Thinking, Critically

We, – each of us, – need to think critically and carefully about the numbers and words we encounter if we want to be successful at work, at play, and making the most of our lives. This means checking the numbers, the reasoning, and the sources for plausibility and rigor. It means examining them as best as we can before we repeat them or use them to form an opinion. We want to avoid the extremes of gullibly accepting every claim we encounter or cynically rejecting every one. Critical thinking doesn’t mean we disparage everything, it means that we try to distinguish between claims with evidence and those without.

Sometimes the evidence consists of numbers and we have to ask, “Where did those numbers come from? How were they collected?” Sometimes the numbers are ridiculous, but it takes some reflection to see it. Sometimes claims seem reasonable, but come from a source that lacks credibility, like a person who reports having witnessed a crime but wasn’t actually there.

We’ve created more human-made information in the last five years than in all of human history before then. Unfortunately, found alongside things that are true is an enormous number of things that are not, in websites, videos, books, and on social media. This is not just a new problem. Misinformation has been a fixture of human life for thousands of years, and was documented in Biblical times and classical Greece. The unique problem we face today is that misinformation has proliferated; it is devilishly entwined on the Internet with real information, making the two difficult to separate. And misinformation is promiscuous; – it consorts with people of all social and educational classes, and turns up in places you don’t expect it to. It propagates as one person passes it on to another, and another, as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media grab hold of it and spread it around the world; the misinformation can take hold and become well-known, and suddenly a whole lot of people are believing things that aren’t so.

Daniel J. Levitin
from A Field Guide to Lies
Critical Thinking in the Information Age