Critical thinking is our best defense against the appeal of false beliefs. Here are some points to discuss to help us become better critical thinkers. From the book Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling by James Alcock
Building A Firewall Against Folly
Systematic application of critical thinking is our best defense against the appeal of false beliefs, the temptations offered by propaganda and con artists, and our own tendencies toward self-deception promoted by intuition and emotion. Short of undertaking formal training in critical thinking skills, we can help ourselves think more critically by keeping the following points in mind. They are not enough on their own to turn us into great critical thinkers; they can, however, help us all to become better critical thinkers.
1. Beware: We can all be fooled. Possibly the most common pitfall with regard to critical thinking is the belief that one is already a good critical thinker. The first step toward building a firewall against folly is to recognize that we can be deceived and that we can frequently deceive ourselves. No matter how good we are at critical analysis, every one of us is likely at times to depart significantly from rationality, especially in situations when emotion or intuition confronts reason. The corollary to this is that we all probably have pockets of irrationality where erroneous beliefs take shelter.
2. Be wary of your intuitions: Pay attention to them, but do not trust them. As the products of nonconscious information processing, intuitions can offer important guidance to decision-making when based on considerable past experience. On the other hand, they can also gravely mislead, especially when there has been little experience to back them up. To ignore intuition completely is unwise, but to accept it uncritically is even more so.
3. Be wary of the Fundamental Attribution Error, the tendency that we all have to attribute people’s behaviors to their characters and intentions while overlooking or minimizing the power of the situation, which often plays the greater role in determining people’s actions. It is easy to assume that suicide terrorists are deranged and merciless while ignoring the situational factors that render their actions altruistic in the eyes of their communities, just as it is easy to believe that all homeless people are lazy, or that a student who does poorly in school lacks intelligence.
4. Be wary of personal validation. While personal experience can be a great teacher, personal validation—judging a claim based only on personal experience—is often a poor guide to its validity. You may have had a powerful dream that seemed precognitive, or the psychic’s palm reading may have been impressive, or the yellow pill may seem to have cured your laryngitis, or your interaction with a member of a minority group may have been less than pleasant, but this in no way demonstrates the reality of precognition, the psychic powers of the palm reader, the remedial qualities of the yellow pill, or that “those people” are difficult. 5. Beware of reliance on a single source of information. This should be obvious, but it is all too easy to ignore this caveat, especially with regard to the news. We naturally gravitate toward sources that are in line with our beliefs, and this risks sheltering us from information that might challenge what we erroneously take to be fact.
5. Beware of mistaking coincidence for causation. As we have seen, we are born magical thinkers, and magical thinking continues to lurk beneath the surface in wait for reason to falter. It is often difficult to resist the idea of causation when two meaningful events occur one after the other. Challenging automatic assumptions about causality is a key aspect of critical thinking.
6. Be wary of over-interpreting correlations. Just as with coincidence, we can all too readily mistake correlations for cause and effect. Observing that there seems to be more and more petty crime, while at the same time noting that the immigrant population is increasing, does not mean that there is a connection between the two. Moreover, some of the “correlations” that we observe may not actually be correlations at all. They may be illusory. For example, many emergency ward physicians and nurses are convinced that admissions jump whenever there is a full moon. Forty percent of medical staff surveyed in a 2011 study expressed that belief, while 80 percent of the nurses and 60 percent of the physicians who responded to another survey were convinced that there are more mental health admissions during a full moon than at any other time. Such beliefs are in error, for many investigations have all found no evidence of increased admissions, for either physical or psychiatric reasons, during the full moon. Again, experience can be a poor guide to reality.
7. Compared to what? The question of “compared to what?” is vital to critical thinking. A sort of parable: Before the carcinogenic properties of asbestos were understood, some winemakers removed impurities by filtering their wines through asbestos. A 1977 test found asbestos fibers in every one of the fifteen wines tested, and a particular Hungarian wine was withdrawn from liquor store shelves after being measured as having almost two million asbestos fibers per liter. Not long after, a psychologist friend came to dinner bearing a bottle of that very wine. When I informed him of its high asbestos content, he replied—as any good experimental psychologist might—“compared to what?” and jokingly suggested that the city’s water supply might have an even higher asbestos count. The irony was that a newspaper reported a week later that city water at that time was also being filtered through asbestos, and its fiber count did indeed exceed that of the wine. Avoid the water too! Asking “compared to what?” is also an essential component of scientific inquiry, where it is typically addressed through the use of control groups, a practice that took root only in the early twentieth century but has ultimately become a mainstay of medical and psychological research. Though individuals can hardly be expected to set up control groups, we should all endeavor, as my friend was doing, albeit in humor, to engage in a control-group style of thinking. This comes naturally in some situations but rarely occurs in others.
8. Keep the Scottish verdict in mind and suspend judgment. Juries in criminal trials in Scotland are not forced to choose between guilty or innocent; they can also opt for not proven. It is often tempting to jump to conclusions: “They didn’t invite us because they don’t like us”; “That country developed new weapons because they want to attack us”; “Last night’s dream about today’s fire must have been paranormal.” Such quick conjectures are often wrong. If more information is to be had, then by all means we should seek it out, but in the meantime, rather than rely on whatever explanation comes readily to mind, the wiser strategy is to adopt the equivalent of the Scots’ “not proven”; suspend judgment about how or why something happened and conclude simply that “I don’t know.”
Whether products of imagination or rooted in reality, our beliefs define the world for us. They motivate our actions, influence our emotions, feed our creativity, govern our relationships, and tell us who we are. They push us to struggle against overwhelming adversity or surrender to despair; they allow us to trust others, yet make us vulnerable to exploitation; they lead us to science-based medicine or quackery; and they promote harmony among peoples or else hostility and violence. And some grow to such powerful dominance that they become beliefs to die for. A wise person revels in the wide expanse of imagination, anchors belief in thin reality, and does the utmost to distinguish between the two. As the Belief Engine toils away, creating, maintaining, and modifying beliefs, we must strive to subject its products to the quality control offered by critical thinking. In so doing, we need to regularly ask ourselves what has been called the most important question in science, “How do we know what we claim to know?” This may lead to the realization that some of our important beliefs are based on insufficient evidence or none at all. In playing devil’s advocate and contemplating possible challenges to our beliefs, we should heed the words of Eric Hoffer that began this chapter. Critical thought requires being prepared to disagree with ourselves. This is never easy, but it is the challenge for us all.