I was recently looking at a picture on a photography site. The picture was nowhere near as intriguing to me as the statement that accompanied it:
“Ever since my first encounters with many of the great photographers who inspired me, I became aware of the value of turning my attention away from the main event. So often, the temptation is to look where everyone else is looking. But, time after time, I have chosen to observe what’s going on by looking in the other direction – before, or after, or at the edges of the main attraction. There, I find the textures, moods, atmosphere, and emotion that enable me to arrive at a more profound level of feeling.”
To me, this describes exactly what critical thinking is really all about. It’s looking beyond the information given to us with a skeptical and discerning eye and taking a look in the other direction.
If you look into any issue, you will find that both sides have their arguments and supporting facts. They always do. It’s up to you to seek and then truly consider both sides and decide what you believe. This is not always easy.
Take, for the sake of illustration, climate change. Much of the argument that climate change is happening – it’s man-made, and we must do something about it – comes from predictions of the future and evidence of the recent past (relatively speaking, with regards to the age of the earth). These predictions are presented as facts. In 10 years, 30% of the world’s population will be starving because of global warming. This is presented as a fact.
But there’s no such thing as a fact about the future. Yesterday happened. That’s a fact. Tomorrow will happen. That’s not a fact.
Often the predictions are based on current or recent emissions, business practices and personal behavior. But our society has made many massive changes that are supposed to be alleviating the human affect on the earth. We recycle, we bike to work, we drive Priuses, we have greater restrictions on business and pollution, we separate our garbage, we’ve all but done away with Styrofoam, etc. And we’ve been moving toward or doing these things for more than two decades now.
Where’s the progress? Where’s the acknowledgment of progress? When do we know when we’ve done enough? How far do we have to go? What if we go to far? Would be ask people to start driving Hummers? You will seldom, if ever, hear any acknowledgment of how far we’ve come. You will only continue to hear how horrible we are and how much damage we’ve done.
What I’m saying boils down to this: when someone presents you with an argument and with supporting facts, immediately begin to wonder what the other side would argue, or what facts they would present, in return. Seek out someone you know who’s on the other side and ask them what they would say to that.
We can’t immediately write people off because of their information sources. If Rush Limbaugh says something that another disagrees with, it is not enough to just say “Oh, well that’s Rush Limbaugh.” It is now the responsibility of that person to address what was said and prove that it is wrong.
Just because President Obama says something, one shouldn’t immediately complain that he’s wrong or lying. In fact, often what he says sounds like solid thinking. So, when I hear Obama say something, I immediately wonder what his usual opponents have to say about it. If they directly address what he’s saying and illustrate why he’s wrong, then I will change my mind. If I listen to the argument and find they don’t address his premise adequately, I will agree with President Obama.
In 2010, the Tea Party movement took hold across the nation. Many tried to discredit it as a home for racists. But that is simply changing the subject. Whether or not every single person in the movement is racist or not, it is still up to every individual to consider the arguments they are making. It is possible that their arguments are sound – even if they are coming from racists. If all the known and admitted racists in the world banded together and concluded that all humans must drink water to survive, they wouldn’t be wrong just because they’re racists.
It doesn’t matter if Rush Limbaugh or Nancy Pelosi is the origin of an argument. It’s the merits of the argument that must be addressed, not the person making the argument. Whether or not one hears a news story on Fox or MSNBC, it’s not the source that makes it true or false, it’s the legitimacy of the premise.
Too often we let ourselves get away with lazy thinking by dismissing an argument because of its source. This has to stop for our society to begin having productive debates.
When I hear someone make fact-supported argument to me, these are some of the questions I ask:
- Is this consistent with what this person has said or, more importantly, done in the past?
- What is this person’s ultimate goal, and how does this fit it?
- Do I think this person is fundamentally good, but misguided, or do they have a different agenda?
- What would the other side say about this?
- Can the other side address the argument head on, or do they turn it into a different argument?
- Is the other side dealing with what the person said, or the merits of the person?
- Are the facts I’m hearing partially true… or true at all? What are the facts being left out?
We’ve got to start asking some of these questions before we immediately dismiss each other. This country can’t really start moving forward until we can, on some level, start listening to each other and thinking about what we’re hearing.