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How To Fine-Tune Your Bullshit Detector

In a time of fake news and “alternative facts,” critical thinking has become more important than ever. Here are four questions to ask yourself.

How To Fine-Tune Your Bullshit Detector
[Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images]

Heard of the B.S. Detector? One of a number of browser plug-ins introduced in recent months for the purpose of identifying fake news, it flashes a warning sign whenever the user is about to click on a site deemed “questionable.”

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It’s certainly a timely product. But when it comes to something as fundamental as figuring out what to believe, should we really be dependent on a plug-in or an app? Along those same lines, is it reasonable to expect Facebook to filter the truth for us? Even as Facebook tries to manage the flow of suspect stories in its news feed, this won’t solve a much larger problem—which is that much of the information coming at us today is unverified, unreliable, and quite possibly untrue. The world, perhaps more than ever before, is full of bull.

Fortunately, we have a human system for sorting through bull that goes back at least as far as Socrates—one that you were most likely exposed to (but probably didn’t pay much attention to) in high school. It’s known as critical thinking.

[Photo: Flickr user Dwayne Bent]

While most of us are familiar with that term, we may not have a clear sense of what exactly it is and how it works. According to the American Philosophical Association, critical thinking is “the process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgment.” When we do critical thinking, we are reasoning, evaluating, and making decisions based on evidence—and doing so in a way that, according to the APA, “always seeks the truth with objectivity, integrity, and fair-mindedness.”

Sounds simple enough, but it can be hard to do—especially today. The sheer amount of information we’re now dealing with puts a strain on our capacity to evaluate it. “We’ve become less critical in the face of information overload,” says the psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, author of the new book Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era. “We throw up our hands and say, ‘It’s too much to think about.’”

The former CNN anchor Frank Sesno, author of the new book Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change, believes part of the problem is that people don’t know how to inquire about information they encounter. “Nobody is teaching the art of asking thoughtful, skeptical questions,” Sesno says.

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And that’s unfortunate, because asking questions is the key to doing critical thinking well, according to M. Neil Browne, a professor who teaches the subject at Bowling Green State University. Browne says that if you develop a habit for asking certain types of probing questions whenever you encounter a claim or proposal—whether it be a news story, a politician’s promises, or a proposed strategy from a business colleague—you’ll become a better critical thinker and will be more likely to make sound decisions.

So what are the go-to questions for a good critical thinker? According to Browne and other critical thinking experts, here are four indispensable ones:

1. How strong is the evidence?
Critical thinking starts with demanding that there be substance behind any claim that someone is trying to get you to believe. A subset of “evidence questions” might include: Does this evidence come from a solid source? Is there an agenda behind it? Answering these questions may require a bit of digging to find out if, for example, the source of information has a strong track record for telling the truth, or whether the source may have a special interest in advancing this particular claim (in terms of the latter, always ask, Cui bono?—Latin for “Who benefits?”). After evidence has been considered and weighed, one still may be left with a judgment call—as in, “I have five strong reasons to believe this, and two shaky reasons to disbelieve; I’ll go with the stronger case.”

2. What are they not telling me?
Sometimes the problem with information is not what is there, but what’s missing—whether it’s a news story with insufficient reporting or a sales pitch that leaves out important details. When we’re being offered potential solutions, what may be left out of the discussion are the side effects, the hidden costs, the potential negative consequences. You shouldn’t expect that such information will be provided freely; as a critical thinker, you may have to look into it.

3. Does “B” really follow “A”?
When people are trying to persuade you of something, they may use flawed reasoning that suggests you should believe A because of B; or they may promise that if you do A, then B will surely result. Such “logical fallacies” can be based on faulty assumptions or, worse still, may be tricks designed to lead you to a false conclusion. An excellent resource for identifying common logical fallacies is Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit,” originally published as part of his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. (Sagan’s writing on critical thinking has gained renewed attention, in part due to being featured on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog.) As part of his kit, Sagan offered a list of 20 tricks that critical thinkers should always watch for, including arguments that rely on authority (“I’m the president, so you should believe me”), false dichotomies (“you’re with us or against us”), and “slippery slope” arguments that suggest one decision will inevitably lead to a much more serious outcome.

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4. What is the other side?
One of the keys to critical thinking is fair-mindedness—which requires a willingness to consider multiple perspectives and to be open to information that may conflict with one’s preexisting views. A failure to bring a wide-open mind to the process of critical thinking can result in “weak-sense critical thinking,” a term used by the late Richard Paul, cofounder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, to describe the behavior of someone who applies the tools and practices of critical thinking—questioning, investigating, evaluating—but does so with the sole purpose of confirming an existing view. Weak-sense critical thinkers often don’t recognize that their reasoning and judgment may be skewed, says Bowling Green’s professor Browne. “It is very common for someone to believe, ‘Those who disagree with me are biased, but I am not.’ It is one of the biggest obstacles to critical thinking.”

How do you get past your own biases? Start by asking, “What am I inclined to believe about this particular issue, and why?” Then do your best to fairly consider an opposing view of the issue or claim at hand. When trying to consider “the other side,” keep in mind that it can also be useful to ask, “Is there another side?” (“There is not another side to the question of whether we really landed on the moon,” Weaponized Lies author Levitin points out. “We did.”)

Critical thinking isn’t easy. It takes time and effort to ask rigorous questions, weigh evidence, and consider multiple perspectives. It also requires humility: “You must be willing to admit you don’t know or might be wrong about something,” says Levitin. It can be a lot faster and simpler to just “go with your gut” when making decisions on what to believe and how to respond.

But Levitin points out that research shows gut decisions are not particularly reliable because “your gut’s going to be wrong more than it is right.” On the other hand, he says, “evidence-based decision-making leads to better outcomes–better health decisions, financial decisions, business decisions, and life choices.”

The bottom line is that critical thinking may be worth the time and effort. But don’t just accept that without first giving it some critical thought.

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