I’m in a graduate program studying how to teach English to speakers of other languages, and the nature of the program makes us all sensitive to the difficulties immigrants experience. I was a few minutes late to class the evening of the violent attacks at Ohio State, and I walked in on a conversation about diversity, racism, and fear-mongering.
My classmates shared various perspectives. Some teach at schools with minority students, others are immigrants themselves, and most are well-traveled. I mostly listened. I heard a lot of valid points. Our professor said she was astounded when she found out how many people get their news from Facebook (of all places!) and she wondered how people could learn how to think critically and determine fact from opinion.
I had a hard time believing lack of critical thinking was a big problem until another student said we live in a time when race relations are worse than they ever have been, and everyone just nodded. Having grown up seeing old photographs of drinking fountains labeled “white” and “colored” and learning about the horrors of the antebellum South, I was stunned. There is a huge difference between “needs improvement” and “never been worse.”
With this in mind, I give you eight tips for thinking critically about the news.
1. Know Your Narrative
Everyone has a worldview. Objectivity is a real thing and truth does in fact exist, but the existence of truth doesn’t mean we’re all good at seeing it. If you want to think critically, the first step is to know where you’re coming from.
I’m going to list some abstract questions, but don’t run off just yet. Think of something evil that happened recently and consider these questions in that context.
How do you explain good and evil behavior in people? Did the perpetrator act because he was a bad person or was he just a person who made a bad choice? Are there “good people” and “bad people,” or are we all prone to evil?
Is there any hope of exoneration or redemption for him? (Can racism or genocide or whatever you read about ever be excused or forgiven?) In what way? What would that exoneration or redemption look like?
How do you know the evil actions in the event were evil? How do you judge that? Could other people have different criteria? If the perpetrator had different criteria than you do, is it fair to judge him by your criteria? Is there some kind of objective criteria by which we can measure evil? How would we know?
Answer these questions and you’ll learn more about how you see the world. Once you know how you see the world, you can think about how other people might.
2. Predict, But Don’t Trust, Your Emotional Response
My high school psychology teacher passed out slips of paper to our class one day and asked us to raise our hands if we thought the sentence on our slip was true. We read, shrugged, agreed, and all raised our hands. It turned out we didn’t all have the same sentence: half of us had “People who are more cautious than average make better firefighters” and the other half had “People who are less cautious than average make better firefighters.” So we discussed various cognitive biases.
Cognitive biases also exist outside psychology classrooms. When you hear something bad about someone you already don’t like, you’re much more inclined to believe it. Likewise, when you hear something bad about someone you like, you’re more inclined to disbelieve, dismiss, or downplay it. This is called confirmation bias, and it’s just true about human psychology. You can’t eradicate it, but you can be aware of it.
What does this look like in practice? When you hear a fact (or a “fact”) about someone, consider how you would react if that exact same thing were said about someone else. Put the opponent’s name in the sentence and observe your emotions.
At this point, you may become aware that your emotions are holding different people to different standards. This is an important step toward thinking with your brain and not with your emotions.
3. Run This Through Your Experience
I had a college professor who would say this constantly. He would start with an observation about the world, like “People today treat having kids like a hobby.” Then, watching us all nod in agreement, he’d ask us to consider his comment in light of our experience of the world, and we’d quit nodding, look up at the ceiling, and furrow our brows. To this day, it’s one of the best pieces of pithy critical thinking advice I’ve ever heard.
A friend of mine teaches at a community college and one of her [demographic X] students said life would never be fair for [demographic Y] people, because people in demographic X were too “pigheaded.” My friend asked her student: Are you pigheaded? How many pigheaded demographic X people do you know? The student thought about individual people he knew, and having considered his family, friends, and classmates, responded that he didn’t actually know any pigheaded people—despite knowing plenty of people in demographic X.
When you hear a claim, especially a blanket claim, hold off judgment until you can run it through your experience. If you hear that all men are like this or all women are like that, or that conservatives hate this or liberals hate that, that Muslims or Christians or atheists or people of any particular color are problematic in some way, think about who you know. Is the reporter talking about real people or pushing a narrative?
4. Discern the Author’s Intent
Thankfully, this is something you already do regularly. You know the bright red panicky-looking popup saying your antivirus is out of date? That means someone’s trying to scare you into buying their antivirus protection (or clicking on a scam link). It doesn’t necessarily mean that the Russians or Nigerians have access to your bank account. You already know how to do this, so apply the same logic to the news.
How? If you read a headline proclaiming something terrifying, that means there’s a surfeit of Internet links to click on and the headline writer is trying to get his or her voice heard. That’s it. It doesn’t necessarily mean something terrifying is actually happening.
This leads us to the next tip.
5. Be Aware of Buzzwords
Do you remember your English teacher (or maybe your mom) always harping on you to build vocabulary? This is why: choosing the right word can more accurately convey the emotion you want to convey. Anyone who gets paid to write has built up a considerable vocabulary, and it’s his or her job to use it well. Let’s look at an example.
When people get upset about something and gather together with signs and chants, is it a riot or a protest? That’s a judgment call. A writer who wants you to sympathize will err on the side of protest; a writer who wants you to feel repulsed will err on the side of riot. If you see one of these words, pay attention to the rest of the article and see if there’s any violence against people, damaged storefronts, or looting. Your sympathies should be more influenced by the presence or absence of violence than by the writer’s choice of words.
A reporter’s job is to present the facts and let the reader decide. A reporter who neglects to provide real facts—for example, the presence or absence of violence—is trying to dupe you into believing his narrative. Whether you let yourself be manipulated into believing a lie or the truth, you’re still letting yourself be manipulated. You should decide based on actual information.
6. Look for Facts
So look for that actual information. What would the bill actually change if it were passed and signed into law? What are lawmakers’ and advocates’ actual reasons for promoting it? What did the politician or CEO actually do or say? When lots of people are upset, what is the actual thing they are upset about? Is their reaction appropriate for the actual event or comment?
What about context? If you see a number, does the writer want you to believe it’s a big or small number? Two thousand is a small number when counting drops in the ocean but a big number when counting the people killed. So look for context.
Firing 10 percent of employees affects a lot of people if you’re talking about a huge corporation, but drastically fewer if there were only 8 on staff to begin with. If, after major staffing changes, 50 percent of students at a school test proficiently in math, do you know if those changes were good or bad? You need previous years’ scores to know.
7. Read the Primary Source
We have this awkward need/hate relationship with the media: Most of us don’t trust reporters, but how else are we going to find out about things? You can destroy this dilemma with one easy step: Look up the primary source.
Read the article, then read beyond the article. Is the article referring to a politician’s comments? Go read or watch the comments and see what context those comments were in. What point was the politician actually trying to make? Did the reporter accurately convey that point, or did he or she pick out the most controversial part and blow it up, because clicks?
Don’t be afraid of primary sources. If you read about an academic study, click the link and read the summary. You don’t need an advanced degree to do this. I’ve made a habit of this and I’m appalled at how many make blanket assertions after interviewing 32 people who had an interest in furthering the author’s narrative. Do you think that’s objective?
8. Be Skeptical and Open to Revision
It’s tempting to leave judgment to the experts, but we can respect their expertise without blindly following them. Have you ever second-guessed your doctor or your kid’s teacher? It doesn’t take a medical degree to know a broken leg requires more than ibuprofen or an education degree to know your kid isn’t learning. You may not have the expertise of a person trained in a particular field, but if you’re an adult, you know or can learn how to gauge whether they’re making good decisions. You’re allowed to do the same with reporters.
And it’s okay not to know everything. I’ll be honest: My thoughts on U.S. foreign policy pretty much amount to “Gosh, there is a lot of violence in the world, and that’s bad.” When foreign policy discussions come up, I listen and think. I might ask questions, but I don’t pretend I have all the solutions figured out.
You might already be well-versed in a particular issue. If you are, continue to listen, think critically about things you hear and read, and revise your opinion accordingly. There are more than two ways to look at an issue, and people in broadly the same camp can have legitimate disagreements. Nuance is good! You can’t know everyone and everything, and if you’re too stubborn to admit that, you’ll stymie your ability to use your brain.
And that’s what’s important here. You’re an adult with a brain, and you can make your own decisions. Also, you should—because ultimately, you’ll be responsible for them.