Updated: Feb 7
Have you ever read something online and felt compelled to immediately share it with others only to realize...it...wasn't...entirely...true? I hate when that happens!
The internet offers an infinite amount of information and entertainment. A quick search helps us learn how to make the perfect steak, replace an oil filter, and find the best restaurants in town. It’s also become the top source for gathering false or misleading information.
On a daily basis, we see social media posts that are misleading, incomplete, or downright absurd. These posts are intended to insight anger and mistrust, all the while these postings have not undergone an even basic vetting process. Equally concerning, sometimes there IS truth to the postings! Rather than consider their plausibility, we simply discard the
members and subsequently those who post them.
Considering the amount of information we receive daily and the number of relationships which have been severely damaged due to political events and the pandemic, there has never been a better time to improve our critical thinking.
The above five-step model can be used in any situation to help us accurately receive, examine, and utilize the information we receive. First we need to define the topic of interest. What is the concern or issue we are exploring? Hint, “I hate Donald Trump” or “Nancy Pelosi sucks” is rarely the actual topic. Instead, concerns should be centered around a particular issue, such as voting rights or immigration laws.
Second, identify all credible sources. One source of information hardly ever provides enough information for us to accurately make a determination on the identified issue. We have loads of research to demonstrate our search engines and social media feed us the information that aligns with what we want to see and want to believe. It is on US to find the information that we don’t want to see as part of gathering our sources.
Third, we need to openly analyze all of the information. This step is the most complex and difficult to complete, as we face challenges in both understanding the information and understanding the biases, assumptions, and deep convictions we already possess.
Regardless of the issue, we enter every analysis with preconceived notions about the issue. By acknowledging what we already believe about an issue, we are better positioned to allow new information to challenge those assumptions. At the same time, throughout the analysis process, we can improve the likelihood of reaching a justifiable and substantiated decision by:
(1) Identifying common trends
(2) Scrutinizing for leading statements that encourage readers to believe what the author believes and
(3) Discarding or minimizing information that cannot be substantiated through existing facts
The fourth step is to interpret the information. Based on everything we have read, what seems the most realistic, accurate, and plausible. Somehow, we still have individuals who believe the earth is flat! HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? We need to re-examine the role our convictions and prior beliefs have played throughout the analysis process, and ask ourselves, “have we been willing to put them aside throughout our analysis?” Similarly, we need to weigh the information we’ve received. A viral meme, stating, “the man walking on the moon video is fake because it’s grainy” should not receive the same weight as the countless, much more reputable organizations who have published detailed reports outlining how it was done. We should certainly remain open to including the memes but a blog post from a disgruntled former employee should hardly be considered the evidence we give the most credence to.
The remaining step, “Decide”, is both part of AND the outcome of the process. As critical thinkers, we may have instances where we never reach an outcome we are entirely certain of. In fact, we may become stuck in a holding pattern phase as we commit ourselves to finding the ‘right’ answer, to a point we never feel like we have enough information to make a sound decision. In fact, this is perhaps the most important part of critical thinking—being able to make a decision based on all available information.
Just like science constantly evolves, so should our thinking. If new information challenges assumptions or even convictions, it is vital we appropriately process the information and be willing to shift our beliefs. Until we display a willingness to listen to one another and a commitment toward finding the right answer, our engagements in person and online will continue to center around being attempts to be right instead of finding the right answer.
Attributes which may support critical thinking: humility, open-mindedness, interest in the right answer—not being right, ability to identify biases, and ability to identify credible sources.
We're in this together.