How To Sharpen Your Critical Thinking
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Developing the Mindset
There is so much information coming at us on a daily, that we can easily become saturated. The world has gotten smaller, the news cycle even faster, and it pretty much looks as though this information influx is likely the new normal. All the more reason to hone your mental filter and sharpen your critical thinking to help make sense of what’s going on out there.
That doesn’t mean that you have to live in a state of perpetual doubt and criticize everything all the time! Rather, a well developed critical mindset can help you in retaining only what information you determine to be true and relevant, while discarding much of the noise (see Merchants of Doubt). Taking this approach can also boost your confidence as well as work to diminish some anxieties as you pursue your own path of sustainable motivation.
Causation vs Correlation
There is a significant difference between what we might deem to be correlated, and what actually is related. We often look for correlations when attempting to make sense of the world around us. It’s a fairly natural human response. We are trying to find patterns, and organize the chaos of the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, the error lies in that we can sometimes accept the simplest explanations regardless of whether or not they are actually correct.
There’s even a solid logical principal to that effect, called Occam’s Razor. It’s the premise that the simplest solution is often the right one. What it really means however is we should opt for the solution with the fewest assumptions. That doesn’t imply it to be correct, simply that we should aim for the fewest assumptions when at all possible.
The catch is that we already have so many deep-seated assumptions, often ingrained from an early age, that we regularly make them without even realizing (see The Lottery of Birth). Why it’s so vital to train ourselves to look past what’s easy, and try to understand what’s actually happening.
Freakonomics does a brilliant job of illustrating this point. The book and documentary (trailer above), help explain the notion of causation with some catchy and revealing case studies. The authors clarify this logical entanglement with a hunt for the facts. In following the data over a number of cases, they blow holes in the prevailing assumptions, and prove once again the effectiveness of the scientific method. Namely the need to question and investigate.
A correlation simply means there may be a connection. It doesn’t necessarily imply a strong connection, or that it has a meaningful impact on the resulting circumstances. It just means at some point we connected them somehow.
Causation on the other hand, is the actual explanation for why things unfolded the way they did. This is what needs to be pursed as much as possible, and is discovered by asking questions and having an open-mind as to the solution. The mental flexibility will help you follow the data wherever it may lead, regardless of your initial bias. It really comes down to asking the appropriate questions.
Question the Source
This point is key. Where is the information coming from? Is it a trusted/ vetted source, impartial and objective? Determine if you can the motivation of those that are sharing the info with you. Who provided the data? Is it a primary source, or an interpretation? What are the operating assumptions? Critical thinking requires asking yourself and others a slew of questions.
It’s certainly a tough approach at first, but as with most habits, it does get easier. Still, it does take effort on your part, and I understand how draining it can be to be “switched on” all the time. Why it’s more manageable to simply pick your battles, and decide what causes you really want to ground yourself in.
For instance, climate change, social justice, political reform, etc. Each of these involve going through a lot of information, and potentially getting into some heated discussions, but as you discover more, it also sheds light on many other topics. It’s actually pretty cool how that works, and can serve to motivate you even further.
The Virtues of Sci-Fi
On a side note, I find Science Fiction to be particularly poignant when it comes to asking questions and challenging your underlying assumptions. Many Sci-Fi stories (like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which the film Bladerunner is based), ask some great questions of society. They can provide us with some “what if” scenarios and illustrate what might happen if such questions are played out further.
In a sense, they can give us a taste of what might happen, and hopefully encourage us to contemplate our present as we wonder about the future. I personally find reading/watching Sci-Fi a great balance to the pursuit of critical thinking. One that, when done right, offers plenty of creativity and refreshment.
Now, back to the rundown.
Anecdotal vs Scientific
The next key point in undertaking the critical thinking mentality is understating and appreciating the difference between anecdotal and scientific evidence. In a nutshell, anecdotal is generally what happens to you, or what you hear from a friend or family member.
For example, if your buddy Bob tells you he was bitten by a beetle over the weekend. While this might suck for Bob, it doesn’t imply beetles are vicious. Do beetles even bite? Perhaps stung was more accurate, or maybe it wasn’t even a beetle at all, but a praying mantis only Bob isn’t really good at entomology (the study of insects). What we need to take away here, is that it may or may not have happened as was described, but you can’t really extrapolate that particular story onto all bugs, or all weekends for that matter. It’s simply a story.
Scientific evidence however, delves deeper into the various stories and assumptions out there and searches for data to explain events. Science can provide quality information for figuring things out. At best it can offer solutions, at worst it can still provide for better questions, and potential clues, to eventually finding out those solutions. That’s not to say all anecdotal evidence is worthless or untrue, but it should encourage you to ask for more substantial data.
Indeed, next time a friend/coworker tells you about what happened to, doesn’t mean you have to go out on the attack and demand evidence. Rather, it just means that you should take most stories for what they are. Personal stories. Until you know all the circumstances around that individual’s experience, you shouldn’t try to impose it upon every other similar situation (as easy as it might be). For anecdotal situations to have relevancy there should be some serious science associated.
How to go about it
For those of you who’ve also been out of school a while, the scientific method hasn’t changed much since we had the privilege of learning about it back in our elementary days. It’s comprised of a few steps that’ll help get you to where you’d like to be.
- Observe: Pretty straightforward
- Question: What are your initial questions?
- Research: Investigate. Find quality information. Look at data, learn from experts, check for references, etc.
- Hypothesis: What do you think happened/caused it? What do you suspect? Formulate an educated guess. If that is so, then that is what should happen under experimentation. Or even for something to not happen, and therefore reject your hypothesis.
- Experiment: Design your own experiment if you can, or try to find one that fits what you’re looking for.
- Data/Analysis: Record, analyze, and document. Go through the numbers, what is it telling you? What are the trends?
- Conclusion: This is where you accept or reject your hypothesis. This can prove difficult for some, as maybe you really, really wanted to believe what you thought was true to be the conclusion. You have to be prepared to be wrong, and even at that, being wrong isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it simply puts your hypothesis out of play, but can provide the groundwork for the next one.
The scientific method remains one of our ultimate tools, one that we perhaps take for granted more often than we should.
Use Your Judgement
Finally, don’t be afraid to fall back on common sense. Until you have the time to research for yourself, or have someone “deep dive” on your behalf, use your existing reason. Reflect and evaluate. If something is too good to be true, maybe it is. Or maybe your intuition is reflecting some remembered explanation even though you don’t yet fully remember all the details.
Trusting your judgement is key when forced to make quick decisions. Indeed, it is often within your interest to make decisions in a timely manner rather than have them made for you. However, when you do have the time to reflect, try and go over the “why” as best you can, and do some quality reading/viewing/listening.
The Awesome Power of Critical Thinking
It’s perfectly fine to make mistakes. So much of learning comes from them. What’s key is remaining humble, and admitting that your assumptions were wrong once you determine them to be. That’s one of the reasons the scientific method is so powerful. It’s self-correcting. You can replace the incorrect info with the truth once you discover it.
This might occasionally prove challenging to accept, but science has a way of highlighting the truth (see Everything’s Cool), regardless of our desired acceptance. If we keep to it, the critical approach can help us continue to be our better selves and assist us in our struggle for a better world. It truly is an awesome mindset, with countless benefits. Please feel free to share with me below your own discoveries and revelations!