Content questions: Critical Thinking 101

In my first content questions piece, I cited Robert D. Kaplan’s Washington Post article, in which he describes how people use content to distort and deceive — how information becomes misinformation and then the misinformation is amplified.

wolf in a forest

Reader Mark Baker proffered this comment:

This is an old wolf in new sheep’s clothing, but there are so many wolves now, and their sheep’s clothing is such a bad fit that we can always see their paws and teeth sticking out.

I respectfully disagree.

This is not to pick on Mark, with whom — based on his subsequent comments and on other conversations we’ve had in this forum — I agree on most things. But here, at least, I think he understates the problem.

Sure, sometimes it’s easy to spot the content frauds. Just like in Cold War-era spy movies, you knew who the bad guys were because they had Russian accents.

But many wolves are better at masking their true selves. Social media, especially, makes for effective masks. It’s easy to pretend you’re something you’re not.

(It’s been 25 years since Peter Steiner’s famous “nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon in the New Yorker. How much has really changed since then?)

Exposing the wolves

We try hard to spot the wolves behind the masks. We look for trusted allies who can curate the content we receive. And we instinctively turn toward people who resemble ourselves — our tribe.

That exposes some of the wolves, but not nearly all of them.

To expose some wolves, we need to stop judging their appearance and start judging the things they say (or write).

In other words, we need to think critically.

Cartoon: On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog

Peter Steiner in the New Yorker. Fair use statement below.

Unfortunately, critical thinking seems to be in short supply today. Mark’s comment seems to assume that most people can — and do — think critically. I wish that were true.

Why don’t more people think critically? Well, critical thinking takes work, and perhaps some of them are lazy. Perhaps some have never learned how.

Perhaps some have forgotten how.

With that in mind, here’s a quick primer in critical thinking. Call it Critical Thinking 101.

(This is only a primer. There’s much more to say about critical thinking, of course. If you think I’ve misstated something or left out something important, by all means tell me in the comments.)

Your keys to critical thinking

When you’re confronted with new content, ask yourself:

Can I trust the source? What’s its track record? If I know that the source tends to be biased one way or the other, I’ll look for the same story on a different source. By triangulating the same story between two viewpoints, I can get a clearer picture.

Do the speaker/writer’s assumptions — what they assume to be true — align with what I’ve observed to be true? Do they align with common sense?

In making their case, is the speaker/writer actually addressing the question at hand — or are they shifting the conversation onto something else?

Why is the speaker/writer telling me this? To inform? To persuade? To sell me something? To elicit an emotional reaction?

Does the speaker/writer indulge in any of these logical fallacies?

  • False causality: I ate pizza and got indigestion, therefore eating pizza always makes me sick.
  • Overgeneralization: It’s colder than normal this week, therefore global warming is a hoax.
  • Ad hominem: You can’t trust anything the other party says, because they’re all lying so-and-sos.
  • Circular reasoning: John Wayne was a great actor because he was so good in all of his roles. (This, by the way, is the original meaning for begging the question.)
  • Straw man: People who don’t support the proposed state minimum wage increase hate the poor.

(The last example comes from a handy list of fallacies compiled by the English department at Purdue University.)

If you’re not used to thinking critically when you go onto Facebook or Twitter, or when you turn on the TV or radio, perhaps you’ll find these questions helpful. Again, use the comments to add your own suggestions.

I said earlier that critical thinking is hard work. It requires persistence too. The alternative, however, is far worse: it’s leaving yourself at the mercy of the wolves who seek to distort and deceive.

Make the choice to be a critical thinker. Without critical thinking, none of the rest matters.

Fair use statement: Cartoon by Peter Steiner, copyrighted by the New Yorker

5 thoughts on “Content questions: Critical Thinking 101

  1. Mark Baker

    Larry, I don’t believe that the problem is that the wolves have become more subtle and better at disguise. The very fact that seemingly everyone across the entire political spectrum has become obsessed with fake news and its consequences tells us that we see wolves everywhere.

    Indeed, the wolves are hardly bothering with sheep’s clothing anymore. Neither our Mr Dressup not your Tweeter in Chief take any pains to hide their distortions and propaganda. Neither do they make any bones about overriding due process and passing blatantly unconstitutional measures that favor their voting block (or at least, that their voting block believes will favor them). They are instantly called out when they do these things. It does not stop them, and it does nothing to erode their core support. (We can only hope that it erodes their support among the non-partisan sufficiently to turf them out at the next election, though it may only be in favor of a different set of blatant wolves.)

    Which brings us to critical thinking. It is very clear that voters of both parties in both our countries are, in large numbers, choosing to believe things that are demonstrably false, and whose falseness has been publicly demonstrated by multiple respectable sources. Or, if they don’t believe them, they are choosing to support the people who say them because they think these policies will favor them or are in some way correct or justified despite being based on false premises.

    Which brings us to the subject of critical thinking. There is a serious omission in your list of characteristics of critical thinking, one that is shared with the way critical thinking is talked about and taught in schools. As it stands, your list of attributes really only amount to skeptical thinking: ways to question the arguments of other. The ability to question the arguments of others is undoubtedly useful, but for it to count as true critical thinking, it must be joined with the practice of being critical of ourselves, or examining our own presuppositions, interests, and beliefs.

    When presented with a new idea, one that differs from our current way of thinking, the true critical thinker has to consider two possibilities with equal weight: 1) This new idea is incorrect. 2) My current way of thinking is incorrect. Critical thinking means giving equal weight and attention to both these possibilities.

    We know that this is difficult to do. We call it confirmation bias: the tendency to believe any information that supports our current position and to dismiss any information that disputes it. You can apply the whole arsenal of skeptical thinking to demolish the evidence against you position, but unless you apply it with equal vigor to the evidence that supports your current position, you are not doing critical thinking.

    This is hard also because too ruthless an application of skeptical thinking to both our own ideas and those of others can easily plunge us into nihilism and despair. Truly mature critical thinking also has to take the tenuous nature of human knowledge into account and accept that faith is a virtue for this reason: because any proposition can be demolished by skeptical thinking, but skepticism is due even to skepticism itself. True critical thinking often leads us to the realization that an issue is undecidable, at least for the present, and perhaps forever, but that human life, temporary as it is, does not allow us the luxury of infinite agnosticism. We must sometimes have faith if we are to act at all, while also thinking critically so that our faith does not lead us into contradiction and barbarism.

  2. Larry Kunz Post author

    You’re absolutely right, Mark. I left out an important element of critical thinking: the ability — the willingness — to question one’s own ideas and preconceptions. I’m glad I don’t hold exactly the same views I held at age 20, or age 40. My views have evolved, and I hope and expect that they’ll continue evolving.

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  4. Pingback: Content questions: Critical Thinking 101 – Technical Writing World

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