Nash column: Apply critical thinking before spreading information | Opinion

Although my father quit school in eighth grade to work on his family’s farm, he was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. That’s because he didn’t let the lack of a formal education stop him from learning. He never stopped studying and eventually became a successful financial consultant.

The wisest thing he ever said to me was, “The more you learn, the more you realize you need to learn.”

Anyone who does research knows how that works. One question leads to another, and off you go into an unending rabbit’s warren of information that inevitably leads to new and different topics. In the end, you learn much more than you’d expected.

The only requirements to continual learning are a sense of curiosity and the courage to question. If something doesn’t seem right, that’s a signal to dig deeper. Even questioning authority figures, if done in a civil manner, is a step closer to knowledge and truth.

Walt Whitman, one of the world’s most famous poets, gave this advice in the 1855 Preface of his poem, “Leaves of Grass”: “Reexamine all you have been told in school or church or in any book.” I would also add: examine everything you’re told by politicians and look into their pasts and, if they’re already in office, their voting records. Never be afraid to ask questions and insist on truthful answers.

Albert Einstein, a theoretical physicist and one of the world’s most famous intellectual geniuses, said, “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”

Our search for truth and knowledge should never end. When he was 87, the famous artist Michelangelo said, “I am still learning.” So should we all be. And we’re lucky; the internet makes it so much easier to find information than it used to be.

But there’s a risk to that, too. With social media, fake news sites and chain emails spreading misleading or false information, it’s more difficult to know truth from fiction. Because most of us navigate toward stories that support what we want to believe, we need to be careful and responsible before passing it on. So, it’s on us to check the sources and credibility of anything we hear or read, especially if it seems outlandish or comes from a partisan or questionable source.

Fortunately, there are guidelines to help us determine the truth of a statement or article. Doing an internet search on “How to spot fake news” will result in several links to fact-checking sites and advice for learning what’s credible and what isn’t. Some of them are:, and

It’s easy to be fooled. Liberals and conservatives can find just about anything they want to support their deeply held beliefs on politics, so a fact-check is recommended before we share information, which may end up making us feel foolish when it’s debunked by credible sources. Those of us who have fallen for false information have quickly learned to question anything we find from sources that are out of the mainstream.

But it’s not just outright lies that lead us astray. Some news sites misinform us by leaving out crucial information or news that goes against their partisan agendas. Fox News is famous for that. If a news item doesn’t fit its political stance, it’s rarely, if ever, mentioned. Instead, it diverts the audience’s attention to other subjects that support its views and ignores the news that’s being dispersed by other, credible sources. Some call that “lying by omission.”

Politics isn’t the only area involved in fake news. There are scientific sites that spread fear based on unverified and faulty studies. One example is the anti-vaccine movement. It cites a few studies that are not scientifically based that claim vaccines are harmful instead of life-saving.

There also are pseudo-scientific sites citing questionable studies that “prove” humans have not contributed to climate change, even though more than 97 percent of climate scientists claim evidence to the contrary. The few so-called scientists who make the false claims have often been paid by the fossil fuel industry, a group that profits from the untruths. For example, Exxon knew the truth long ago, but hid the information from the public. For verification, see “Exxon Knew about Climate Change almost 40 years ago” in the Oct. 26, 2015, issue of Scientific American.

Liberals also depend on misinformation when they claim solar and wind energy are pollution-free. They ignore the fact that the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines requires rare earth minerals and iron ore, the products of highly polluting mining operations.

Those who claim they know everything are probably the least informed because they’ve stopped learning. Let’s not be one of them.

Pat Nash has lived in the Baraboo area, off and on, for more than 30 years. Contact her at [email protected].