In life, you can go with your gut, or accept what you’re told, but what happens when the Internet is awash with conspiracy theories, bad advice and fake news? How can we retool our minds to be able to spot the bullshit among the useful information, while making sure we’re not isolating ourselves in a thought bubble. For author Christopher Hayes, the answer lies in becoming a critical thinker.
He argues, in his new book ‘Critical Thinking Hacks’, that while we need to be skeptical of people we disagree with, we need to be even more skeptical with people we DO agree with. Here’s what we learnt from reading it…
1. Get Curious
You probably know someone who fits the bill as a critical thinker; someone who is always able to think through a problem and find a logical, effective solution, despite everything else that may be going on around them?
But this isn’t an innate ability. It’s a learnt one, which means we can all learn to be a ‘critical thinker’, as opposed to a ‘passive thinker’ who, says Christopher Hayes, gives up easily and does not take the initiative to seek solutions.
‘People who are good critical thinkers have to be curious about the situations they find themselves in – and just life. This is how the critical thinker asks the questions that set them off to discover new perspectives and ideas,’ says Hayes.
This curiosity combines with a wide, open-minded perspective, broad general knowledge and good specific knowledge of a subject to provide a solid base for reasoning through things.
‘A good critical thinker is able to spot when someone else’s argument is weakened by their own biases, but also when their own bias might come into play’
2. Learn How To Sniff Out Bias
A good critical thinker is able not only to spot when someone else’s argument is weakened by their own biases, but also when their own bias might come into play. It’s being able to leave your own preconceptions at the door, and look at a subject unemotionally, that will help you here.
Of course, you have to also be honest about the limits of your own knowledge and avoid the trap that lies in wait here. If you start trying to fill in these gaps with assumptions, then your own inbuilt bias is likely to cause havoc, even if it’s only subconsciously.
3. Respect Reason
The Covid-19 pandemic shows just how dangerous a lack of respect for reason, and evidence, can be. Making decisions based on the best available evidence and data is an approach that can still be affected by bias, because data can be interpreted in different ways. But even more dangerous are decisions that ignore the evidence, completely.
Hayes’ uses the example of an incoming storm, with one person looking up and processing the evidence of a darkening sky, wind and thunder into predicting a storm, while another just decides they don’t think there will be a storm, due to some vague premonition, and ignores the evidence.
‘Their methods for reasoning quickly fall apart. There is no clarity to their argument… Someone who does not have respect for reasoning refuses to use it in an argument. Because of this, they are not attempting to use critical skills, which require a level of reasoning.’
4. Don’t Be The Smartest Person In The Room
You might wonder how rooms full of very smart people can still make decisions that, with hindsight, always looked completely disastrous. There’s a high chance that they all thought they were the smartest person in that room, and set out to prove it, disregarding all other input and pushing their idea until it was the last one standing, but clearly not the best one.
Rather than cheerleading a single argument, Hayes says that the smart move of the critical thinker is to trade some of that intellectual arrogance for intellectual humility, in order to harvest good ideas from elsewhere, and strengthen your final proposition.
‘These are the people who are smart enough to recognise that all ideas and opinions have some kind of value, and that all issues and problems are multifaceted.’
‘Realise that ‘either/ or’ choices are being offered to you because our brains recognise this as a tidy argument, rather than there only being two choices’
5. Beware False Binaries
In today’s culture, arguments are often set out as an ‘either, or’ equation with a definite ‘winner and a loser’ once the dust has settled. Rolling news with its endless stand off between two viewpoints has a lot to answer for here. Just because that is the way the story is being presented, doesn’t mean that it’s true.
Hayes calls being presented with two opposing choices a ‘false dichotomy’, which is a manipulative trick designed to box you into a corner with only two possible routes out. It’s the same head-game move used when someone petulantly says to you: ‘You’re either with me, or against me!’
Always realise that ‘either/ or’ choices are being offered to you because this provides a tidy, coercive argument, rather than there only being two choices, in actual reality.
6. Make Your Brain Work Harder
The simplest way to sniff out fake news and bullshit conspiracy theories is to make your brain think harder – don’t take reports at face value, especially if they feed into your own biases. Ask what filters the information has come through, as well as its reliability.
Hayes recommends the following easy steps to sharpen your critical thinking skills:
‘Reconstructing The Situation.’ To critically analyse an argument, Hayes recommends breaking it down into its basic premises and conclusion (‘this’ means ‘that’) and reverse engineer how they fit together – look at the evidence.
‘Revealing Hidden Issues.’ Hayes says you need to root out bias in the argument as well as anything that weakens critical thinking, including intellectual arrogance and inherited opinions.
‘Making The Best Decision.’ This boils down to making sure you aren’t just choosing an answer because your gut tells you to. ‘Passive thinkers choose the first answer that they think sounds right. Critical thinkers take all the possibilities because the conclusion that seems the most correct could end up being very wrong upon further examination.’
Whatever decision you make, you can then adapt it on the fly, in the face of new data, rather than feeling you’ve personally committed your credibility into it, because you’re following your gut. Get it right, and critical thinking will set you free!
WHAT NEXT? Logging more time on social media during isolation? Then check out how stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius would have handled it…
You can buy Critical Thinking Hacks: Why You Should Be More Skeptical With People You Disagree With But Even more Skeptical With People You Agree With by Christoper Hayes on Amazon.
Follow this article’s author on Instagram @The_Adventure_Fella
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.