How do we wade through the multitude of spurious quotes, stories, and claims?
- Fact Check - Snopes.com or Factcheck.org are two good places to start. Of course, one should also fact check the fact checkers.
- Corroborate - Compare multiple sources of information. Check the credentials of the writers. Who funds the site? What agenda is served by the claims? Who benefits from this "evidence"?
- Contextualize - Based on social media memes, I would get the impression that the founding fathers lived in a vacuum, writing one liners and pithy quotes. They didn't. They wrote letters, speeches, and government documents. They addressed specific audiences for a defined purpose in a historical context. Read quotes in the original document. Use the immediate context to understand the connotation of words and phrases. Draw from the larger historical picture to find out what circumstances prompted the source. Historical thinking is hard work. The answers aren't always googleable. It requires us to immerse ourselves in a time and place much different than our own.
- Avoid Eisegesis and Proof-texting - Clear thinking requires us to shed our presuppositions and allow the authors of texts to speak on their own terms. If we go to sources seeking to affirm our political positions, we will inevitability do so. It's a function of cognitive psychology known as confirmation bias, a tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions.
- Appreciate nuance and shades of gray - Sweeping generalizations are easy to make. Digging deeper, we can see exceptions to general rules and significant differences between seemingly similar situations.
Remember the words of Lincoln...