Previously, I’ve pointed out how our society relies on anecdotes, “conventional wisdom” and rumors for information (see Beyond “Conventional Wisdom”: Thinking Critically in the Information Age (Part 1). Here are some suggestions and aphorisms that may help stimulate critical thought:
- Take time to learn. Skimming rarely gleans sufficient information.
- Check facts. Challenge assumptions, especially your own.
- Explore context.
- Evaluate why you want to believe what you’re reading. What, particularly, is convincing you of its truth? Is that valid?
- Sound bites are teasers, not information. Very few issues of any importance can be distilled to a sound bite.
- Statistics don’t tell the whole story. Consider all that they don’t say, not just what they say.
- The Internet is a research tool that lies. You can find genuine facts on line, but you can also find plenty of false information. Try to find at least one opposing view to any assertion, especially if you particularly like it. Read the opposition, and evaluate which provides more convincing evidence.
- Follow the money! Whenever someone offers a scientific thesis or opinion, try to find out their funding source. Research funders are amazingly likely to have their assumptions confirmed by any research they pay for.
- Opinion polls are almost useless. See previous point. Also, what value might an uninformed opinion possibly have?
- Question agendas. Most information is presented to persuade you to a certain point of view, not to educate. What does this person or organization want from me? If you can strip away persuasive language, does the evidence still make sense?
- The better the story, the more likely it is to not be true. Research it yourself.
- Just because it’s blue doesn’t mean it’s true! Check sited references, especially embedded links. You’ll find that many links used to support a thesis don’t support it at all!
- Entertainment can be educating, but its primary purpose is entertainment, not education. Do not accept historical films as historical education.
- In a test of opposing views, which side starts name-calling first? That is generally the point of view that has run out of cogent arguments.
- “The plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” These are words to live by!
- If you’ve learned it from an email, or a boldly-lettered caption in a photo on Facebook, you probably haven’t really learned anything at all.
If each of us took more responsibility for critically analyzing the information we receive, we would be a better informed, smarter country. That can’t be a bad thing.