Truth And Conviction: A 30-Point Framework For Critical Thinking
Just ‘thinking’ is vastly different from ‘critical thinking’? Where do you stand?
It is commonplace to bemoan the lack of critical thinking all around us. We live in an era of strong opinions, yet weak convictions.
Of spin doctoring, political correctness and fake news. We all wish critical thinking was a subject in school or college so that we would not have to deal with the ‘bozos’ of the world. To be sure, one person’s `bozo’ is another’s hero.
Behavioural scientists, economists and logicians talk about a variety of inherent biases and logical fallacies.
Within domains and contexts such as the financial markets or policy making, we are now applying these insights to improve our judgment and make better decisions.
What is less clear is how a technical concept like ‘confirmation bias’ affects critical thinking across domains in a more general sense. The recently popular notion of nudge is a useful tool in getting people to change behaviours.
However, the ‘nudge approach’ helps greatly in adjusting or modifying habits and does not necessarily affect the underlying thought process.
Interestingly, many biases seem to afflict the intelligent, sophisticated folks more than the people who see things in a simple, raw form.
Perhaps, educated folks process a lot more information but superficially and hurriedly?
Now, we do notice that intellectually oriented folks have a more prominent ego that expresses itself more actively.
Quite likely, the Ego distorts the picture to match the mind and its predisposition. And a diminished ego interferes less with the perceived signal.
On the other hand, can a low self esteem trigger stronger prejudices and irrational thinking?
Can we train people to become better critical thinkers? Or is learning to think critically subject to the same limitations that inhibit critical thinking in the first place?
These, and more questions, put this topic on a path of multi-disciplinary research with neurologists joining the other experts, probably playing a pivotal role.
Meanwhile, let’s take a practical lens to critical thinking to first recognise and then deal with day-to-day, universal types of non-critical thinking.
The purpose is to evolve a framework that can be used to illuminate the subject. Notably, I have avoided examples to illustrate the point. While this makes the subject dry, examples themselves can limit understanding and create biases.
Further, I believe it’s important not to oversimplify the observations. Rather allow the reader to think about each point and apply it to a set of held views to uncover fresh perspectives. So here we go!
- Seek root causes. Root cause analysis is a formal approach to getting to the heart of a matter or the ultimate cause of a problem. One technique is known as the ‘Five Why’ method. Every successive ‘Why’ takes you closer to the root cause.
- Separate spin from facts. Often facts are presented with subtle indications of hearsay or (mis)quotes or allegations.
Our minds skim past these nuances and seeks the hard information points. Along with existing biases, this makes us latch on to non-facts as incontrovertible truth.
- Apply one standard to all inputs from all sources. Dual or multiple standards is a big enemy of critical thinking. We judge right or wrong based on who said it or did it and not the merits of the matter.
For example, abuse is abuse regardless of who does it. We tend to look at abuse with rose tinted glasses if the recipient is someone we dislike. Then again, we use different standards to judge people. One standard is set to Perfect and another one is set to Zero because it suits our agenda.
- Have a mind that’s open to change when facts change. Confirmation bias naturally goes against our desire and ability to access information or facts that contradict our held view.
But we need to breathe oxygen into firmly held views. On the one hand, we need to hold convictions. On the other hand, we need to be amenable to new facts or fresh light on a subject. Over time, we find that our convictions are held at a deeper level of values or principles and not superficial levels of ideas or opinions.
- Subject first impressions to a deeper thought process. We have learned that the mind has the capacity to judge rapidly and to that, it relies on a memory base of past experiences and data.
However, we can and do have momentary lapses and when we make snap judgments without the full weight of our mental faculties, we err. The important thing is to be aware of the possibility that we could have made incorrect snap judgments and allow ourselves to correct them.
- Verify conflicts of interest wherever opinion is used as inputs. Most folks have their heart in the right place and often take presented information as accurate.
If the information is significant in making a decision or a judgment, verify the presenter’s background for conflicts of interest. Does the presenter have an interest in my accepting their version? Is it financial? Direct? Indirect?
- Distinguish between ‘skin in the game’ views versus views in the abstract or Virtue signalling. Convictions about an issue are developed with more rigour and intensity when one has skin in the game and is subject to a personal loss or gain.
It’s easy to take a position and convey what sounds virtuous when the beliefs held make no difference to your condition, one way or the other.
- Liberate self from –isms that create blind loyalty to ideas and ideologies. The world and language is filled with –isms. Everyone claims to believe in one –ism versus some other –ism or a third -ism.
Does this stem from a need to belong to a community of like-minded believers? Is this not herd mentality? Is this intellectual insecurity? Must challenge yourself to dig deeper into where you really stand versus subscribing to any –ism.
The other thing to remember is that we all evolve in our understanding of the world and that shapes our convictions at various points in time. A famous quote goes “If you are not a socialist when you are 18, you have no heart and if you are not a capitalist when you are 30, you don’t have a head’.
- Understand trade-offs so ‘perfect’ does not become enemy of ‘good’. Everything in life is a trade-off. If you get more money, you have less time. Our innate drive toward perfection often magnifies limitations and these shadows cover the full image. When we judge a situation, learn to rate it or rank it on a chosen scale.
Know that there are no perfect solutions to anything. No perfect person. Put good and bad, right and wrong in context. See what is crucial in that situation and if the solution is addressing key issues. First order matters most.
- Analyse inputs and connect to conclusions without creative leaps. When we read a set of presented facts and figures, we don’t know what ‘other’ facts and figures are missing in this presentation.
Hence, we should not leap to conclusions by either filling in gaps of understanding based on our imagination, limited knowledge or biases. Make an effort to fill out the picture before we conclude. Look before you leap!
- Follow the money when contradictions emerge in points of view. Increasingly, institutions and their public positions are explained by simply following the money. Money drives support for points of view and intellectually presented positions.
Lobbying is more respectable because it is stated up front. The problem is when a neutral front is presented but the truth is that the neutrality has been ‘sold’.
- Seek verbatim and full quotes to assess, not headlines, paraphrases and click bait. Always seek out the quote rather than the quote of the quote! Usually we find this will be different for many reasons.
The full quote conveys a different meaning, is set to some context — either as a response to a leading question or an event. Click bait is the new headline spin — the idea is to intrigue not to educate. After all, ad spends depend on you clicking through the bait.
- Separate victim from perpetrator dispassionately. Crimes often evoke a strong emotion from us and we condemn the perpetrator, as we should, strongly.
But again, information presented to us distorts the nature of the crime and sometime we even see slanted justification for a crime that works off our inherent biases.
- Beware of cherry picking. Subject data that agrees with your views to the same rigour as data that does not agree with your views.
Often select facts are presented to portray a truth. Hence the court of law insists on ‘truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.
- Detect motherhood statements i.e. inputs that pretend to shed new light but only regurgitates old ideas to obfuscate the reality. Motherhood statements are expressions of obvious facts or truisms.
However, people present these out of context to transfer this obvious truth to an obvious lie. This is misleading because one agrees with the statement but since it is misdirected, we miss the implications.
- Seek data that is omitted anytime input tends to project a strong conclusion in any one direction. When combined with our biases, we tend to forget that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.
- Beware of celebrities, from any background, on topics alien to them. We have Nobel prize winners, movie stars and an assortment of folks with a large media footprint speaking on unrelated subjects with conviction.
Again this is dangerous for young or immature minds that seek the validation of a successful person. Strangely this phenomenon afflicts both feudal and meritocratic cultures. Learn to challenge authority with diligence not arrogance.
- Recognise binaries — two extreme positions — presented as the only options. Lack of critical thinking shows up both ways. Painting something grey when facts make black and white obvious.
Conversely, not seeing options between the black and white. Often, the real options are present in between those extremes. For example, across political spectra, economic spectra and social spectra, folks tend to pick and debate binary positions.
While debates are interesting and revealing, solutions cannot be found in these extreme positions but in pragmatic combinations of ideas and positions.
- Attempt to see solutions. Most narratives or positions are just different ways to present the problem. But when you ask “How do we solve this?” it leads you to more insight about the problem itself. This can be an iterative process, like a discipline to improve critical thinking abilities.
- Part for the whole. Often, the core issue is not presented but a narrow sliver of this is presented as the core issue. This misses the larger picture and the context. An issue has to framed in a full context and then understood.
If we focus on a narrow element, we miss the wood for the trees. Lack of a full vision often leads to a distorted understanding of an issue or event.
- Falling for language. Often sentiments expressed beautifully lull us into believing them to be the truth. This is why poets command a disproportionate hold over our imagination and can sway judgments.
Boring as it may be, it is important to peel the onion and get down to the meat of the discussion.
- Falling for appearance. Our instinctive responses vary depending on the pleasantness of the appearance. Often, media will slant the view by showing a picture of a person with a pleasant expression or an unpleasant expression, depending on the objective. Repeat images create deeper impressions which way not align with facts or the truth.
- Look out for shifting goal posts. Watch how in a debate or discussion, one side keeps shifting the goal posts or changing the issue anytime the responding side successfully answers the question or nails the issue with facts.
This goal-post shifting comes across as being incisive, but in reality, is obfuscating the issues or refusing to acknowledge when facts disagree with the narrative being driven.
- The Strawman fooleth. The idea here is to respond to a hypothesis by changing the hypothesis and answering the question that suits the person presenting the ‘straw man’.
So if the issue or question threatens to expose an uncomfortable truth, the idea is to attack a straw man to deflect from the main point.
- Mixing up cause and effect. This error of thinking is extremely common. We assume the phenomenon we experience is the effect.
Only when we dig deeper, without necessarily getting to root cause as described earlier, we discover that what we assume is the effect is actually the cause of other effects.
- False equivalences. Another common mistake in understanding is to wrongly categorise different ideas in the same bucket and then take a position based by comparing the mis-classified ideas.
In common parlance, we talk about false equivalence as conflating different ideas or in terms of apples and oranges comparison versus apples to apples.
- Classic propaganda. Repeat, repeat, repeat till it becomes conventional wisdom. The history of the world is replete with examples of this type of ‘Goebbelsian’ propaganda.
We have learned history is written and narratives created by the victors or the ones who hold power. So it’s important to read and revisit accepted wisdom or ideas taken as truth.
- QED+. Quod erat demonstrandum or that which was to be demonstrated. In critical thinking, apply this concept as ‘that which has been demonstrated’. Actions are louder than words and represent evidence.
Observe action and test if aligned with words. Words have a way of overpowering our emotions and impacting our critical thinking faculties. Again, observe what is evident as incontrovertible. Use this as a starting point to evaluate beliefs or opinions.
- Personal bias. We ascribe truth to folks we like and information we received from them is trusted. Don’t confuse who you like with who you trust.
And trust takes time to build because trust is based on a track record. Implicit trust in parents is great but this should not be conflated with judgments you need to make independently.
- Confusing time and space. Most commonly seen in people who carry an old memory of a place and describe that old memory as currently true. Or people talking about their time in high school in a different country will compare that old experience to high school in the same place today.
To sign off, I urge the reader to take this framework, use it, make it your own and go ahead, expand it. Remember that just Thinking is a scalar while critical thinking is a vector that takes you forward in the direction of truth.
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