If you’re not a mutant, an extraterrestrial, an adventure seeker prone to outlandously fortuitous accidents, or a wealthy scientific genius who can engineer all sorts of wondrous gadgets, don’t despair. You can still have your own super power. In fact, it’s the best super power of all. It’s the power of critical thinking.
What’s critical thinking? It’s simply being able to assess the truthfulness and validity of the things people say. That may not sound as awesome as super speed or morphing into an animal, but it has distinct advantages. With critical thinking, you don’t need a special costume. You don’t need to hide your power or protect your identity or explain why your clothes are torn apart. It won’t leave you physically exhausted and doesn’t involve fisticuffs (usually).
You can use critical thinking anywhere in any situation. You can use it on your teachers and classmates, your boss and co-workers, the trolls on Reddit, politicians and pundits, salesmen and ministers, and everyone else who tries to get into your head. And, you can learn to think critically whether you’re sixteen or sixty. All you have to do is to practice, but not grueling hours every day in the gym, just some easy mental exercises. Here’s how.
Stage 1 — Listen
Start simply. Pay attention to the conversations you have, the internet forums you follow, the TV you watch, especially the ads, and any other communication you may read, watch, or hear. Then, decide if the communication is meant to persuade you to do or think something. If it doesn’t, ignore it for the time being. Focus on those communications that want you to buy a product, or accept a belief, or support a position. You need to be able to recognize these arguments at sight, almost without thinking. Take as long as you need to get good at this. Remember, it took Spiderman more than a few tries to learn to cling to walls, but if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to swing from building to building.
Stage 2 — Parse
Once you can easily identify those attempts to persuade you, the next step is to pick apart the pieces of those arguments. Think of arguments as consisting of three parts:
- Premises — the facts the argument relies on
- Logic — the way the premises are manipulated
- Conclusion — the result of the argument.
You need to learn to identify these pieces before you can start evaluating the validity of an argument. This process wouldn’t be difficult if you only talked to other critical thinkers. Unfortunately, most people aren’t critical thinkers and the torrent of mental chaos you’ll encounter from them is daunting. So again, start simply. Look up examples of formal arguments on Wikipedia and then other Internet and textbook sources. When you’re comfortable with picking out the parts of formal arguments, you can move on to the chaotic musings of the idiocracy. In those, you’ll find more of a challenge. The parts of those arguments don’t always come in the customary premise-logic-conclusion order. Some arguments don’t spell out all the premises. The logic behind arguments is often unstated. The conclusion is the only thing you can count on being present, but it may be the first, and sometimes, the only part of an argument you’ll hear. With practice, you’ll get good at it. And when you do, you’ll find that, even at this point, you are developing a greater awareness of critical thought than most of your cohorts.
Stage 3 — Check
This is where learning to think critically gets interesting. Stage 3 involves looking at the components of arguments, which you should now be really good at picking out, and checking them for common flaws. Here are some things you should look for:
- Premises — Are the premises actual facts or just someone’s claim? The argument may or may not cite a source, but even if it does, that doesn’t always mean the fact is valid. Sometimes a source is biased or just a regurgitation of another biased source. Get into the habit of searching the internet for verification. Start with relatively unbiased sites like snopes.com, factcheck.org, and procon.org, then start looking at other sites. You’ll develop a feel for the biased sites and how they spin information. Before long, you’ll find you’re developing a highly capable bullcrap detector that’s even better than Spidy sense.
- Logic – Don’t worry too much at this point about whether the logic is correct. Instead, look for obviously incorrect logic indicated by the presence of any of the most common fallacies. There are dozens of different fallacies, so start with these, which are usually easy to spot:
Judgmental language, making an argument using emotion-laden words. Phrases like religious fanatics, free-loading welfare recipients, lazy unemployed, and greedy bankers all impart more than just the essence of the argument. In today’s contentious society, judgmental language is hard not to find.
Ad hominum, an attack on the opponent rather than the opponent’s position. This happens all the time on political forums and often involves a reference to Hitler, illegal activities involving animals, or body parts.
Appeal to false authority, basing an argument on someone who isn’t really an expert, like all those celebrities on infomercials. Avoid peer pressure and the hive mind; think for yourself. Also beware of any reliance on common sense, which is more myth than magic.
After you are comfortable with these fallacies, visit Wikipedia and read about others like straw man, cherry picking, red herring, oversimplication, begging the question, slippery slope, equivocation, and quoting out of context. Take them one step at a time.
- Conclusion – Argument conclusions can be of two types. Deductive arguments use premises about general information to conclude something specific. Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, and Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) are all masters of deduction, albeit fictional. Inductive arguments use premises about specific information to conclude something general. Beware of inductive arguments based on anecdotes, like Ronald Reagan’s legendary welfare queen. Induction usually involves statistics and probability because counterexamples are such easy argument killers, in which case it’s called abductive reasoning. Other than anecdotes, settle for being able to distinguish the two basic types of arguments.
The point of this stage is for you to be able to identify the more obvious red flags. If you complete this stage, you will be far ahead of most people. Enjoy your mental prowess and use it every day.
Stage 4 — Triage
You’ll find that you can spot a lot of faulty arguments just by knowing these few things to look for. In fact, you’ll probably find most of the arguments you listen to are faulty in one way or another. And that’s the problem. You have to be judicious with how you use your new power to think critically. You can’t just engage in battle with every troll who wants to argue over a movie, or a quarterback, or worst of all, a politician. Still, with great power comes great responsibility. You have to slap down some arguments. Given that, you’ll need to develop a sense for when you have tostep up to expose idiocy and when you can roll your eyes and let it slide. Further, you’ll have to develop a sense for when you have inflicted enough damage to withdraw. Heroes don’t slaughter their enemies; humiliation works just as well. You must become a guerrilla thinker. Pick your battles. Fight them in earnest. Then dissolve into the shadows. This is harder to do than it seems.
Stage 5 — Analyze
Most deciples of critical thinking get at least as far as stage 4. Elite thinkers go far beyond that to thoroughly analyzing all the components of an argument. Analyzing arguments is challenging. It requires knowledge of a broad variety of subjects, the development of sophisticated analytical skills like statistics and logic, the availability of resources that can support your quest for the truth, and lots and lots of practice. This learning process never ends. The more you know the more sophisticated are the arguments you’ll take on.
Here are some of the things you might explore to become an elite thinker.
- Premises — Indisputable facts make good premises but not all facts are indisputable. Some premises purported to be facts are actually opinions or factoids (i.e, assertions that are made so commonly that they are assumed to be true). Elite thinkers also do not just consider the source of the fact because facts from even obstentiously unbiased, primary sources may not be entirely valid. Data analysis can be idiosyncratic. For example, different statisticians may come to different conclusions from the same data set because of the way they scrub the data, transform variables, and conduct analyses. Another sign of an invalid data analyses is a lack of reference points like baselines and control groups. There are many other red flags that elite thinkers know to look for. In time, so can you.
- Logic — There are many more fallacies that you can learn to recognize, though you’ll probably have to read textbooks to go beyond the easy pickings found on the Internet. But elite thinkers don’t just look for errors (fallacies), they also consider the proper use of logical processes, the rules used to convert premises into conclusions. In deductive reasoning, these logical processes are called propositional logicrules. For example, using the letters P, Q, and R for premises:
- If P entails Q and P is true then Q is also true (called Modus Ponens)
- If P entails Q and Q is false then P is also false (called Modus Tollens)
- If P entails Q and Q entails R then P entails R (called Hypothetical Syllogism).
As you might guess, there are many more logical rules. Presumably, this is what Spock spent all those years studying on Vulcan. For inductive reasoning, an appreciation of statistical thinking is required. In essence, statistical thinking posits that everything is connected, everything has an inherent and extraneous variability, and extraneous variability needs to be controlled. Fatal flaws in inductive arguments usually stem from a failure to understand these concepts.
- Conclusions — For any critical thinker, the validity of an argument is paramount, but for elite thinkers, the subtleties of how an argument is presented is also important. This is where having a good understanding of modes of communication, writing styles, propaganda, pragmatic context, and subliminal and nonverbal communications are essential.
So there is the path to becoming a critical thinker. Getting started isn’t difficult, it just takes practice. The more you practice the more you’ll learn. The more you learn the better you’ll be at it. Just give it a try. Once you start experiencing the rewards, you’ll understand why critical thinking is the best super power of all.
This blog is dedicated to Alex Finkel, my friend Ray Finkel’s nephew, and to all the other graduates of 2012. Strive to make this world better for everyone.
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