Many people claim to want to know the truth, but only a few people can handle knowing it and more importantly, even fewer people have the required tools to be able to figure out what is true and what is not. For example, there are folks on social media who claim to be all about discovering and sharing the truth about hidden facts but a closer look at their timeline will reveal a pile of Conspiracy Theories.
In this age of information, we are constantly being bombarded by a constant stream of data and it has become even more imperative to be able to separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and real information from disinformation and misinformation. You need a tool that will help you do all this. That tool is called Critical Thinking.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In simpler terms, Critical Thinking is a way of thoroughly analysing information in order to find out the truth or validity of that information.
In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions:
- sound evidence,
- good reasons,
Critical Thinking is not easy, and neither does it come naturally to us. While some of us are natural sceptics, scepticism alone is not enough to help us distinguish truth from falsehood. This is where Critical Thinking or Sceptical Thinking comes in.
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Tools for Critical Thinking: How to evaluate the credibility of claims, sources, and information.
To quote the great scientist, Carl Sagan:
“What sceptical thinking boils down to is the means to construct and to understand a reasoned argument and, especially important, to recognise fallacious or fraudulent arguments. This question is not whether we like the conclusion that emerges out of a train of reasoning, but whether the conclusion follows from the premises or starting point and whether that premise is true ….”
Let us use a short illustration to learn about the tools for Critical Thinking: Imagine you see a friend of yours that lives in Abuja in the morning in Port-Harcourt after a long time and you ask them when they got there and they tell you that they just flew in from Abuja to Port-Harcourt that morning but you doubt their story. How would you go about testing the validity of their story?
- Consider more than one possible explanation for a given event or phenomena. Is it possible that your friend arrived the day before via road or train?
- Get independent confirmation of the claim or fact. In this case, a flight ticket bearing their name and the date of the flight can serve as an independent confirmation of their claim.
- Avoid Arguments from Authority. What this means is that just because someone is an authority doesn’t mean they’re always right about everything. A pilot is an authority on flying but the word of a pilot alone is not sufficient to establish that your friend really flew down to Port-Harcourt.
- Encourage debates from all points of view. If someone else claims that they rode the bus with your friend, you should also hear them out and consider the strength of their claim too. It is always better to hear more than one side of an argument or claim so that you are not overly reliant on one point of view. This will help you build a better perspective of the world around you rather than a one-sided view.
- Try not to get too attached to your initial point of view. Even though you doubt that your friend lied, give space for the possibility that they might also be telling the truth and be open to changing your mind when presented with evidence that matches their story, for instance, a valid flight ticket.
- Wherever possible, quantify your arguments. If there is a way to attach a numerical quantity to an argument or idea, do it. This is because it makes it easier to compare it with other competing ideas. For example, It’s easier to check the number of flights that arrived from Abuja that morning and see if it matches your friend’s claim but it’s harder to do that if they don’t give any details that can be quantified. Statements like “I just arrived this morning” are harder to quantify and verify than statements like “I took the first flight” because they lack quantifiable details.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work, not just most of them. If your friend lives 2 hours away from Abuja airport, it makes sense to believe that they left their house at least at 4am for a 6am flight. The story becomes suspicious when they tell you they left home by 5.45 am for their flight by 6pm and somehow made it in time. The point is, every claim in the story must check out and not just the summary of the story.
- Occam’s Razor. When trying to understand something based on the information available, it’s better to choose the simpler explanation. If there are two possible explanations that both explain the facts, choose the one that is less complicated or has multiple branches. A simple, straightforward explanation is most often than not, the correct one. In this case, it is simpler to believe that your friend took a direct flight that morning, considering all the evidence than it is to believe, they trekked for 2 weeks to arrive that morning, or that they took a night bus to Onitsha the day before and then took another one to PH that morning.
- Always ask whether the claim or argument can be, at least in principle, falsified. What this means is that a claim or argument must have a way in which it can be proven false. For example, if it was revealed that all flights between Abuja and PH were grounded that morning, then it becomes obvious that your friend’s claim was false. Any claim that cannot be proven false in any way is not worth spending time on. For example, If I say that I have a dragon in my garage, but it’s invisible and doesn’t make any noise and there’s no way to check if it’s really there, then my claim can’t be proven or disproven, so nobody should waste their time entertaining my claim.
- ‘Doubting Thomases’ must be given the chance to follow your reasoning and confirm your claims and see if they arrive at the same conclusion you did. You must resist the urge to get angry or impatient because someone else does not believe with the same speed or intensity as you. Everybody is different and therefore has a different capacity for reason and as such must be given the chance to independently come to their own conclusions.
- Evidence or experimentation is always greater than argumentation alone. Wherever possible, it is better to test an argument or a claim rather than simply stop at logic alone. Consider, for example, the argument that aliens exist in outer space. You can make convincing arguments for or against the proposition but until we have physical evidence of aliens, we cannot arrive at a definitive conclusion about the existence of such beings.
(The above tools were Culled from the book, THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD By Carl Sagan.)
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Conclusion: Why is critical thinking important in decision-making?
While it is not easy to remember and imbibe all these points at a single glance, I can guarantee that if you take the time to learn and internalise these skills, you will greatly improve your Critical Thinking skills and your ability to arrive at the truth (and best decision) in whatever endeavour you pursue.
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You can start by practicing tool number 1. Every time you hear a story or an explanation of a phenomenon, try to think of more than one other way in which that phenomena can be explained. Over time, you can incorporate other tools in your arsenal, and then you’re on your way to becoming a Critical Thinker.
Happy New Year!
Whether he’s behind the counter dispensing medication or in front of his laptop musing a piece, Azaya brings his unique perspective to everything he does. In his free time, you can catch him coding and always looking for ways to improve as a professional and an individual.”