How to see through coronavirus hype

When looking for how the pandemic ends and when the economy returns to normal, critical thinking techniques can help.

by Gemma Milne
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2020
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Coronavirus is complicated, which makes critical thinking more important than ever. Business leaders need to dissect swathes of information, opinion and data in a constantly evolving emergency situation to make informed decisions for the future.

Hype can cloud that judgement, and it isn’t always easy to spot. Unlike fake news and pseudoscience, which is routinely debunked by relevant experts, hyped-up narratives have an element of truth in them. The trick is not to assume everything you read is incorrect, but rather to find the nuance. 

There are a few tricks though which can get you off to the right start.

Get into a critical thinking mindset

Many media headlines or and corporate reports will summarise an idea in absolutist terms: ‘we must do X’, or ‘thing Y is true’. These are used as a shortcut to quickly make arguments; they are not necessarily false – but they miss out key ideas in their simplicity. 

So to find the nuance in these ideas, ask yourself: ‘Depending on what?’. It’s not about denying expertise, but about getting yourself into a state of questioning as opposed to simply soaking in information without thought: it’s a pause before you start your thinking.

Work out why hype is being used

Magic is ‘consensual fooling’ – you go to a magic show to be fooled – and lying is ‘non-consensual fooling’. Hype can be thought of ‘accidental fooling’; the messages put out are not intended to mislead, but when taken in the wrong context, the person receiving them can end up misinformed. Hype is a powerful tool, and it’s employed by people keen to get important messages out – they want to grab your attention. 

Knowing that hype is a tool means you can look at a message in a different way: you can ask yourself why hype is being used. Is the person trying to sell something, or convince you to act in a certain way, or expose something problematic, or entertain? Consider why and how the message got in front of you, and be conscious of the context when interpreting the words.

Wear more hats

Spotting hype is about embracing complexity. Searching for the right or wrong answer is hard when faced with a question such as ‘what next?’ in the middle of a pandemic – there are many facets, sometimes contradictory, to consider. 

To navigate this complexity, you can ‘map’ the system of ideas to explore scenarios. Plotting this map means wearing different hats. 

Put on your own hat, what does the question mean in your own personal life? Then put on your parents’ or grandparents’: what does it mean in theirs? Take someone living in a different country, or in a different job, or 50 years in the future. Consider how things play out for them – as many as you like – and build that mind-map of scenarios. 

Only by removing your own blinkers can you start to gain broader clarity.

Be confident

The difference between great critical thinkers and those who routinely get caught up in hype is not natural intelligence, formal education or job title. People who are great critical thinkers are not afraid of jumping into complex topics when they don’t understand them.

They are ok with being wrong, if it means they get closer to truth. They are excited by the quest of finding things out. They don’t let the fear of ‘oh I couldn’t possibly understand something so tough’ stop them from trying. 

Spotting hype means engaging with the topic, no matter how hard you may perceive it to be. The fear of misunderstanding ironically fuels itself. So be honest with yourself about what bits of information you don’t understand, and jump into working out answers; don’t run away. 

The coronavirus pandemic is complicated. Things are changing every day. But as business leaders, and as citizens, you have both the means and a responsibility of sorts to exercise critical thinking, engage with the information out there, and – in doing even just a small bit more than what you’re doing currently – start to see past the hype.

Gemma Milne is author of Smoke & Mirrors – How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It (Robinson, £14.99)

Image credit: Peter Hall/Keystone/Getty Images


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