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A Short Introduction to Critical Thinking

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I’m fairly active in certain kinds of net conversations, which usually have to do with more or less controversial subjects. What really bugs me is the fact that most people have no damn clue about how to separate their own personal tastes and beliefs from facts or scientific evidence, never mind understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and research. Hearing that someone’s cousin got better after dabbling with homeopathy (never mind the official medication he was on at the same time…) is stronger proof that homeopathy works than actual scientific results that say it works only on placebo-levels because it happened to someone I know, and so on and so forth.

This morning I ran into a YouTube video which I think everybody should watch before they open their mouth about any controversial issue, be it the climate change, evolution, theological questions or whatever. The first thing some people may notice is the name Richard Dawkins and something about sceptics and disregard the video as anti-religion propaganda, but no – that’s not the deal with this video. (I personally am neither an atheist nor a member of sceptics, although I share lots of views with the latter.) This is just a simple introduction to how to think about things clearly, without letting your own expectations and beliefs drive your thinking.

To summarise, here are the points eveybody should go through when faced with a claim that feels controversial:

  1. How reliable is the source of the claim?
  2. Does the source make similar claims?
  3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else?
  4. Does this fit with the way the world works?
  5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim?
  6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point?
  7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science?
  8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence?
  9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory?
  10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim?

This set of questions is explained a bit better on the video, which is well worth watching.

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2 Comments

  1. It’s so easy to say what we should do, so hard to actually do it. 🙁

    I don’t think anyone actually lives by the rules they lay down, however fine the rules may be. They just pick and choose whichever truth suits them, and filter the evidence either consciously or subconsciously. It’s possible to bend all of these rules to support conflicting viewpoints, yet conflicting viewpoints cannot both be true.

    People develop an emotional attachment to a particular idea, and to discard that idea feels like an act of betrayal. The pleasure they get from defending that idea outweighs the pleasure they get from finding the truth. Even worse is when there’s been a bitter argument over an idea, people cannot stand admitting that a person they hate is factually correct.

    In the end people aren’t looking for the truth, they’re looking for a sense of satisfaction, and if the truth is unsatisfactory they may decide to ignore it.

  2. It’s of course easy to operate in a world of black and white truths, which has the unfortunate downside of not corresponding to the real world. You are right – nobody is completely objective and to claim so is totally silly. Everybody has a bias and everybody has their own pet ideas.

    The thing is, most people are not aware of their own bias and principles, which is the mistake number one. They have an idea they stand behind, but they haven’t actually investigated the idea at all: what is it based on, why it appeals to them, does it stand to critique, whatever. It just feels intuitively right, “just the way things are”, and quite often people don’t even want to change their mind. Any attempt to prove the idea wrong, or even slightly inaccurate, is seen as an attack against the person himself.

    And this is the problem. Freedom of thought can only be found when you can question your own ideas and values. Questioning them doesn’t mean you’ll have to throw them out of the window if you get even a whiff of contradictory evidence, it just means keeping your mind open to the possibility that you might be wrong. And I know, admitting that is tough, especially publicly. I’ve done that now and then in conversations and it really throws the other side of the conversation off. Then again, finding the flaws in your thinking and refining the idea to correct them might help you make your position stronger.

    One thing people should be taught far more strenuously is to ask “why?”. Why is someone advocating a certain point of view, why are things the way they are and why am I thinking like this about these issues. There is no better inoculation for extremist and reactionary views.

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