The Total Man: Use Critical Thinking

by Michael on July 22, 2009 · 2 comments

The Electric Thinking Cap Upgrade. (Flickr photo by Hoggheff aka Hank Ashby)

The Electric Thinking Cap Upgrade. (Flickr photo by Hoggheff aka Hank Ashby)

I think that modern politics is an enormous insult to our intelligence. I realized that after talking to a number of friends and acquaintances, most of whom seemed to have formed well-thought-out positions on Michael Jackson’s behavior with children, while generally being quick to dismiss any input that contradicted their belief systems when it came to political issues like global climate change and the effectiveness of the economic stimulus.

One reason for this is that in politics we’re likely to have pre-formed beliefs passed down to us via our home environment, while celebrity news culture is new and we had to grow into it.

Politics also preys on the human need to belong: are you in the Liberal gang, or the Conservative gang, or the Socialist gang, or the Libertarian gang? Well, if you’re gonna be in our gang you had better be ready to rumble with us against those other gangs. Here are the instructions. We might even need you for a drive-by or two. Be ready to fight.

Yet another is politicians who are far from pragmatic, at least when the cameras are on: every bill they favor is going to save us, every bill they oppose is going to kill us. Watch this clip from The Daily Show for a current example. (It’s all funny, but the relevant bit starts at about 3:20.)

Finally there are the political talk-host entertainers like Sean Hannity and Keith Olbermann who make their livings as caricatures: to maintain rabid followings, they must be rabid themselves. There’s enormous money in political “hot talk” and there will always be someone willing to say whatever is necessary to scoop up that cash.

That’s No Excuse

But you know what? If you offer an opinion but can’t say you’ve weighed both sides of an issue, the fault isn’t your parents or politicians or the media – it’s you.

As a human being, you’re gifted with a brain that can grasp a complex issue or concept, gain an unbiased understanding of it, and then form an opinion based on purposeful, reflective thought. So why don’t you?

Use a Process

The best way to form an opinion – really, the only way, if you want that opinion to carry any weight – is to use critical thinking: a process of gathering information, understanding biases and thinking an issue or problem through for yourself. There are some very long dissertations on critical thinking out there, which quite frankly might bore you into not trying it. So I’m going with a smaller set of tips from Copyblogger that you can use even with limited information:

  • Pay attention to details, down to the language used.
  • Before trusting an “expert,” look at his credentials.
  • Watch for over-generalization and fallacies (politicians and commentators are masters at using fallacies to prop up a soundbite-size argument).
  • Acknowledge your own bias.

That should be enough to at least understand whether a news article is giving you enough information, or how a talk-show host is spinning an issue.

Know Your Enemy

From Sun Tzu to Abraham Lincoln, the brightest minds have practiced what was summed up in The Godfather Part II: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” This also applies to ideas you don’t like. If you plan to form an opinion on something, you should know the opposing opinion in detail. If you can passionately argue both sides of an issue, you’re getting somewhere.

Talk-radio hosts often riff sarcastically on an out-of-context sound bite or cherrypicked “facts.” You’re better than that.

Question Your Heroes

I recently watched the movie Alexander, about Alexander the Great: a brilliant tactician and charismatic leader with progressive ideas for his time, he would let his drive get the best of him. His greatest assets turned out to be his longtime friends who served as commanders and generals, who questioned the wisdom of his more dubious moves. Alexander literally ignored them at his own peril. (The movie? It was just okay.)

Nobody is right all the time. Ever hear the mutual fund disclaimer, “past performance cannot guarantee future results”? It works that way with people too. And where someone has to stand or fall on their own position and neither would cause harm, it’s fine to give a hero or leader or boss the benefit of the doubt. But where you must take action, or that decision could prove harmful, reasoned dissent can be more productive than blindly following.

And if your hero is the type of person you thought he was, he should welcome thoughtful dissent.

There Is No “Wrong”

It can hard to be wrong. There’s a growing trend, especially among the anonymous on the Internet, of deriding others for their (real or perceived) errors in judgment, while denying ever being wrong themselves. Like an expert lawyer, some people find a way to wriggle out of a previously unequivocal opinion once it’s disproven.

The answer is to divorce yourself from “right” and “wrong.” Black-and-white sides rarely exist, and critical thinking only proves it. If you can grasp the both the good and bad in an issue, you can divorce yourself from most of the ill will that comes from choosing up sides and going to war.

Don’t Sweat The Small Things

Finally, there’s no shame in simply not voicing an opinion on something that really doesn’t matter to you. My opinion on Michael Jackson is that I don’t know what went on behind his closed doors, and that forming an opinion based on that limited information offers me nothing but wasted time. (I have beliefs on climate change and the stimulus’ effect, but they’re much too long. E-mail me if you’re really interested.)

Remember, you can always say what you think – at least here in America – but it’s only polite to preface it with “I think.”

2 comments… read them below or add one

alex - unleash reality July 25, 2009 at 4:55 am

hey michael,

awwwsome article.

def agree that people form beliefs before thinking them through – ‘take them on’, so to speak – and then backwards rationalise a reason for having them.

…but, while i think your tips are solid, you’ll still fall into the same trap… because you’re looking at things from the same perspective. that’s the thing, perspective – by it’s nature – is limited. change your perspective and you can truly think critically 😀

don’t sweat the small things 😉


love your site btw.

stumbled! 🙂

keep well and in touch
alex –


Michael July 27, 2009 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for the kind words and great addition to this lesson, Alex. Perspective, or stepping in someone else’s shoes, is an important part of seeing the world more clearly.

I think it’s a more advanced skill, and I’m still working on it myself, but the payoffs are many.

Glad you stopped by!

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