Feel like you’re in a fog about what you should believe concerning a claim? Try running it through the following four criteria and see how well it holds up:
- The claim is accompanied by evidence.
- If evidence is not explicitly present, you at least have good reasons for believing the claim (inductions, deductions, plausible analogies and associations, appeals to expert consensus on the matter, reliable testimony, etc).
- The claim is coherent. In other words, it agrees with the other things that you think you already know about the universe; it coheres with your background knowledge. If your background knowledge and the claim cannot be made to matchup in some plausible fashion, at least one of them is (logically) wrong.
- You’ve fairly weighed alternative explanations and disconfirming evidence; out of a series of competing claims, your claim appears to be the best of the bunch. If it is a broad hypothesis about a matter, it is not just a pretty good hypothesis, it is the best hypothesis. Reasoning to the best thesis or hypothesis is known as abduction.
Here’s a simple example of a belief accompanied by supports in line with the above criteria: if a woman surmises that her husband is cheating on her, she may acquire such a belief because there is some combination of the following:
- explicit evidence (she has found a cryptic message in the handwriting of another woman in one of his jacket pockets);
- good reasons (he’s unusually quiet around her lately; he never sleeps with her anymore);
- it coheres with her background knowledge (he is impulsive, a narcissist, and travels a lot for business); and
- it is the best explanation of his behavioral patterns given all that she knows about him (he might just be out with the boys at a bar after work, or making money on the side to buy her a new car, but these seem implausible to her. An affair, in her estimation, is most likely).
The above four criteria—demanding evidence, good reasons, coherence, and some process for evaluating competing hypotheses (abduction) before believing a claim—do not guarantee that you’ll reach the truth of a matter. You might, after all, misjudge the evidence that you have, or mistake poor reasons for good ones, or possess faulty background knowledge, or fail to pick the best hypothesis on offer. Still, consciously bringing these four criteria into the mix of a decision about what to believe increases the odds that you will reach a good conclusion—that what you believe will indeed be right. This is the power of positive thinking critical thinking.
Concerning the fog that can so frequently accompany efforts at judgment, George Orwell wrote the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.” Criteria for evaluating a claim (like those above) can make this effort less uneven in outcome—less dicey.