A lot of us are brought under the spell of false beliefs because we can tell a good story about how they might be true, they are consistent with logic (they are logically possible), and we want to be believe them. We’re quite good, in other words, at fooling ourselves; at not seeing what’s in front of our noses.
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled “In Front of Your Nose.” In it, he lays out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” It’s a funny line, and it rests on a powerful syllogism: our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; they rarely match reality; therefore, our conclusions rarely match reality. And so, in the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but that of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out your eyes.
But how might you do this? One way is to bring an evaluative criteria checklist to the matter you’re investigating. Just as a movie critic might bring a list of evaluative criteria to a movie she’s reviewing (quality of acting, energy of the screenplay, etc.), the critical thinker can bring a list of evaluative criteria to a matter under “reality investigation.” Below is one such list. How well does a belief that you currently subscribe to hold up under these eleven questions? And wouldn’t it be nice if we all asked such questions before professing belief in something?
- Do I have any actual evidence for the thing I say I believe, and what is the extent and quality of that evidence?
- If I don’t have direct physical evidence or data that support my belief, do I at least have other good reasons—deductive, inductive, abductive—for believing what I say I do? (Abduction is reasoning to the best hypothesis; laying out all the logical possibilities and asking which one best fits the evidence.)
- Given the quantity and quality of the evidence and reasons available to me at this time, how strongly, on a scale of 1 to 10, should I actually hold my belief?
- Is my belief coherent with my background knowledge (the things I think I already know about the cosmos and how it works)?
- Have I actively sought out disconfirming evidence and arguments against my belief?
- Are there confounding variables at work in any data I might be interpreting?
- Have I weighed alternative beliefs or explanations about this matter, and really come to the best belief and explanation on offer? (In this question, we’re back to abduction.)
- What framing or spell-casting associations, stories, metaphors, or analogies have I been telling myself in support of this belief which, on closer inspection, might be misleading me, making it difficult to think clearly about the matter at hand?
- What role is desire or aversion of any sort (pleasure, hope, fear, optimism, group approval, pessimism, ego gratification, financial interest, aesthetics, comfort, etc.) playing in my conclusion?
- What blind spots might I potentially have about this belief, and what might be causing them? (This is a hard question because it brings us into a confrontation with our psychological repressions, cognitive dissonances, projections, sublimations, compartmentalizations, etc.)
- Are there forces at work that are fogging my ability to objectively, patiently, and clearly focus on this matter (time pressures, illness, electronic distractions, noises, decorum, lack of sleep, envy, guilt, strong-willed influencers, emotional blackmailers, authority figures, pessimism, etc.)?
Critical thinking is a tricky art; a tightrope walk.