Today’s Words on Áccent: Critical Thinking

In an election year, if you’re not already an ideologue who has chosen sides, how can you possibly wade through all of the political rhetoric and claims (especially in social media) in order to decide what’s true and what’s not?

Learning to think critically can help. You may still get fooled by something that’s not true (we all have at some point, haven’t we?), but you’ll at least have a fighting chance to discover the truth.

Even if you have chosen sides, thinking critically can help you have greater discernment about the things you are willing to believe in. And shouldn’t we all be open minded enough to do that?

Facts vs. Feelings

One of the things I learned by mixing psychology and business as I was getting my doctorate was that businesses are pretty much run by facts. There’s a lot of compiling and analysis of data going on in the process of successfully running a business.

At the same time, there should be recognition that people respond to emotion. They want to know that someone cares about them and their needs. That’s why leaders need emotional intelligence in order to be effective. And it’s why marketers often appeal to consumers’ emotions in designing ad campaigns.

In making decisions about what to believe or not believe in media, however, emotions need to take a back seat to intellect. We need both as we make decisions, but we should start with facts and figures, and once we’ve considered what those are, then it’s time to bring in feelings and consider those as well.

Five Questions to Ask Yourself

We’re all busy people. Most people just don’t have the time for extensive critical analysis of issues, which is often what makes it so difficult to decide based on anything other than emotion. That’s why I have narrowed my analysis toolkit down to five questions when I’m trying to decide whether to accept or reject an idea or assertion:

1. What is the source of the information?

The very first thing I do when I see a meme or an article making an assertion (especially a political one) is to look at the source. Is it well known, or is it unheard-of or on-the-fringe? How well trusted is it? Is that source known to lean left or right? It’s important to understand the political leanings of a particular publication or website before you decide whether to believe what it’s saying. That includes fact-checking sites, which also tend to have a particular viewpoint.

2. Who benefits from the assertion being made?

The second thing I try to determine is who benefits from what is being said. Does someone have a financial interest in making this specific argument? Is there a political benefit to making this assertion? What is the person’s motivation for making this particular statement?

3. Does the person making the contention back it up with facts and evidence?

People can pretty much say anything they want. I could argue, for example, that wearing masks will reduce the spread of COVID-19 or that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for the virus. But what do the studies say? If there are competing studies with vastly different conclusions (as there are for both of those assertions), then I need to figure out which studies have the most compelling arguments.

4. Are there facts missing here?

There’s a reason why we talk about “spin” and bias in the media. People can make almost any argument on any topic and back up what they’re saying with facts. But are there other facts being left out? I have discovered many times that someone making an argument is being quite selective in the facts they’re choosing to argue with. They pick and choose which facts to emphasize and which to leave out, especially when some of the relevant facts might actually contradict what they’re purporting to be true.

That’s why it’s important to get your information from more than one source. If you’re primarily watching MSNBC, then you should also watch Fox News some of the time (and vice versa). Try reading both the Washington Post and the Washington Times, both Politico and The Daily Wire.

If you can’t stomach the most partisan pundits in those sources, try watching or reading those who have a reputation for being a little more fair-minded.

5. Can I SWOT this?

There’s a tool that business consultants use that can be applied to almost any assertion: the SWOT analysis. SWOT refers to listing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but it will take a little, so you won’t be able to apply it to every situation.

But consider using the SWOT when making important decisions, whether it’s who you’ll vote for in November or whether you should support wearing face masks or the use of certain medications in the fight against COVID-19 or whether to post that really controversial meme on social media.

In searching for a focus for this blog, I finally alighted on the idea of WORDS. For a site called “Áccent on Words,” it makes sense. As an editor and writer, I work with words for a living. Words are important to me. But really, they’re important to everyone, and even more so in an age when we’re constantly bombarded with them and continually consume them through social media, television, radio and what we choose to read. My aim is to choose a particular word or phrase as the focus of each new blog post and talk about why our words matter. — Deborah Jackson

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