Early in graduate school, I took a required course that I suspected might be an absolute bore. Instead, it turned out to offer a lesson that extended well beyond academia – one that I continue to use to this day.
The time: 20+ years ago.
The subject: Disciplined inquiry.
Throughout the course, we were essentially challenged to challenge our thinking.
For example, let’s say you read an article. The author has stated their opinion, is making their case, and even includes a citation or two to support their argument.
At first glance, you might think, “Well, they’re citing studies, so it must be legit.”
You might even go a step further and check the footnotes or bibliography, just to make sure they included the references.
You may then accept their argument as accurate, since they apparently have science to back it up.
This class, however, taught us countless ways to dig deeper. We might ask questions such as:
Was it a scientific study – or a privately-dispersed survey?
Who funded the study?
How large was the sample size? How representative are they?
What conclusions did the scientists draw? What limitations to their study did they point out? Did the author of the article address these, too?
Are there other ways the data might be interpreted?
We spent a good deal of time in class playing devil’s advocate with each other and the material, examining bias, and highlighting the importance of looking beyond the ‘sound byte’ to the facts.
Honestly, throughout the semester, I experienced aha moment after aha moment!
And in large part, my time in this class is why, to this day, my fingers won’t allow me to press ‘share’ on an article when I’ve only read the headline.
We don’t have to be research scientists or post-doctoral fellows to apply critical thinking skills. A few ways to start incorporating the practice into our everyday lives:
Key advice for so many aspects of life, isn’t it? Take a few breaths before taking an action. And ideally take a few more steps than that before accepting something at face value and/or sharing with others.
Ask a few questions.
The headline might say, “Studies show green vegetables are actually bad for you!” Asking just a couple of questions might lead you to discover, however, that the ‘study’ was a survey funded by a giant in the very-non-green-vegetable industry and sent only to a handful of its own employees, or that the ‘article’ is actually a well-disguised paid advertisement.
Think for yourself first.
With so much noise, it’s crucial that we intentionally consider our own thoughts first. When I finish reading a book, for example, I write my own rating/review before I hop online to see what other people thought of it – I want to capture my own thoughts before being influenced by others. I can appreciate those other opinions, and they may even affect my own thoughts or rating, but only after I’ve clearly thought for myself first.
I took this course long before it became so easy to share information with a quick click of a button on social media. It’s now more important than ever that we use discernment before taking in – and sharing with others – what a headline or sound byte may indicate as fact.
I am an optimistic, positive, and trusting person who believes in the greater good. I am also a critical thinker. These things are not mutually exclusive.
How do you practice critical thinking in your everyday life? Do you believe this is an important skill? Please share your ideas below!
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