Waiting for a bus, a woman says to the man next to her, “Wow, it’s twice as cold today as it was yesterday!”
Yesterday it was 0 degrees Celsius. What is the temperature today?
This is the question that changed my life. I’ll save the answer for the end of this post and I’ll skip most of the boring backstory, but that question was the topic for my first essay in my Philosophy 100 class in University.
I did not plan to study philosophy, and would go on to take only one other philosophy course during my tumultuous two-and-a-bit years at Simon Fraser University, but of all the classes I have taken in my educational life that one was by far the most valuable.
Years later, it would also become the most depressing and frustrating.
The subject of the course was “Critical Thinking”. The simplest description I can think of to describe critical thinking is “thinking with your whole brain”. In the real world, what this means to me is that when faced with a statement, a question, an event, or a problem, etc, instead of acting on my first instinct, I stop, take a step back from the immediate response my lizard brain hands me and engage the more evolved parts of my grey matter. Next, I consider both my biases and the biases of whatever or whomever it is I’m dealing with, ask questions, consider all the answers, and then respond accordingly.
The process may sound slow but it doesn’t have to be. Ask any First Responder about the first consideration when rescuing someone and they’ll tell you that you must quickly assess the situation to see if it’s safe to attempt to help. If you rush in to help someone without that assessment, you could end up in the same predicament…and now you become one more person that needs rescuing. You’ve made a bad situation worse. That first situational assessment, even done at lightning speed, is an example of critical thinking. Let me break it down:
- A person is trapped in a car and badly injured. A First Responder sees that person and knows they need to get to them quickly.
- Immediate emotional response: Quick! Run to the car and save them!
- Critical thinking response: That person needs help but I can see there’s a fallen power line in my path that may be live. If I rush in, I could get electrocuted. I will call 911 and wait for help with the power line.
Critical thinking isn’t some elitist, artsy fartsy concept for folks who lounge around and ponder the meaning of life, it is a learnable skill that, in many instances, could mean the difference between life and death. It can also mean the difference between living in a world where we address real, pressing problems with a deep understanding of their complexities and with as much compassion and kindness as we can offer, or living in a world where we are constantly distracted from making meaningful change by hyperbole and lies designed to trigger our lizard brain instincts.
Remember how I said that 100 level philosophy course would become depressing and frustrating? Yeah, that would be the past several years I’m talking about. It was bad enough, pre-2016, when most of the bad logic came from anti-vaxxers, chemtrail believers, 9/11 “truthers”, and other run-of-the-mill phony baloney. But since the election of a human lie machine to the White House, followed by a global pandemic, trying to combat the flood of fallacies by encouraging folks to use critical thinking feels like bringing a knife to a nuclear weapons fight. Sadly, I seem incapable of just putting down my useless little knife, walking away, and surrendering to the inevitable explosion of lies, conspiracies, and propaganda. I blame that Philosophy course. Thanks for nothing, institute of higher learning!
I’ve probably done something like this before (heavy sigh) but I’ll try again, with the vaguest of hopes that maybe just one person out there will find some comfort in the warm glow of logic and reason.
So, here are some random thoughts and tips I have for that one person, (whoever you are, thank you and good luck) who may want know how to think a bit more critically about this messy world of ours.
- It’s okay to be wrong. I know we grow up bombarded by the bizarre message that if you’re wrong and you admit it, you’re weak, but everyone gets things wrong. Learning what you think or believe is wrong and then admitting that and changing is called growth. Growth is good. Even the mere act of questioning whether something you think or believe is right or wrong shows you have the incredibly important ability to evolve and change.
- Sources matter. Who would you rather have remove a cancerous tumor from your brain—a brain surgeon or some random person who watched a video about brain surgery on YouTube once and claims that they’re totally an expert even though they work at a gas station and have never even held a scalpel? The more important and personal the task, the more we tend to care about the credentials of the person doing the task (well, for most of us, that is). Try applying that standard to more areas of your life. When you are presented with information—a video, a Facebook post, a meme, etc—look for the original source. What are the credentials of that person or organization? Are they really qualified to speak on this topic?
- Sources matter…part 2. Okay, so you track down the source of a video you’ve seen on Facebook about Covid 19 and, yes, the person speaking is actually a doctor. Good enough, right? Oh, but wait, that doctor has publicly stated that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are the result of people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches, and that alien DNA is used in medical treatments and that scientists are working on a vaccine to stop people from being religious. So, no, not good enough. Character and history also matter. A string of letters after someone’s name is not an automatic guarantee that they can be trusted or that they are a credible authority.
- Unleash your inner toddler. If you’ve ever ended up in a conversation with a small human where they ask you a question, and you answer that question, and then they ask “Why?”, and for the next ten minutes every answer you give is followed by “Why?”, then you know what I’m talking about. I’ve had numerous debates about conspiracy theories where I take on the role of “never stop asking questions” toddler. In the case of conspiracy theories, you’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind but the more questions you ask, the vaguer and weirder and more defensive the answers become, the more you will know that you’re dealing with a hoax.
- Expose your beliefs to daylight. I used to be one of those folks who was anti-chemicals when it came to whatever I ate or drank. Chemicals are bad! If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it! But after some conversations with actual scientists and science enthusiasts I realized that, um, EVERYTHING is “chemicals”. Can you pronounce “Protocatechuic-Acid”? Guess where you can find that evil sounding chemical…in an apple (yes, in an organic, non-GMO, pesticide-free apple). I still believe in eating lots of healthy, whole foods but by examining my beliefs around nutrition, I’ve learned that much of what I clung to as truth was false or misleading and that has allowed me to enjoy more food and suffer from less stress about my health. Big or small, examining our beliefs is part of that whole “growth” thing I mentioned.
- Not everything needs to be shared. Look, if you know me, you know I share a lot of stuff on social media—cat photos and videos, jokes, articles I find interesting, fishing pictures, cool science, etc—but you might be surprised at how much I consider sharing and choose not to. Part of thinking critically online is to stop and ask yourself, “Why do I want to share this?” Here are some of my reasons for not sharing that you might want to consider: 1. I like the message but the person or organization sharing the message is problematic and I don’t want to increase their viewership. 2. I don’t agree with everything in the message (ex. I support Black Lives Matter and I oppose violence against protestors but I don’t believe “All Cops Are Bastards” and so I won’t share anything that combines those messages). 3. I can’t verify the facts. 4. The message is designed to emotionally manipulate the reader or viewer in a way I consider dishonest or harmful. 5. I don’t want to shit on people’s harmless fun (ex. I hate a book or movie that lots of fans love). 6. The message is a subject best discussed by people who understand it more than I do (in which case, I will try to be a signal booster for those people).
- Ask: What emotions am I feeling and why? Powerful emotions are seductive. The recent variety of reactions to the protests in Seattle and Portland reminded me of watching the news coverage of the Iraq “War” under George W. Back then, Fred and I would scroll between CBC, CNN, FOX, and BBC and marvel at how it seemed as if there were four very different wars going on. What was most striking was how neither CNN nor FOX News ever seemed to show the damage and suffering of ordinary Iraqi citizens or to examine the conflict with any nuance, choosing to keep their focus on The Troops, The Brave Troops, DANGER, TERRORISM, FIGHT FOR FREEDOM, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, RAWR! Americans, still reeling from the shock of 9/11, were fed a steady diet of high grade media fear and the repercussions continue to this day, when we see the DHS, supposedly created to prevent terrorist attacks in the US, turned loose upon US citizens protesting discrimination and racism. There is absolutely a time for emotions like anger but we still need to ask those hard questions. We need to be sure that our buttons aren’t being deliberately pushed by folks who do not have our best interests at heart. We need to know, when we speak and act, that we do so from a place of all the facts, not hearsay and propaganda.
Thank you, maybe-one-person, for reading all that. I suppose I will continue to be that annoying person on social media who begs people to fact check and consider their sources, etc. waving my puny knife around while nuclear bombs fall. Thanks to that stupid philosophy course, I refuse to abandon the importance of words.
Oh, do you want to know the answer to that opening question?
There is no answer. Why? Because of one simple word…
The word “twice”, in this context, is subjective. The woman feels it is twice as cold. She’s speaking about her personal observation not referencing an actual temperature. You can’t apply a subjective idea to a scientific measurement. That’s the extremely simplified version of the answer I gave in my essay, which gained me an A- (she said, very braggily). It took me some time to find that answer and only my complete suckitude at math eventually led me down the right path. But that question stuck into my brain the importance of thinking critically about ideas that seem simple and straightforward on the surface.
One word can change everything.