How to Be a Critical Thinker in One Easy Step

See here for the Finnish version: Yhdellä helpolla askeleella kriittiseen ajatteluun

I finished and “won” NaNoWriMo and will try to continue writing this weblog now, though I certainly still have more to do than is reasonable. Rather than making another lame meta post about that stuff, I will just get back to the point. I had more than one idea going on already, but this will be short enough to actually write in the time I have.

So, you want to feel you’re a critical thinker — one who, unlike everyone else, rationally evaluates claims instead of accepting them without adequate reason? Well, that’s easy. Don’t believe everything you’re told. When something is the established truth, doubt it. If anyone makes a claim challenging it that makes sense to you, or you come up with one yourself, accept that claim immediately, and call naïve everyone who still believes the common view. (The word “sheep” is also good. Baaa.) Make sure no talk of “evidence” or “lack of evidence” or other argumentation changes your view. All of that is just propaganda by the Powers That Be. Or something.

I can’t quite claim to know this kind of thinking is common, but it seems so. At least I know I have seen it several times both in real life and in fiction. Anyway, in case I need to spell it out, the problem with this approach is that it’s not critical thinking. It’s simply being suspicious of the first thing you hear and then completely uncritically accepting the second thing you heard, thinking you’ve done your intellectual duty by then and don’t have to do anything more, ever.

Yes, it is true, and very important to understand, that a lot of the things that are commonly believed are not true. Yes, our political leaders can lie to us. (If enough people read this, someone would surely claim me to have claimed the opposite from that.) But that doesn’t mean that just any theory that sounds to you like it could make sense is more likely to be true than the established truth. When you come across an alternative idea, you still need to consider it critically and in a balanced way. Also, differing from common belief and what politicians tell you, science has methods and often even ethics that make it much more likely to give true results than its “competitors”.

You can see all kinds of forms of this. One variant is where what someone tells you sounds a little off and you decide it must be a lie, as opposed to wondering if it might be but withholding judgement until you have enough information. Another would be where you decide some authorities (say, the church) are irrational, and in practice conclude that now that you’ve shaken them off, all your thinking is automatically going to arrive at correct results and you don’t need to question or rethink any of it. And then there’s conspiracy theories, which apparently tend to be completely impossible to disprove once you believe them, but have the minor problem that there was no reason to start believing all that in the first place. And Charles Fort, who sounds like the patron saint of this kind of thing, though I only know of him basically through that one article. That “magic frog” thing I was talking about earlier is also similar, though not quite the same thing.

The point is, of course, that there is no one easy step in critical thinking. You have to keep doing it.

Sama suomeksi.

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