I read an article recently that said critical thinking was bad actually, which annoyed me, because I’ve often said that critical thinking is the single most important survival skill in the Internet age. However, once I read the article, I realized what it actually said was that you need to vet sources before you engage with them deeply, because deep engagement with crappy sources can cause more harm than good.
So, when I was taught critical thinking (which wasn’t until my 4th year in college, by the way), I was taught that you’re not doing critical thinking AT ALL, unless you start BEFORE engaging deeply with the text. So to me, the article basically said, skipping the all-important first steps of critical thinking makes critical thinking bad.
Which … yeah. But to me, of course, if you skip those steps, you’re not engaging in critical thinking in the first place.
So I thought I’d offer a critical thinking crash course that includes ALL the steps of the process. Skipping ahead is bad.
Step 1: Critique the Source.
Before evaluating content—before engaging with the content at all, if possible—examine the source. Is this a reasonable source for such information? Is this source likely to offer reputable or reliable information? What are the source’s known biases? What might some unknown biases be (like the money trail, who makes money from this)?
It’s okay for sources to be biased. They all are (repeat: THEY ALL ARE). But you need to *know* the biases before you decide whether or not to spend your time and mental energy on them.
Example: Universities will tend to have a “liberal” bias or very little bias on social issues, because they cater to young people (usually more progressive-leaning), and because having professors who say shocking, progressive things is a low-risk and inexpensive way to look cutting edge and forward-thinking. However, deep down, universities’ focus on retaining the loyalty of big donors will tend to make most universities a lot more traditionalist under the hood than they might initially look on the surface. Their most popular degrees, with the highest chance of being lucrative post-graduation, will tend to offer far more traditionalist course-content from far more traditionalist professors. The progressive content is for degrees you can never get hired to use, like arts and humanities, and the less well-paid sciences.
That said, if a university publishes something factually wrong, the university’s reputation for scholastic excellence takes a hit. In order to avoid this (since it might lose them money), universities tend to be pretty careful to publish only works that will, at minimum, be taken reasonably seriously by peers around the world, making publications from scholastically-accredited universities a relatively reliable source of factual data.
A bias analysis like this can be done of almost any organization. Here’s another: major news outlets will usually not tell you outright lies, because getting caught later makes them look less reliable as news sources. The words they say are usually more or less true. However, since they care more about money and advertisers than they do about news, you can expect them to hide news they don’t want you to hear, and spin news in whatever way best fits their brands and their advertisers’ and producers’ preferences.
These complex layers of bias-understanding can help you to vet content before you ever waste your time watching or reading it. Hint: most content is WAY LESS reliable than accredited universities or major news sources, money-bias and all. Better sources are rare and precious.
Step 2: Choose Engagement Level.
You might choose not to engage at all, at this point. This article or video or Internet comment may be likely to decrease, rather than increase, your understanding of anything. We humans have finite time in this life. You have no responsibility to expose your mind to useless garbage. It’s not good for you. Reject spending your time and energy on things that are likely to be lies, confused ramblings, deliberate manipulation, opinions falsely presented as facts, or any other form of misinformation. You have better things to do.
This is an example of appropriate and deeply intellectual critical thinking. To examine the source and choose to simply not engage is completely fine.
Levels D and C
Alternatively, if you have some deep reason to engage with a questionable source (like you really, really, really love the person who’s asking you to read it, or it’s somehow your job to engage with this content), or if you consider the likely quality of the information to be worth the bother of compensating for the known biases (a paper from a super weird scholar, but on that scholar’s area of expertise), you might engage warily. Go in knowing that you can’t take anything at face value.
It’s much easier to engage warily with content that cites sources for all of its data, so prioritize well-cited content over content with no sources listed (yes, Wikipedia is better than average as Internet information sources go, even though it’s written by packs of randos, because you can trace the content’s origins and editing history, and observe clearly when sources are nonexistent or terrible).
Levels D and C engagement are not about having an open mind. They’re about having a rationally guarded mind and taking the time and energy to question every single claim, and make sure they’re all backed up. It’s hard work and not to be undertaken lightly. If you encounter a Level D source and don’t have time to do the work of properly questioning all the nonsense, you’re probably better off not engaging for now. Just don’t read or watch it until you have time to do so responsibly.
With Level Cs, at least be sure not to take them too seriously, and don’t pass them along until you can find time to fact-check. If they’re super interesting, pass along only with disclaimers, preferably in small, private groups instead of in public.
It’s also particularly important with C and D sources to compensate for your OWN biases. Just because something agrees with you, that doesn’t make it credible, and taking it too seriously can decrease your understanding of the subject matter. In fact, things you agree with, or find very appealing, are more dangerous to your grasp of the facts than things you reject instinctively by preference. Anything you instinctively hate the sound of, you’ll apply critical thinking to because you want to. It’s the things you *love* the sound of that’ll getcha.
And again, treating sources with critical wariness is intelligent and ethical. You don’t have to be open to every pea-brained notion you stumble across. Being open-minded is about being open to new actual information, not about being open to new garbage.
Finally, you might choose to fully engage, with an open mind. **Within Reason** (see below). Adjust your read of the data to counter biases, but otherwise accept that it’s probably more or less accurate. Level B sources, once you’ve adjusted for bias, are probably worth your full, deep engagement and thought, even if you don’t have time to track down every claim and fact-check for yourself. They’re also usually safe to pass along to other people.
(You still have to track down sources if you’re using something for a scholarly paper, btw.)
With main-stream Level B sources, like most major news outlets and universities, keep in mind also that they are comfortable parts of the current social system, and doing well in it. They will be incentivized to defend the status quo and unlikely to share very radical ideas unless spun to help their brand in some way. To get perspective on main-stream blind spots, I recommend consuming responsible journalism from other countries. If you can read in other languages, that will get you the best perspective (I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about American politics by watching Swedish shows about us). English-language news from other countries can also be useful, but BBC America doesn’t count as being from another country (the rest of BBC content does).
News outlets from other countries are just as biased as our news and have just as many blind spots, but their biases are in regards to their own countries and their countries’ relationships with ours. That means that it’s easier for us, as outsiders, to spot and adjust for their biases, and then use their perspectives on us to readjust our own understanding of the biases in our home-grown news sources.
And those are the engagement levels.
You might notice at this juncture: there’s no Level A. Keep reading.
Step 3: Engagement
Once you’ve decided whether and how to engage with a source, go ahead and consume your supposedly-factual content. This is where you read or listen, and think through the logic of what you consume. You know … do the stuff that the other article was calling critical thinking, and it IS critical thinking. It’s just only the final PART of critical thinking. Steps 1 and 2 are crucial. Most Internet content should only be engaged warily, if at all. You don’t have time for the bunny trail. Leave it to the people who do.
But if you’ve decided to fully, deeply engage, here’s some advice for how to do it, even if it’s a Level B source.
If the information sounds really out there, or unlikely, or (especially) too good to be true, double check with other sources to make sure everyone’s reporting the same thing (and if there’s disagreement, keep in mind that your source may be incorrect, despite having passed the source-critique stage of critical thinking). If most other reasonable-quality sources agree, however, even weird-sounding things might be true.
If you’re not writing a paper, and consuming content just for your own understanding, then—provided you’re keeping a level head about it—you can probably mostly trust what you’re seeing from a Level B source. As stated, most accredited universities and major news outlets (NOT including opinion sections or commentary) tend to be Level B sources, at least on the topics they are qualified to talk about (and so long as biases are acknowledged and accounted for). Sometimes other sources can also be Level B, based on stellar reputation for accuracy, a nonprofit structure (nonprofits with disclosed or small-only donors can be great!), and similar considerations.
Definitely continue to question everything, however, and never just rely on other people to vet your information for you.
But what about discovering new things? you may ask. Or studying really different ideas?
Original research is a whole other topic, as is deep-dive reporting. This advice is just about usefully critiquing the content you encounter in day to day life.
And it’s always _okay_ to engage with anything, however questionable, as Level D content. Just make sure you have the time and dedication to do so responsibly, BEFORE you wade in. And DEFINITELY before you click “share”.
You don’t owe bad content your attention.
But, but, but … trust!
As I said above, in critical thinking, there’s no Level A content. Never, ever, ever trust anything without question. Questions are vital to reason. Always keep in mind that any given fact might eventually turn out to be wrong. None of us actually knows anything for certain.
Not even my holy book? Your holy book is open to interpretation, and other deeply faithful, good people don’t see it the way you see it. Always question your interpretation, even if you don’t feel comfortable questioning the book itself. Even if the book is infallible, your understanding of it (or your pastor’s or imam’s etc) might still be wrong. So question.
No humans alive today are perfect, not even divinely-inspired humans.
There is never a Level A content engagement.
And that’s a super quick-and-dirty run-down on critical thinking. I hope it helps you to survive the scary, scary, wonderful world that is the Internet.
Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 12:39:45 AM
A short, simple critical thinking crash-course for surviving the Internet.