Critical Thinking in the Age of Alternative Facts

by Melissa Pugh
Grassroots and Outreach Coordinator–United Coalition of Reason

I’ve been thinking a lot about critical thinking this year. It seems not only to be a “buzz topic” in secular communities and political spheres, but it’s also a phrase that is widely misunderstood. Some assume that if they are thinking rationally, they are also thinking critically. This is simply not true. To truly think critically, one must take their biases, their uninformed opinions, and their prejudices, and put them aside. According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, the definition of critical thinking is to remove these biases so we can perform “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view of improving it. (Page 2)” How do we do this? Let’s begin with some key concepts and terms.

Evidence is very important in critical thinking, one of the most important concepts involved. Evidence is defined by the Foundation as “the data on which a judgement or conclusion might be based or by which proof or probability might be established; something that makes another thing evident; something that tends to prove. (Page 29)” Without evidence, how can we think critically? How can we think scientifically? Without evidence there would be no theory of evolution. There would be no cosmology, no physics, and even no history. Thinking about evidence in this light makes us realize that if we do choose to go against the data, we risk coloring the decisions of our lives with only our own experiences (which cannot be unbiased) and no further information. I think that this is what has caused many terrible events throughout history from the witch hysteria of the 16th and 17th centuries to the division our country faces today.

Another concept that fits with evidence is knowledge. The Foundation defines knowledge as “having a clear and justifiable grasp of; the body of facts, principles, etc., acquired through human experience and thought. (Page 46)” We must be careful not to confuse knowledge with information. Remember all the tedious facts schools made us memorize only for us to regurgitate for a standardized test? That is not knowledge. Knowledge can only be gained by thinking. If you read something only to memorize things like dates or equations, you cannot claim you are knowledgeable about that topic. One way to become knowledgeable is to think about the material and even challenge it critically by reviewing sources. Don’t be afraid to do your homework and take the extra step to make sure, for example, something you read on the internet is true. This is also called fact-checking.

The last concept I wish to highlight is reason. Reason is defined by the Foundation as “a basis or cause for some belief, action, fact, event, etc.; a statement presented in justification or explanation of a belief or action; the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences; sound judgment; good sense; the power of intelligent and unbiased thought. (Page 63)” The last sentence is especially pertinent: unbiased thought is the cornerstone of critical thinking. If you cannot accept and dismiss some of your thoughts as biased, the road to critical thinking will be a difficult one. We are all thinking beings; therefore some of our thoughts are guaranteed to be biased. We all have our own biases, and what we all have to remember is that letting those biases cloud our judgment will only result in the blocking of critical thought.

I challenge all of our readers, leaders, and organizers to test yourself on your critical thinking skills and try to focus on overcoming your biases. If you’re a local leader, maybe go to the Foundation of Critical Thinking’s website at Peruse the site and other tools they have available to teach a critical thinking course to your group.

We should all improve our skills in critical thinking and see how the world improves around us.