Critical Thinking Is Critical

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.

Francis Bacon

When we read things online — particularly personal stories and testimonials, we usually operate with the assumption that they’re true. We want to believe people. And when they tell their stories, they usually make sense…at first glance.

If you want to get at the truth, you have to read past first glance. People may be telling their truth, as they experienced it and remember it. That’s often not the whole story.

Whenever you read criticism, you have to apply critical thinking. While most people have an idea what that term means, let’s define it more specifically:

The Problem
Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and
imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result
A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

(Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008)

So when you read criticism or personal anecdotes online, you can’t just allow yourself to be drawn into their story. This isn’t a movie — the willing suspension of disbelief does not apply.

Here are a few tips for applying critical thinking when reading criticism:

  1. What’s their agenda? Are they simply speaking their truth, or are they just venting their anger? Or trying to stir up controversy to generate traffic for their web site? Or reinforce a larger agenda with any example they possibly can? Or maybe it’s even a hidden commercial interest. Follow the money.
  2. Are they using propaganda techniques? Are they simply stating the facts, or are they trying to denounce, demonize, marginalize and neutralize the opposing views? Read a few threads on Ripoff Report and see how nearly everyone who takes the side of the company rather than the consumer is denounced as a shill.
  3. Do they have first-hand experience? Or are they just relaying stories they’ve heard from others? Or worse, just hopping on the bandwagon? An issue can look much larger than it actually is because of this amplification effect.
  4. Are they owning their part in what happened? Most people don’t really want to take responsibility for their own actions and decisions — I mean really don’t want to. Look at the general pattern of their speech — are they playing the victim?  People with an external locus of control tend to be less successful, more stressed, less healthy, and more prone to clinical depression than those with an internal locus of control.  I’d say it’s hard to tell this about a person in one forum post, but very often, these people tell their whole life story, as if to somehow validate what happened to them.
  5. What didn’t they say? There’s a reason that in court we ask people to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The most common form of dishonesty is the sin of omission. What facts are they leaving out that could completely change the meaning of what happened?
  6. Silence is not guilt. One of the most common tactics of critics is to invite (dare) them to come respond to their questions and accusations…in that forum, of course. That’s a fool’s errand. For one thing, it’s a hostile environment, in which most participants have already made up their mind. For another, it adds fuel to the fire for the search engines — just not a smart move for the company.

If you want the truth, you need to hear both (or all, as the case may be) sides of the story, apply some critical thinking to separate the facts from the fiction, and then decide for yourself.

Let’s look at some examples of these in action:

  1. Hidden agenda — Top 30 Global Leadership GurusHaters gonna hate, ’cause that’s what they do. But when someone goes so far out of their way, first of all to spread their hate, and secondly, to cover their own tracks, you have to wonder…  In an update on Scott Allen’s analysis (and great example of critical thinking) of the Top 30 Global Leadership Gurus issue, it has come out that the new owner of that site may not even be a real person. When they were unresponsive to reasonable attempts to communicate, Orrin and Chris hired a private investigator to track them down, only to find that all the contact information in the domain registration was fake. Read the analysis on why the whole issue stank to begin with, and then ask yourself, who has the time, energy and money on their hands to justify buying a website, under a fake identity, just to discredit Orrin and Chris?
  2. Propaganda tactics — Freedom of Mind — This popular anti-cult site accuses TEAM/LIFE of “behavior control”. Here’s an example: “Members are strongly encouraged to hang around with ‘The right association’- those people who have the results that you want in life, namely the TEAM.” Seriously? It’s a proven fact that your success is significantly impacted by the people you hang around with. When it’s on Lifehacker, it’s “truth”, but when it comes from LIFE, it’s “behavior control”? This is a prime example of propaganda tactics — re-positioning the truth as something insidious when it comes from the source you’re attacking. Demonization. Marginalization.
  3. Hearsay — TeamScam — There’s an open discussion thread on the critic site TeamScam that has 193 comments on it, the vast majority of them negative. How many of those people have any real first-hand experience inside TEAM or LIFE? It looks like about 17.  And of those 17, 8 had a positive experience, 3 neutral or balanced, and 6 a negative one. The overall impression is very deceiving, because not only are there several critics with no first-hand experience, they also write longer and more frequent comments.

Those are just a few examples. I’ll be going into some of these in considerably more depth in future posts, including answering all of Amthrax’s 50+ Questions for TEAM/LIFE.

Stay tuned, and keep your thinking cap on.

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