Thinking Critically — What did really happen?

One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels.
The thing to do is to supply light and not heat.
Woodrow Wilson

I’ve written a few postings about the need to think critically, e.g., Skeptical and Critical Thinking 101, or A different view on discussions. Recently I came to realize (again) the importance of checking what was really said or done, independent of all the people around you who all claim the same thing.

There’s some talk about how Google’s or Facebook’s Filter Bubble isolates people’s opinions and makes people believe most other people have the same opinion as they have — by showing only results that fit their preconceptions/positions. A kind of computer supported/enforced confirmation bias.

However, the same is true for other ways you get information — not only searches, but also the people you talk to and the news your read/watch.

Especially with complicated and/or hotly contested/emotionally demanding topics — it really pays to make up your own mind by looking at the actual evidence. This should be mandatory if the topic makes people uncomfortable or the evidence is hard to look at — either due to emotional (hurts a lot) or cognitive (it is very complicated) demands. After all, other people who all claim that the same thing happened might have gotten their information all from the same (second+-hand) source, because they too did not want to see what actually happened.

This applies, among others, to:

  • all study reports on the Internet and in the news
    Yes, without scientific training and prior content knowledge you will not be able to understand the study completely. But you can look at the discussion and the conclusion the original authors came to. They are usually easy to understand and sometimes “a bit” different from what the news reports want to make you believe. Research is complex and does not naturally fit into one newspaper title.
  • all reports involving emotionally demanding subjects (e.g., sexual harassment, stalking, domestic violence, rape)
    Yes, they happen, they are righteously seen as belonging to the worst kinds of crimes, and yes, some do happen stereotypically (men as perpetrators and women as victims). But that is only one possible way that could have happened. There is that unfortunate tendency of people’s minds — men and women — to go ballistic when it comes to these topics. People hear words like “rape” and stop looking at what actually was done. They assume the worst. But did really happen what they think did happen? And more importantly, was it really the person who was accused? Unfortunately, many people (incl. some reporters) take sides immediately — in almost all cases with the women — and they assume the worst about the men (so much for “rape culture”). That is true in some cases, but as incidences of false accusations show, not in all. With devastating results. And there are cases where the roles are reversed — and if you now think “lucky man”, imagine the roles were according to the usual stereotype and what that comment would entail.
  • all situations in which people are denied their humanity
    I have a huge respect for the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers and his unconditional positive regard towards other people. But I don’t think I could do it — not for everyone. Some people are … let’s just say there are some people whose death would make me smile — at least for an unguarded moment. And I am a strong believer in feedback — bad decisions, ‘evil’ actions, in short, asshole behavior should have its negative consequences. And if people act like an asshole, they should be treated like one. That’s the way some people learn — unfortunately, some ignore it completely and carry on. Still, it warns other people. But that happens on a personal level. This is a decision a person has to make for the people he or she interacts with — and people who stand by the side of that asshole. But when it comes to portrayals in the media — I think you should be especially careful if someone else tries to make that choice for you. The media is quick to make people into villains, into sociopaths, into people who should — must — be punished. There is no time and space for complex character studies, villain, victim, hero — these are the usual roles. And in some cases I would come to the same conclusion. But make up your own mind based on the actions the person actually did, not the interpretation of the media and — sometimes — strongly biased reporting.

Don’t get me wrong — there are some really … ugly, spineless, (almost or completely) sociopathic people out there. For example, people whose ego writes cheques that are neither covered by their intelligence nor their skills, yet this issue is completely obscured by fast-talking and by playing to people’s weaknesses (esp. the need for positive reinforcement, which is scarce today). And who react with mobbing when someone refuses to be manipulated or to cover for them. So yeah, assholes exist, unfortunately, and sometimes they lead otherwise good people by their noses (i.e., weaknesses), which is a pity.

But — on the Internet and in the media — some villains are constructed, by sometimes illicit means (e.g., quote mining, selecting reporting of facts, choosing those images that show them in a bad light). And it pays to make up your own mind.


  1. Good points. However:

    When we initially see or hear something we immediately (the proverbial “first glance”) process it to see if we must (need) to make a quick decision. That is the “fight or flee” of our early evolution. This is why people such as global warning deniers or (in the USA, my country) those who view immigrants with antipathy need to present the scientists and immigration reform supporters as un-American. They don’t address the issues. They present the supporters of other views as bad people and make the discussion directly about them and only indirectly about the actual issue. This tactic helps them to keep their followers from seeking conflicting or divergent information. This is a stark example. But, variants of the tactics are used in many less stark situations. See the link from below.

    We have also evolved much more complex brain processes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Planck, etc. And these are just among the scientists. However, most of the time, we start with that first glance and do not get beyond our initial evaluations.

    The media also present most issues in a binary manner. For or against. The nuance of everything in between is usually lost. This can often make discerning “what actually happened” difficult, as the complexity of the nuances are presented in some obscure corner that will not make the first page of the google/bing algorithms or left undocumented (that is unfindable by most of us) altogether.

    Also there are those who want to make very hard for you to know.
    The following quote is from:
    1. Keep Your Friends Close and Your Documents Closer
    Location: DuPage County, Illinois
    Many local taxing bodies are hidden from public view. Some don’t have their own websites. They schedule their meetings at the same time as county or village board sessions. Others resist inquiries for information, even from elected officials. After two state representatives requested financial records from one local sanitary district in DuPage, they were told to file a freedom of information act request.

    So I agree with you 100%. However, there are those out there that want to make it difficult to find the information we need to think critically. And our own evolution, both biological and social, has provided us with tools that tug us both ways.

    By the by, I like your site. I found it some time ago googling about Circus Ponies Notebook and DEVONthink. This led me to follow you on Twitter. I log into Twitter on 30 to 60 day intervals and today I found you tweeting about this post. It’s not about DEVONthink, Circus Ponies Notebook or Scrivener πŸ™‚ .

  2. Hoi Jake,

    thank you for the link — I agree that critical thinking is a wide — very wide topic. And yup, I’m interested in more than just DEVONthink, Circus Ponies Notebook or Scrivener πŸ™‚

    All the best


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