4 Tips For Those That Think (aka Everyone)

I’m not a numbers person. Math was always a challenging subject for me in school. But that’s not to say I didn’t learn anything. Hell, I think one of my most valuable life lessons came from my college statistics class. The professor, who looked every bit the part of a stereotypical nebbish accountant, spent the day explaining how some research centers mess with data on graphs because some findings might be influenced by money from companies who are looking for a certain result. He likened it to a TV channel that purports to be a news organization speaking favorably about a political candidate, because said candidate donated a large sum of money to the TV channel.

Unfortunately, the corruption of information, not to mention the rampant conflicts of interest within the media and political systems are nothing new. But in recent years, communication of thought & fact has become increasingly blurry. Thanks to an onslaught of complicated laws and loopholes in addition to the ever growing wedge of political division, room for nuanced thought, let alone critical thinking seems to be at an all time low.

This reminds me of something comedian and satirist George Carlin once said,

“[The Owners of this country] don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking.”

Whenever I think about this quote, I’m torn between outrage and resignation. The outrage comes from a place of seeing the truth in this statement. The resignation stems from bewilderment that many don’t seem to want to engage in critical thinking, despite how easy it could be to turn on that switch within. That’s why I’ve created these four tips that will ensure we’re all putting on our critical thinking caps, especially during an election year when discourse is often more divided than usual.

1) Ask Questions, Questions & MORE QUESTIONS!

Perhaps some of us remember being young and at the time asking what adults would describe as our favorite word, “Why?” As kids, we questioned everything, albeit sometimes to the annoyance of others. As we matured and grew, some of us kept up the curiosity. Some of us still do. Many of the greatest thinkers of the generations never stopped asking. Albert Einstein described it best when he said,

“The important thing is not to stop questioning, never lose a holy curiosity…”

That phrase, “holy curiosity” is spot on. I feel like if we treated learning more like a religious experience, there wouldn’t be so much stigma associated with asking questions as we age, or even sharing answers.

As people, we also need to remember that it’s ok to say “I don’t know,” sometimes. This is part of the reason we asked MANY questions as children, because we didn’t know, and we knew we didn’t know! But along the way something happened. Maybe we picked up a certain fear in school about saying something “dumb” or not knowing as much as other kids. Let’s knock this myth out right now by pointing out nobody can know everything! Just because you don’t know or don’t understand something, doesn’t mean you should continue to not know or be afraid to ask. The fact that you don’t know or don’t understand something means that there is time and space waiting for you to understand. If you don’t know or understand something, then that’s the perfect time to bring out that inner curious child.

Sometimes, someone might give a complicated answer that either doesn’t make sense or is too confusing. In that case, we just have to ask in order to have the answer explained in simple terms. Unleash your inner child on everything you read. Think of it like a game.

But there seems to be a gap between asking questions, because perhaps many feel like they are rocking the boat. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked, otherwise those who are already rocking the boat in one direction could potentially flip over the whole damn thing!

But this doesn’t mean would should accept everyone’s first answer. This is where tip number two comes into action!

2) Forget Face Value

As consumers in the “Age of Information” we must also be judicious about where and from whom we acquire said info. This is because we also live in a world where any one with a message (that may or may not be propaganda) can instantaneously throw out a few hundred words and call it a story, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. This is where our “holy curiosity” comes into play, but at the same time it doesn’t hurt to have a bullshit detector at your disposal.

On his final appearance as host of the Daily Show, satirist John Stewart dedicated some time and advice to viewers about the importance of critical thinking through all the bullshit out there, concluding, “If you smell something, say something.”

Unfortunately, this means a little extra effort is needed when dissecting the information we put in our brains so as not to be duped into some agenda, like Kraft Foods and it’s interesting label choices or a dubious chocolate milk study. Remember though, it’s not just about asking questions, but also about how the questions are asked, otherwise one may end up furthering a different agenda.

Speaking of agendas, I’m totally ok with people who feel compelled to quote The Bible as part of their reasoning, but I would encourage those people to understand they are opening themselves to a whole host of contradictions found in the good book they’re using, much like Kim Davis (not taking sides, just illustrating a point).

It sucks to say, but for the time being, news articles and scientific journals simply cannot be read at face value anymore because of the rampant ideological divisions in many areas of the world, but especially the United States. All of us need to do our part to not simply read a headline and share it across all our social media platforms, but also research the person (if there’s a byline) and website publishing articles. It means we need to call on our “holy curiosity” to research who funds these different studies we read. It also means we have to trust in our bullshit detectors to look out for and make others aware of “clickbait” and other stories designed to simply get any reaction out of us.

Luckily, this is where tip number three gets involved!

3) Understand How Discourse Works

Talking to someone with the goal of changing their mind means one has already lost in that goal. When was the last time somebody’s mind was changed through barking facts (or opinions) at somebody? When was the last time somebody altered their perception because another person tried changing it?

The whole idea behind conversation and debating revolves around accruing information and working together to find a solution. Unfortunately, most of our media have forgotten this fact, and instead give debates the look and feel of a clash between sports teams. On a long ago episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a point to emphasize the lack of discourse within our current political system, noting that the majority of our leaders work in a profession that emphasizes who argues best.

It may also be helpful to understand the mechanics behind discourse, especially in regards to the long list of fallacies that can occur within a discussion, some more unwittingly than others. At the very least, being vaguely familiar with this list enables everyone to strengthen their own views, but also potentially spot when someone else is employing these tactics (wittingly or not).

Remember, everyone doesn’t know everything, even though some people might like to think they do.

4) Watch Out for Confirmation Bias

Speaking of knowing everything, the confirmation bias is an easy trap many fall into as we seek out information; especially information that reinforces already held beliefs, instead of seeking out all new information which may or may not conflict with said beliefs. In other words, a person of a certain political persuasion that ONLY watches a certain “news channel” because the talking heads reaffirm everything that person already thinks. Confirmation bias means nobody is learning and growing from hearing more information outside of what they already know.

All of us have to be ok going outside of our comfort zone when speaking to people and looking up information. It’s tough to unify folks when everyone has siphoned themselves into different schools of thought.

If you’re only looking to find information to confirm what you think you already know, that’s essentially the same as what we were just talking about in point three in reference to changing someone’s mind. Sure, it feels good when you speak to like-minded individuals, and it’s always nice to hear someone or something agree with you, but that doesn’t always make it true, or even right. For example, a small but vocal branch of the vegetarian and vegan community consistently mention they don’t want to chow down on something that was once alive or felt pain. Problem being, that statement also applies to our plant friends according to these articles and a study that shows how plants are very much alive and looking out for each other (Not bashing vegans & what they stand for, just bashing an inept and poorly articulated argument many seem to make).

The line between groupthink and nuanced opinion is becoming increasingly blurred these days, thanks to fractured and divided populations. But deep down, everyone has a truth, and everyone’s truth is part of this grand puzzle. However, we need to be open with ourselves and everyone else, recognizing that just because we might understand what we’re saying, doesn’t mean we always have to agree with each other. While it’s lovely for groups to come to major agreements, we must remember that we cannot always walk away with 100% agreement.

Questioning everything, forgetting face value, understanding discourse and avoiding confirmation bias are merely a few ways all of us can help cultivate the critical thinking skills of everyone, including ourselves. It is especially poignant we practice these skills at this time, during an election year in The United States where many conversations are bound to turn political. I realize some of these steps might seem like a rigmarole to move through, and in some cases, they are. One would think the truth would be simple to find. But in an age of division obscured by talking points that often center around fear and/or ignorance spewed from both political parties, a little thinking and a lot of heart can help all of us grow in a way that benefits everyone.