Want to be a better critical thinker? Here’s how to spot false narratives and “weaponized lies”

Question narratives as they are presented to you.
Question narratives as they are presented to you.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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This weekend on Face the Nation, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus defended US president Donald Trump’s declaration that the American press is “the enemy.” “Certainly we would never condone violence,” Priebus said. “But I do think we condone critical thought.”

Add Priebus to a long list of people—from op-ed columnists and political talk show hosts to Edward Snowden—who have recently called upon the public to do that old-fashioned, difficult work much touted by Socrates and high school English teachers. Yes, critical thinking is having a moment.

As global politics enters a uniquely tumultuous and contentious era, people across the political spectrum seem to agree on at least one thing: The public needs to engage in more rigorous and skeptical questioning of stories that circulate (especially the claims and stories coming from the other side, of course). But with partisans playing tug of war with intellectual inquiry, it’s fair to stop and ask a few questions. To begin with: What is critical thinking, exactly?

Although there’s no single definition, most people agree that it involves reasoning, evaluating, and making decisions based on evidence. According to the American Philosophical Association, critical thinking “always seeks the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness.”

In this way, it is fundamentally different from “weak-sense critical thinking”—a term popularized by the late Richard Paul, a co-founder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. “Weak-sense critical thinking” means applying the tools and practices of critical thinking—questioning, investigating, evaluating—but with the sole purpose of confirming one’s bias or serving an agenda.

Weak-sense critical thinkers often don’t recognize that their reasoning and judgment may be skewed, says M. Neil Browne, an economics professor who teaches critical thinking at Bowling Green State University. “It is very common for someone to believe, ‘Those who disagree with me are biased, but I am not.’ It is one of the biggest obstacles to critical thinking.”

Being fair-minded and objective has never been easy. But it’s probably even harder in the age of social media echo chambers. One might argue that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm actively works against critical thinking by serving up news and information based on our pre-existing preferences and beliefs. (It’s worth noting that Facebook is now changing its “trending topics” feature in an effort to battle fake news.)

The psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, author of the new book Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era, says that our talent for critical thinking also has been weakened by the sheer amount of information coming at us each day through push notifications, cable news, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle. “We’ve become less critical in the face of information overload,” he writes over email. “We throw up our hands and say, it’s too much to think about.” According to Levitin, this sense of being overwhelmed makes us more vulnerable to unsubstantiated stories from suspect sources and “alternative facts” served up by spin doctors.

Former CNN anchor Frank Sesno, author of the new book Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change, believes the problem lies in education. “Nobody is teaching people the art of asking thoughtful, skeptical questions,” Sesno says.

That said, Bowling Green professor Browne insists that “even a fourth-grader” can master some of the basics of critical thinking. The first step is to recognize that all of us have biases that are bound to affect our judgment. Thus, we must continually question our own assumptions and beliefs. Or, as Sesno puts it, “You almost have to start by asking, What do I think I know, and how do I know it’s true?

Having considered one’s biases and assumptions on a given issue, the critical thinker then goes to work evaluating statements and claims coming from others. Once again, the primary tool is the question—or rather, a set of basic diagnostic questions that can be applied time and again when trying to assess anything from a medical claim to a politician’s promises.

Some go-to questions include What is the evidence supporting this claim? This can lead to a subset of further questions, such as, How reliable is the evidence? Does it come from a trusted source? Is there an agenda behind it? After weighing the evidence, one is in a better position to make a judgment call—as in, “I have five strong reasons to believe this and only two shaky reasons to disbelieve; I’ll go with the stronger case.”

Another favorite question of Browne’s is, What are they not telling me? Sometimes the problem with information is not what is there, but what’s missing—whether it’s a news story that neglects to provide historical context when discussing unemployment data, a sales pitch that leaves out important details about interest repayment plans, or a politician’s promised solution that fails to mention potential downsides.

In addition, whenever presented with a claim or case, critical thinkers should ask: Are there fallacies in the logic? An excellent resource for identifying logical fallacies is Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit,” originally published as a chapter in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. As part of his kit, Sagan presents a list of 20 tricks that critical thinkers should always watch for, including ad hominem attacks (when people ignore the contention at hand and instead attack the character of their opponent), arguments that rely on authority (e.g., “trust me because I’m the president”), false dichotomies (“you’re with us or against us”), and “slippery slope” arguments that suggest one decision will inevitably lead to another, grave event.

Lastly, it’s important for critical thinkers to ask, What is the other side of this issue?—though as Levitin points out, it is also a good idea to ask, Is there another side? As he explains: “There is not another side to the question of whether we really landed on the moon. We did.” Treating established facts and historical events as issues up for debate is not critical thinking; it is ignoring reality.

Browne maintains that if we become accustomed to rigorously asking these kinds of questions in everyday situations, we’ll all be better critical thinkers. But he acknowledges that the process can be tedious. It calls for what the renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman has categorized as “slow thinking,” which requires more time and effort. Most of us, Browne says, would rather “go with our gut.”

Critical thinking also requires humility, according to Levitin. “You must be willing to admit you don’t know, or that you might be wrong about something.”

Still, it is worth the effort, Levitin argues. “Evidence-based decision-making leads to better outcomes—better health decisions, financial decisions, life choices,” he says, adding: “Research shows that your gut’s going to be wrong more than it is right.”

Moreover, if citizens make political choices based on gut feelings, faulty evidence, and weak-sense critical thinking, they may not get the most qualified or effective leaders. As Sagan warned in an interview with Charlie Rose just months before his death in 1996: “If we are not able to ask skeptical questions … to interrogate those who tell us something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority … then we are up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes rambling along.”