I readily admit to being intolerant of people at times. Not for me are the excuses that others may make for their shortcomings, such as the limitations of their upbringing, their education, or their natural abilities.
At the top of my list are those who either embrace or promote egregious stupidity and willful ignorance. And while no part of the political spectrum is exempt from such offenders, they do seem to be disproportionately represented by the right. Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and ardent supporters of the Harper regime readily come to mind.
Lazy thinking is no substitute for critical thinking, and while the latter, I am convinced, cannot happen without a a good education, whether formal or acquired through wide reading, there is no assurance that those who call themselves educated are in fact able to think critically. Bias, tunnel vision, and a myriad of other factors can militate against that capacity.
Given how much the Harper regime has invested in promoting and exploiting ignorance and stupidity (a look at some of its convoluted rhetoric
around Bill C-51 offers ample illustration), now seems to be a propitious time to examine a few basic guidelines that can help promote better thinking.
My first source is an article from The Hamilton Spectator
whose purpose was to help people think more rigorously about the science around vaccinations, but most are readily transferable to other topics as well:
Here are 10 questions to ask yourself when you read a piece about science and medicine:
1. Who's saying it and what's their reputation?
2. Where and how are the results being presented?
3. Who paid for the work and who pays the researcher?
4. Are you reading anecdotes or evidence?
5. Are there comments from an arm's length unbiased expert? How does that fit in to the picture?
6. What do the numbers really tell me?
7. How large was the study? (Generally, the bigger, the better.)
8. How was the study carried out? A test tube? Mouse? Dying patient? Healthy patient? (The closer the results are to the general population, the more important they are.)
9. How substantial are the benefits and how big are the risks?
10. Are opposing viewpoints included? If so, what's their reputation?
An even better and more comprehensive set of guidelines is taken from a university website
1. Ask questions; be willing to wonder.
(Re. research problems)
To think critically you must be willing to think creatively - to be
curious about the puzzles of human behavior, to wonder why
people act the way they do, and to question received wisdom and
examine new explanations of why things are as they are.
2. Define your terms.
(Re. operational definitions)
Identify the problem in clear and concrete terms, rather than vague ones like "happiness," "potential," or "self-esteem."
3. Examine the evidence.
(Re. data: empiricism, reliability, and
Consider the nature of the evidence supporting various
approaches to the problems under examination. Is there good
evidence one way or another? Is it reliable? Valid? Is the
"evidence" merely someone's personal assertion or speculation,
or is it based on replicated empirical data?
4. Analyze assumptions and biases - your own and those of others.
(Re. empirical/objective observations: biases and
What prejudices, deeply held values, and other
biases do you bring to your evaluation of a problem? Are you
willing to consider evidence that contradicts your beliefs? Can
you identify the assumptions and biases that others bring to their
5. Avoid emotional reasoning.
(Re. empirical observations)
The fact that you feel strongly about something doesn’t make you
right! Remember that everyone holds convictions about how the
world operates (or how it should operate), and your opponents
are probably as serious about their convictions as you are about
yours. Feelings are important, but they should not be substitutes
for careful appraisal of arguments and evidence.
6. Don't oversimplify.
Look beyond the obvious; reject simplistic thinking ("All the evil in the world is due to that group of loathsome people") and either-or thinking ("Either genes determine everything about personality and behavior or they count for virtually nothing"). Be wary of "argument by anecdote," taking a single case as evidence of a larger
phenomenon. For example, reading about one chilling case of a man who murders while on parole should not be the basis on
which you assess parole programs in general.
7. Consider other interpretations.
(Re. alternative explanations,or hypotheses; mutual exclusiveness and exhaustiveness)
Before you draw a conclusion from the evidence, think creatively
about other possible explanations. When you learn that two
events are statistically correlated, for example, be sure to think
carefully about which one is the cause and which the result - or
whether a third factor might be causing both of them.
8. Tolerate uncertainty.
(Re. Theories and data: testing and
This is probably the hardest step in becoming a critical
thinker, for it requires that we hold our beliefs "lightly" and be
willing to give them up when better evidence comes along. It
requires us to live with the realization that we may not have the
perfect answer to a problem at the moment, and may never have
it. Many people want "the" answers, and thy want science to
provide them: "Just tell me what to do!" they demand.
Pseudoscience promises answers, which is why it is so popular;
science gives us probabilities that suggest one answer is better
than another - for now - and warns us that one day we may have
to change our minds.