The art of critical thinking. In our modern life, we are bombarded by vast amounts of data, far more than our genes prepared us for, so it is hardly surprising that the ability to think critically is one that needs to be learned.
Unlike computers, we humans are instinctive creatures and this allows us to grasp concepts without the need to check off every minuscule step in the sequence to a conclusion.
Our eyes are a demonstration of this phenomenon. Our brains ‘fill in the blanks’ after sampling a small percentage of the scene and then create a picture in our brains. The downside to this ability is missing important detail of what is in front of you and ignoring what the brain feels is not the main issue, instead creating a picture that ignores important aspects. The magician’s sleight of hand only fails when the brain has been alerted to the importance of other plainly visible moves.
In addressing important issues and making critical decisions the brain has a tendency to attempt to hold in contention a mass of detail. We try to hold at once, all the ‘facts’ or parameters we think are important to the decision. Good decision making comes from reducing this detail to the critical import of each group.
It becomes quite another process altogether to see this for what it is, an overview. To arrive as a considered conclusion, we need to see competing data sets as groups or suffer to our detriment, a focus on issues that are not at the core.
The ability to think clearly, that is, to focus on the core of an issue is not something we humans are particularly good at, so it needs some training to develop. The most effective tool to focus on the core of an issue is learning the art of critical thinking. How Your Opinions Are Formed, Without Your Consent.
We don’t naturally look for competing views when we are given information by someone older, trusted or perceived to be better informed or educated. Evolution has taught us to accept what we are told by those familiar to us, as truth, as a fact. This is especially true for children and we inherited the instinct to believe persons who were older, when warned about the dangers of wild animals, cliffs and fires to mention a few.
We descended from those who were good at accepting the advice from individuals from our group who appeared to be more experienced or wiser. This is the most significant factor in the acceptance of belief systems, beliefs that we would never accept as an adult if given us for the first time or from a source outside our familiar zone.
We have a strong desire to understand and make sense of the world. Our weakness is our willingness to accept an explanation that matches our prejudices or one that shows itself in a favourable light. It is even more acceptable if the explanation offers a benefit, like a second life / multiple lives for example. In ancient times, this provided the basis for belief in supernatural beings that controlled or even created the world.
Our instincts have not prepared us for familiar authoritative voices that have been added to our lives over the last one hundred years or so. The invention of newspapers, books and latterly the internet is not something for which our genes prepared us.
Today, the internet has become a sagacious de facto family member, totally enmeshed in our lives, even more so that some real family members, however it also provides the vehicle for the dissemination of incorrect information, ranging from the malicious to the honestly-made but inherently wrong. There are plenty of amateur ‘magicians’ out there revelling in the opportunities to exploit this feature of our evolution.
The most obvious manifestation of this is the popularity of the conspiracy theory. The internet is awash with them, well-mixed with the latest celebrity gossip, which is an example of deliberate misreporting for profit. The primary reason for their popularity is they are a perfect fit for our prejudices and preference for explanations that appeal to us.
The other primary source of bad information is inadvertent misreporting, where the journalist puts his or her critical thinking on hold, often under pressure to produce ’something/anything’ to report. Of course, serious and ethical journalists can also be fooled by sleight of hand so it is all the more important that all data be screened.
Questioning or doubting this information requires effort because it runs against our instinct to trust the word of those closest to us. This means having to put prejudices on a diet and that is not going to happen unless absolutely necessary. We tend to look for information that confirms what we want to hear or believe aka, confirmation bias.
At the same time we inherited the instinct to distrust information from those outside our family, circle or tribe so it is difficult, without training, to think critically about all information.
An easy example is news reporting from other countries which see the world from their perspective, the way events impact on them. This is often totally at odds with an impact on our lives and a different or even completely opposite interpretation that can come as a surprise.
A second example is information about the latest scientific discovery, hypothesis or more rarely, scientific theory. As this information comes from people or sources we are not familiar with, our first instinct is to distrust it for both the reasons stated above. One, we don’t ‘know’ these people and two, it often conflicts with our prejudices and ‘truths’ (often held since childhood) we received from more familiar sources.
It is important too, that we do not accept this kind of information as ‘truth’ either, for two good reasons. One, often we have no way of knowing to what extent the information has been critiqued and two, what we are reading/seeing/hearing has been filtered by a journalist, so what we receive is a summary, an impression or at best an understanding of the subject by another fallible human. (The psychological stress of holding two conflicting opinions is called Cognitive Dissonance and it a very real issue for many people.)
It is worth developing the attitude that everything you read, hear or see on television is both correct and incorrect. You could think of it as acquiring a ‘percentage filter‘. It’s only the percentages you have to guess. You can just about guarantee that it will be wrong in some aspect and not necessarily an insignificant aspect. Something of what you read, hear or see in the next 24 hours will be 100% wrong.
A danger lies here in that we generally believe we do all these things already. Like most things, this is both true and false. We are most critical on those subjects that are different or new but decidedly less critical about those that are in tune with our prejudices. The art or skill of critical thinking is developing the will to treat all information equally, asking of everything, ‘what is the truth/fact percentage demonstrated?’ or ‘what is the percentage filter gauge reading’?
You should also apply your filter to this article as there is almost certainly areas that can be strengthened to bring it closer to the magic 100% (a destination at which it will never arrive).
There can be few more important skills that can be given to someone than the ability to think critically. While this is an anathema to the purveyors of belief systems that depend on the majority taking the easy route and letting someone else do the thinking for them, nonetheless it must become a priority for educators.
You could easily draw a parallel with the hackneyed saying about ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach him to fish and feed him for life’. In this case, we need to give the young the ability to think critically so they have the skills to make good decisions.