking to us a source of leadership and wisdom.
Rationalistic mentality – beyond logic towards awakened conscience
However, if making a careful, logical analysis by drawing on source materials that are defective, our conclusion will also be defective. Here, P.R. Sarkar offers a unique tool that goes beyond mere logical analysis and brings a moral dimension into the process of rational decision-making. This tool is called awakened conscience.
Whereas conscience typically refers to that inner faculty that allows us to discriminate between good and bad, the awakened aspect refers to the awareness of a deep sense of solidarity and interconnection with all beings as an extension of selfhood. This leads to a firm dedication to collective welfare (sam’samaja tattva) and motivates one to transcend personal self-interest, in the service of that larger, more expansive, and inclusive sense of collective welfare.
A deeper understanding of truth
So, the question during analytical processes for a Neohumanist becomes, not only is it true, in the factual, logical sense of the term, but is it true in the sense of aligning with the deeper universal truths about ourselves and the world?
Obviously, we should seek to accept information that first of all, check out on a factual level. As there is a flood of information competing for our attention, it can be wise to be extremely selective about which kinds of information we decide to dedicate our precious time to even take the time to deeply analyze.
How to fact-check for reliability?
Most of us are familiar with the term fact-checking, but how do the professional fact-checkers go about the daunting task of sifting through the myriad of false and misleading claims going viral every day? They use a process called lateral reading. Rather than staying within a given article, posting or website to deeply evaluate it for inconsistencies, logical fallacies, etc., as traditional media literacy techniques and critical thinking would stipulate, fact-checkers briefly scan the article and then they quickly open up other browser windows to look into the source of the information itself. They verify: Who is the author, what are their credentials? Are they truly a qualified expert in the field? What other types of information are coming from that same source? What are other sources saying about the same subject, in particular sources that are peer-reviewed by other professionals in that field of expertise? If a headline already triggers red flags as dubious, claiming to be “the real truth they don’t want you to know” or “read this before it gets taken down” etc., an even faster shortcut can be to google the main claim and simply add “fake news” or “fact check” to it and see if that produces any hits from professional fact-checking sites.
These days, people often use the term “research” rather loosely to include any type of googling on a subject of interest, without necessarily differentiating legitimate from illegitimate sources of information, and without regulating the tendency towards confirmation bias, in which we selectively seek out information that further strengthens our existing convictions. Most of us are not aware of the “echo-chambers” that we live in, as a fish is not aware of the water it swims in. Thanks to the sophisticated A.I. algorithms tracking our online interests, when we google search, the results are already pre-filtered and personalized to reflect the political views and interests that it deduces we will resonate with. Because of this, if we want to understand what people with differing opinions see in their google feeds, we must actively seek out that information by going to sources and sites that we would not come across naturally.
Arm-chair experts and glamourous Youtube stars
Another pitfall of the lateralization of knowledge is the emergence of armchair experts. Unfortunately, this has led to people that have spent their whole careers carefully acquiring specialized knowledge to be discounted in favour of more glamourous, charismatic speakers that have very little real in-depth understanding of the issue.
For example, “New Age” self-proclaimed internet gurus may have beautifully produced materials that are attractive and well-marketed, yet superficial, watering down or even gravely distorting more classical, traditional spiritual teachings. A similar phenomenon is also happening with science, medicine, and other specialized fields.
For Neohumanist thinkers, research should include a careful analysis of the pros and cons of an argument. It is important to take the time, whenever possible to seek out reliable primary source materials. If evaluating a scientific claim, for example, to look for published papers in reputable online journals, such as Cell, Nature, or the Lancet. The discipline of checks and balances that exists in the scientific community through the peer-review process by boards of independent experts in the same field should not be casually disregarded. While it can be useful to investigate multiple viewpoints, including those from outside our echo-chambers, it is important to give proper weight to those that have undergone a rigorous process of validation.
Next step after fact checking:
However, even if we are satisfied that a piece of information has passed fact-checking criteria, to fully apply rationalistic mentality and awakened conscience to our thinking process we must take it a step further and judge whether or not it is aligned with the principle of collective welfare.
This can be illustrated more clearly with some familiar examples:
Can Neohumanists pin capitalist domination on an ethnicity?
For example, when analyzing an alternative perspective that indicates that the world is being controlled by an all-powerful, wealthy elite, this may at first glance, seem to coincide with a PROUTist perspective that the world is currently dominated by the materialistic, capitalist mentality.
However, if we dig into that narrative, and discover that it is feeding into an anti-Semitic trope very similar to the ones that have been used to incite groupist hatred, violence, and persecution of the Jews for centuries, should a Neohumanist continue to endorse such views? If we shine a similarly critical and questioning perspective onto the source of such information, what agendas and groups would be served by the acceptance and propagation of this perspective? Would it lead to greater human solidarity and eliminate groupism or exploitation? Is a certain psychic wave dominating our collective mentality equivalent to an entire ethnic group being to blame? Do such views inform constructive, systemic changes? However, such claims hopefully would have also already triggered red flags, as they tend to rely on circular reasoning and multiple logical fallacies that are beyond the scope of this article.
How to apply Neohumanist awakened conscience to COVID vaccination
The polarized vaccine debate for COVID-19 provides another salient, recent example for applying the Neohumanist decision-making process. It is important to keep in the forefront the Neohumanist concept of awakened conscience, which places the emphasis on collective welfare in the specific context of a global pandemic that has claimed millions of lives.
A historic teachable moment
The pandemic has provided a pivotal, teachable moment for humanity, in which the behaviors necessary to limit and stop a pandemic require a shift away from the dominant individualism of capitalism towards a less familiar collective mindset. On the individual level, wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, limiting travel, and getting a vaccination, all require small inconveniences and even sacrifices to our personal freedoms. However, in the light of a global pandemic, unprecedented in scope for most of our current generation’s experience, that has claimed millions of lives, should Neohumanists give greater importance to individual freedoms or towards protecting the vulnerable in our society by taking simple, proactive measures? What can we do individually and socially to help end this pandemic?
In terms of also evaluating the safety of vaccines, which is essentially a scientific question, are we consulting source materials from reliable, peer-reviewed scientific sources, or are we possibly falling prey to those eager to feed off of the fear of novelty and boiling mass discontent for personal gain, name or fame? When investigating dissenting opinions, do we take the time to do at least a quick fact-checking of such claims, questioning the sources, and verifying the credentials and reputation of those that are lending their authority to such positions? Are we aware of the natural negativity bias in the news that gives disproportionate attention to statistically rare incidents of adverse reactions compared to the vast numbers of those vaccinated without incident?
Of course, those who have medical conditions that may put them at risk for severe allergic reactions should take appropriate precautions, on a personal level. On the other hand, some of us may tend to be more biased towards natural remedies, and consider simply building up our own immunity in natural ways. While we may be convinced that we will not come down with a serious case, how can we protect others should we inadvertently become asymptomatic carriers that are perpetuating the spread?
Beyond intellectual method, the inner dimension of rationalistic mentality
Neohumanist awakened conscience arises from the personal, continuous practice of expanding one’s sense of identity towards a cosmic consciousness both during meditation and in day-to-day life. As the imperceptible, slow but steady growth of a tree’s roots can gradually rupture through rigid cement and asphalt, so a living spiritual practice can steadily disrupt even the deepest subconscious patterns that divide us artificially from our oneness with “others”. However, it is clear that meditation is not by itself the panacea. Unfortunately, plenty of good meditators are still under the sway of either subtle or overt forms of groupism and bias, probably because of incomplete realization, but also because of the insidious hold of subconscious forces and cultural imprinting. An internal spiritual practice must be augmented by a conscious, determined dedication to social justice and collective, planetary welfare in order to achieve the Neohumanist vision of awakened conscience.
Throughout history, there have been many highly elevated and developed spiritual saints, that did not engage in social change, but rather retreated from society. Neohumanism, on the other hand, proposes a new vision of spiritual elevation that includes a deep commitment to collective welfare. It challenges us to liberate our intellects from sentimental biases and distortions through the cultivation of rationalistic mentality and universal love.
Don’t go down the rabbit hole:
Lateral thinking: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3048994
Undecided on getting a covid-19 vaccine beware of these two cognitive biases: https://www.forbes.com/sites/coronavirusfrontlines/2021/01/09/undecided-on-getting-a-covid-19-vaccine-beware-of-these-two-cognitive-biases/
How to spot fake news: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fake-news.htm