Critical thinking is the process of observing and assessing before acting, of questioning and challenging thoughts and information we are presented with in order to better understand and seek truth before taking action. It requires honest questions and is not just open to new and varied information it is constantly seeking it out. It is a mental process obsessed with ‘why’ and ‘how’ and is a crucial part of problem solving, learning, innovation, societal compromise. And in a world absolutely drowning in information of all kinds and qualities wherein we are forced to act as our own filters the ability to think critically has never been more crucial.
The amount of information we are exposed to on a daily basis is staggering. The sheer volume of it would seem ludicrously impossible to people even fifty years ago, never mind fifty years before that. Newspapers, radio, and television, each advance in technology massively expanded the average person’s access to information from more and more of the world at large. The arrival of the internet exploded that access exponentially and social media platforms have done so again several times over, becoming an ongoing avalanche of ‘a lot of very little’.
People often describe the amount of information available online as ‘infinite’ and they’re not far off. We are connected now in ways which would have seemed the stuff of science fiction even in the 80’s. We have access to essentially limitless amounts of information which, while somewhat miraculous, comes with its faults and perils.
The freedom to instantly share information unfortunately comes with precious little in terms of quality controls.
Looking at the textbook from the ‘Psychology and the Internet’ course I took while at university in the late 90’s you can already see a culture quickly being left in the dust behind an exploding technology seeming to evolve faster and faster with each passing day. While the psychological community was still trying to decide whether ‘chatrooms’ were a new magic window into the human mind or more a technological Pandora’s Box there was already near universal agreement that the ability to instantly publish anything online was an enormous gift to free expression but on which came with the potential to cause enormous trouble.
We have a deeply rooted global reflex to view anything in print as having credence and authority, stemming from a long period of history wherein getting something into print meant going through a great many sets of hands and a labour intensive process. The ability to instantly put information into digital print without any sort of qualitative testing meant an eruption of unfiltered and unvetted ‘stuff’. My professor’s dire quip has only continued to wring with greater and greater truth with each passing year:
“I think we can all agree that little ten year old Timmy’s webpage on astrophysics is probably not as reliable a source of information as a recognized science journal, but what happens if our society ends up in a place where it’s no longer able to tell the difference? Or worse, doesn’t care?”
The potential dangers of personal webpages proved to be only a foreshadowing of the impact social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and all the ones to follow have had. Our drive to make our instant gratification ever more ‘instant’ has created a culture where ‘immediate’ is seen as more important than ‘accurate’ and any kind of qualitative editing or vetting gets dismissed as needless and overly time-consuming fretting. Reactionary opinions blurted without any consideration or investigation get hailed as being ‘direct and honest’, ‘shooting from the hip’, or the most cringe-worthy ‘calling it like you see it’. And the world of journalistic news being consumed and governed by the machinery of pure entertainment media has only added jet fuel to the flames.
If we don’t care whether something is even spelled properly how much care are we investing in its truth or accuracy? If immediacy and quantity are the forces driving the publishing and sharing of information, assessing quality is then left to us and the ability to think critically the tool we most desperately need.
Ok then, so how do we do this?
Some of the answers might seem somewhat obvious. In a world where approximately 60% of articles posted to Facebook are shared and commented on without actually being clicked on making sure we read beyond the headline would clearly seem a good place to start. The compendium of real world harms caused by online, knee-jerk, headline-only reactions continues to grow and grow and grow.
But before we even get to the important tasks of assessing things like accuracy and relevance we need to make sure we understand the tool we are seeking to use and then must first turn it inwards. Before we can ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the outside world we have to ask them of ourselves. Mr. Darrough’s rule for my high school music appreciation classes points right to the heart of the concept.
“You don’t have to like the song, you can outright hate it. You just have to be able to tell me why. And the reason doesn’t have to be complicated or ‘deep, it just has to be honest and yours.”
Determining veracity isn’t critical thinking’s only purpose, it’s also about assessing relevance. An artist might be one of the greatest coloratura sopranos in the world but if you don’t like opera… One the first and most important filters we need to put information through is whether or not is actually relevant to us and thus worth acting on.
In order to determine this we first need to understand ourselves enough to know what exactly those parameters are. We need to have a clear sense of what truly matters to us and why. Critical thinking often gets dismissed as excessive intellectualizing or hiding from emotional truth behind endless analysis but true critical thinking isn’t about hiding from emotion. It’s about looking directly at an emotional reaction and asking it ‘why?’
I like that, but why? I don’t like that, but why? That makes me angry, but why? That scares me, but why? That makes me smile, but why?
We have to start the questioning and challenging with ourselves. If we don’t understand our own reactions and motivations how can we hope to understand the world around us or the other people in it? And without true self-understanding we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would manipulate us, happily leading us around by our reactions to serve their own ends. We need only glance at current political landscapes to see the principle working away at full steam.
To build and sustain self-understanding we have to constantly, habitually, ask ourselves direct and honest questions. Build it as a habit internally and it will turn outward automatically. It takes patience and practice and sometimes we need outside help asking the questions. Our friends and family can be of invaluable help and there may be times when we struggle with challenges which require more trained assistance. One of the main functions of therapeutic counselling is to enlist the aid of someone who isn’t entrenched or invested in our lives directly and thus able to observe without bias and offer questions and challenges we are unable or unwilling to proffer ourselves.
How do we develop our own critical thinking skills? Start small, and with positives. Look to the things you enjoy and then challenge yourself to explain why. Why is that actor your favorite, what is it about your favorite food which makes it so appealing, what is it about the sound of your favorite band or artist that makes you like them? Pleasant topics and pleasing answers let you flex the muscle in comfort. Then, after a bit of practice, you can turn to things you dislike and start to ask ‘why?’ Not what is wrong with it or what makes it ‘bad’, just why doesn’t it appeal to you?
Once you get comfortable with challenging yourself then start looking for opportunities to ask others, and invite them to ask you. Not as a form of attack or judgement, simply as an attempt to understand. Build the habit on the smaller things and it will work its way up to the bigger ones on its own.
It’s important to note that critical thinking is not the same as ‘being critical’. Criticism is a narcissistic knock-off. It uses the principles of observing and challenging not out of any desire or effort to understand or to seek truth but instead as an insecurity-based attempt to self-protect by tearing down others. Much the way cynicism is a petulant knock-off of skepticism.
Being critical often gets falsely ennobled and excused as being ‘exacting’ or ‘a perfectionist’ but the only results it produces are aggression and harm, all the more insidiously so when it’s turned inwards.
True critical thinking is about seeking truth and understanding not judgement.
When you’ve reached the point of feeling comfortable with internal questioning, it’s time to aim the practice at the information coming at you. Require more than the headline. Examine and research the sources. The more important and impactful the topic the more sources we should be looking for. Seek out opposing voices and opinions.
Often the best way to get the truest grasp of something is by listening to people from opposite sides of the issue. If possible look for sources which are outside looking in, sometimes the most accurate read of events in North America can be found in European press. If something sparks us and riles us up it should first inspire questions not comments, a thirst for greater understanding not hunger for judgement.
Things only grow and change if they are questioned and challenged. Attacking out of emotion is not the same thing and only begets more of the same in return.
So why isn’t everyone already doing this all the time? Why aren’t we all comfortable, proficient critical thinkers? Our society has some pretty institutionalized barriers in place, intentionally or not, and trends in technology aren’t helping.
The global education model of the last three quarters of a century has been based largely on memorization and regurgitation leaving little room or encouragement for questioning and challenging, and even at the post-secondary level that model has continued to take more and more of a hold.
The instant gratification driven formats of social media platforms make it all too easy to simply see and react to the headline without having to bother with the actual article and many of the platforms don’t even offer enough room for more than brief soundbites or short paragraphs at the most.
Enter into that space political leaders who are all too happy to stoke and provoke pure reactionism and we become trapped without the encouragement, time, or resources for genuine critical thinking.
It is all too easy to get drawn into a blame game, pointing fingers at the media providers for not offering proper content who then point back at the consuming public proclaiming they are only offering up what people are demonstrating they want. The better option, skip the fruitless cycle and start developing and practicing our own critical thinking skills. Start small, start pleasant, build the habit which will reshape how we seek and consume information.
If we become a population seeking clarity and accuracy we can force the supply and demand principle to work for us rather than against us.
We may find small toddlers aggravating with their ceaseless barrage of ‘why?’, ‘why?’, ‘why?’ But there is a reason that is the foremost question at the beginning stages of the formative mind. It’s the only way to learn. And any person who convinces themselves they already know everything they need to know about anything is freezing themselves solid to be battered and blown about by the world as it moves on without them.