Separating fact from fiction: A guide to critical thinking
For most of human history, people had no reference materials other than the people around the fire and in their homes. In the grand sweep of time, having access to books and teachers is relatively new.
These days, even dictionary and television sets are old news, as the large majority of us carries more information in our pockets than the average person could dream of until even a generation or two ago.
Yet, for all the content at our fingertips, being properly informed today can be as difficult as ever as we swim through oceans of (sometimes inaccurate) information and noise.
The importance of sending reliable messages is nothing new to organizational leaders. Our credibility is on the line.
In the church world, we cringe as Pontius Pilate fails to realize that the answer to his amazing question “What is truth?” was standing right in front of him (in the form of Jesus). Conversely, we celebrate the Bereans who were known for examining religious texts to see if they held up under scrutiny. In other words, the Apostle Paul holds up critical thinking as a godly model.
So the goal is to become critical thinkers, but the reality is that we are all biased. As a result, we can’t always trust what we think we know or control what we want to know. Compounding the struggle are manipulative social forces like media and cultural trendsetters, who range from liberal to conservative and everything in between.
How can we limit the impact of viral falsehoods in the Information Age? How can we guard against being manipulated by people who count our clicks as cash? What would Jesus share?
The answer is to become better critical thinkers and communicators.
Here then are five steps to help us follow the example of those ancient Bereans who built a lasting reputation by being responsible consumers of information.
Step 1: Intentionally decide to find the truth
Sounds obvious, but we have to want to know the truth. Critical thinking requires openness and humility because we have to be willing to be wrong about what we think we know.
As communicators, we also must recognize the way we are asking our listeners to become vulnerable. Some people simply aren’t ready or willing to challenge their own assumptions, and may be threatened by anyone who offers counterpoints and different perspectives to their worldviews.
In a world of so much misinformation, we have to aggressively pursue what is real.
Step 2: Honestly assess your own biases
Everyone likes to think they are fair-minded individuals. For some reason, admitting to being biased seems like having a weakness. But, everyone has biases. It's natural and OK. However, just because we accept the inevitability of our personal biases does not mean our team members and congregants will feel the same.
So, how can people see their different perspectives in a constructive way? A good starting point is to share some of our own biases.
Here are three examples of how our views get formed:
- Geography — The communities we grow up in shape the way we see other people and places.
- Education — All school systems are not created equally, but even good educators use data they gathered when they were students. Then we read books that are no longer up-to-date. How many outdated facts and interpretations do we continue to share long after the data has changed?
- Media bias — Like news producers, we may tend to jump on sensational stories, especially negative ones. If it ever seems like all the news is negative, you’re right, because that’s what sells. As a result, we often can’t help but see a shark on every beach and a gunman near every building.
Those are just three examples that affect most everyone. It’s not hard to recognize the ways those realities might impact our beliefs and actions.
By sharing our common biases and honestly talking about more positive realities, we can reset our intent to begin seeing everything in healthier ways.
Step 3: Don't let your own negative feelings blind you to reality
Whether scanning our Facebook walls or tuning into our favorite cable news channels, we all know the satisfaction of hearing our own views echoed back. Discipleship Ministries has a good article that explains how availability bias causes us to think that the viewpoints we personally hear are the only ones that matter.
Sometimes inaccuracies succeed because we want false stories to be true. They make us feel right and good and validated. But we lose much when we lose commitment to the truth, such as credibility and maybe even relationships.
The trick is to remove emotion as much as possible when thinking through any topic. We need to model objective thinking for the people we influence. We should communicate rationally, like good journalists who resist personal biases in favor of facts.
Before spreading ideas, we should responsibly check our facts, and we should encourage others to do so. If we just parrot anything we hear because it makes us feel good, then critical thinking dies and with it an important part of civilized society. There is nothing wrong with being a doubting Thomas. He was skeptical in the face of something unbelievable, sought proof, and accepted the verified truth. Doubt is not the enemy of faith.
Step 4: Understand other viewpoints with as much passion as your own
Once we are open to being wrong and finding different ways to filter the world around us, we can begin the bridge-building work of connecting to others even if they believe radically different things than us.
Gaining a clear understanding of differing viewpoints offers at least three immediate advantages.
- We strengthen our own credibility by being able to clearly articulate positions we disagree with.
- We learn and may even arrive at a new, stronger position on any number of issues.
- We show people we care enough to find out who they are by learning what they believe and why.
In the context of critical thinking and communication, this aspect might be the most critical. With so many competing ideas and internet spaces to spout them, we can easily lose sight of the person on the other end of our opinion. If relationships suffer because of our drive to be right, we all lose. We are called to love people, not win arguments.
Step 5: Communicate clearly and lovingly
It’s important to reinforce civility, integrity and love. Even finding truth isn’t the end of our responsibility. We must also share the truth in love.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul asked his friends to pray that God would create opportunities for communicating truth and that, when the time came, he would be able to proclaim it clearly. His conclusion in that passage still stands as a great bit of communication theory today.
“… Make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
How we think and talk
Critical thinking and communication will forever be tied to each other. If we fail to think critically, our credibility will suffer and our communication will fail. And if we don’t help others learn to put aside biases and be objective then our communities will be filled with increasing false communications.
When researching any issue, here are some key questions to keep in mind:
- Is someone with an agenda benefitting from what you’re investigating?
- Whose needs are being ignored by the information sharer?
- Do the arguments come with facts, reason and evidence?
- Are any sources included to back up the claims being made?
You can probably think of other good questions to add here or share with your community. One great way to set the example is to provide a setting for people to ask questions and challenge your views.
Above all, when engaging any conversation, we must check our emotions, be committed to finding only what is true, and communicating our perspectives with love.