Information is everywhere these days, but not all of the information we receive is good information. Due largely to social media, just about everyone has a voice these days, making it increasingly more difficult to properly vet truth from fiction. Throw in established biases like the confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories), and it becomes easy to see why people seem to be so divided these days. Enter the value of critical thinking, or the ability to objectively analyze and evaluate information, and you can quickly see why it is more needed today than ever before. It’s also important when using critical thinking to evaluate if something is valid (having a sound basis in logic or fact), and reliable (consistent and trustworthy).
It isn’t what you don’t know that will hurt you, but what you think you know that isn’t so”
With an abundance of information at our disposal by means of the internet, it makes it easy to quickly and haphazardly assume expertise in a subject we actually know little about. For example, in this moment I have personally heard dozens of varying opinions on COVID — and every person sharing their view has had tremendous confidence, often speaking as though they have direct research experience in dealing with COVID. Obviously not all of these people can be right, yet many speak with such authority that it is sometimes difficult to know fact from fiction. Even more concerning is when the person sharing false and/or incomplete information assumes something to be true, when in reality there is nothing verifiable to support their view. This kind of artificial confidence can create a impenetrable wall against valid information, often leaving people in potentially dangerous — and sometimes even deadly — life situations.
The top 5 ways to improve critical thinking
- Be quiet. The tendency for most people is to want to talk and share their ideas, making listening a secondary endeavor. Try instead to listen closely to what people have to say while at the same time suspending your emotions and premature opinions (think of this as simply information gathering).
- Use active listening skills. Mental health professionals are well trained in these skills — using open-ended questions, paraphrasing, clarifying, and summarizing will allow for greater rapport and interpersonal communication, lending to a more thorough understanding of information.
- Seek to fully understand before judging. Sometimes we stop digesting information the moment something is said that confirms our position — often at the expense of getting the entire message. Instead, make it a point to gather all the details and ask questions about information that is incomplete and/or unclear.
- Clarify uncertainties. When you hear terms like “some,” “many,” and “often,” what do you really know about the information you are receiving? Think about this as an example — if somebody told you “most” doctors agree on a specific medical procedure, how would your opinion change if you learned that “most” meant 2 of the 3 doctors sitting in the hospital cafeteria? Would you feel more confident if you learned that the number was 70% of doctors surveyed from a sample of 1,000? A big part of critical thinking is clarifying uncertainties whenever possible so that you can make important decisions.
- Ask challenging questions. When we hear things that sound too good to be true, or line up almost precisely with our way of thinking, these are the times in which we should be most cautious and skeptical. Does this information pass the common sense test? Is this information corroborated with other sources? The more questions we ask the better — even if the discoveries only lead to more questions (this is better than jumping prematurely to false conclusions).
With so much information pouring in by the minute these days, we need critical thinking skills more than ever! Sure, it’s easy to latch onto information that confirms your position, but this is not good if that information is biased, incorrect, or untruthful. It’s also OK to be wrong about your beliefs, assumptions, and things you once thought were true but now know are not. Getting it right in life is far more valuable than simply finding obscure references to confirm your argument, as the results of a truth-seeking approach will easily compensate for any ego damage you might experience learning you might not have had it right originally.