| A Survival Guide for the Era of Fake News
|Critical thinking is now more important than ever before.
Last year I was invited to give a lecture on Critical Thinking to
the US Navy. I opened my presentation with a story I’d read in
Reader’s Digest magazine as a child. It’s an old story you may
have heard before, but it’s a perfect introduction to the
importance of critical thinking. Here’s how it goes:
A newlywed husband observing his wife preparing a roast beef
was shocked to see her slice an inch off the end of the meat
and toss it in the trash. “Why did you do that?” he asked. She
shrugged and replied, “I don’t know; it’s what my mother
always did.” Baffled that anyone would waste good meat, and
curious to learn the answer, he phoned his mother-in-law and
put the question to her. Her response was the same as her
daughter's, “It’s the way my mother did it.” Knowing his wife’s
grandmother was still alive, he phoned her next. Upon hearing
the question, the older woman laughed, “Oh my, I don’t do
that anymore. When I was younger and poorer, I only had
one pan and a roast wouldn’t fit in it unless I cut the end off.”
At some point in our lives, all of us have heard these words,
“That’s how we’ve always done it.” These six words are a
tip-off that it’s time to reexamine a technique, a method, or
a course of action, and the motivation behind it.
In many organizations people fail to question everyday
practices, processes, and procedures and repeat them by
rote. There are traditions we accept that enslave us and
hold us back. Much of our thinking is biased, partial, and
uninformed. To be fair, that’s because of what we are taught;
and it doesn’t occur to us to question it. On top of that there
are people and organizations with vested interests who will
resist change in order to not lose money, power, influence,
market share, seniority, and so forth. That resistance can
take the form of denial, misdirection, obfuscation, or even
punishment of those who push for change.
I regularly come across suspicious material on social media,
in advertising, and even word-of-mouth. When I begin to
notice that I am being told what to think by multiple
sources, it triggers my critical thinking to kick in. Today
we are inundated with lies, propaganda, and fake news
by politicians, government, corporations, and the media. We
need to protect ourselves by developing critical thinking
Critical thinking is about forming a judgment. It is about
examining and evaluating information that we have
received. Testing it, applying scientific methods, and
interpreting it. However, we must be aware that it will be
influenced by our personal motivations, such as beliefs,
assumptions, and experiences. In order to be a critical
thinker, we must become aware of our biases. We must
ask ourselves, “Do I have the integrity and humility to
question my own prejudices?" If so, we can be much
more objective in our assessments.
To be a critical thinker, we must ask the right questions.
Some examples include: “Will you be more specific?”
“Can you give me more details?” “Can you show me an
example or give me a demonstration?” “How can I verify
that?” “Why is this a problem?” “How can we look at this
from a different perspective?” “What is your proof?” “Is
your proof based on scientific method or is it anecdotal?”
“Can this situation/condition be duplicated or is it
Critical thinkers ask, “What is the evidence?” Evidence must
be comprehensive, sufficient, and honest. It should be
compared to known theories, laws, axioms, principles,
definitions, and models. The critical thinker should test it
against his or her own information, data, facts, observations,
and experiences, along with those of people they trust.
Critical thinking can also rely on common sense which is
the experiential knowledge that is shared by most people.
Critical thinkers use logic. They ask, “Are all the premises
true?” A premise is a proposition upon which an argument
is based. They are the reasons from which a conclusion is
drawn. When someone presents you with an argument,
make sure they aren’t baffling you with logical fallacies (look
up the most common logical fallacies to arm yourself against
their use - you’ll be surprised by how often they come up).
To be a critical thinker, you must question the purpose, the
goals, and the objectives of the source of the information.
For example you might ask, “Who funded the research or
study?” or “Who stands to gain from this?”
Thinking critically is about deciding what to believe. Critical
thinkers do more than question authority, they question
everything. Making inquiries is also the beginning of
creative thinking. And, challenging the status quo is how
innovative ideas are born. Best of all, when you stop
accepting unevaluated information as truth, you’ll be amazed
at how liberating it is.
© Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.