In the age of social media and fake news, critical thinking might be more important than ever. However, there is one important aspect of critical thinking that we often fail to consider.
There are many interpretations of critical thinking, so for the purpose of this essay let’s define it as “a commitment to using reason in the formulation of our beliefs”. For example, when we come across a piece of information, it’s prudent to refrain from taking everything verbatim and instead combine that with information obtained from different sources in order to formulate a judgement that will serve us better going forward.
We make several fragile assumptions each time we embark on an objective approach to determine the legitimacy of a piece of information:
- We assume that people are capable of perfectly rational thought, unencumbered by emotion;
- We assume that we always have the cognitive capacity to hold and express an objective truth; and
- Perhaps most naively: we don’t systematically question our own previously held beliefs.
In science and engineering, we approach every problem with acute awareness of extreme human fallibility. Physicists compensate for errors in collecting data by performing many measurements and including the error margin in published results. Scientific studies are often performed “double-blind” to reduce the effects of placebo and confirmation bias. Seasoned computer engineers don’t trust themselves to write bug-free code, so, as a backup, we establish a safety net of automated tests for our software. At my workplace, we aim to make data-driven, not feeling-driven decisions.
Perhaps the highest form of critical thinking, as exercised daily, should be contemplating a problem from a position that you yourself might be wrong, that your perspective is limited, and that what you feel is “rational” on your part is heavily subject to the culture that you’ve been brought up in and the sum of all the life experiences you had so far up until this point.
Changing our approach wouldn’t be easy; after all, questioning our beliefs goes almost at direct odds with why belief exists in the first place: to create a comfort zone. However, what we know about physical health is that sustained comfort isn’t always good for us. Therefore, we shake things up by going to a gym or go running or climbing; we strain ourselves and sweat and our bodies hurt, but we’re still doing it because we have a cause. A day later there is muscle pain, but it’s a good kind of pain because it means that we’re stronger and that doing the same exercise won’t be as hard next time around. Maybe there are ways in which we could do the same for our mind.