Fake news, fact-checking, unverifiable stories that go viral… Sorting through today’s news and information is like playing detective, looking for clues of truth and then connecting the dots in a way that’s meaningful and relevant. Sure, traditional media is increasing their vigilance, and Google and Facebook are augmenting their b.s. detection algorithms to help us navigate through. But in the face of increasing disruption, nothing can replace our own personal ability to sort through the hype and hubris and create our own mosaic of understanding and action. In the increasingly polarized world of the past few months, I have wondered if we are facing a critical thinking crisis like never before.
What is critical thinking? While many organizations I work with define it slightly differently, it’s essentially the ability to raise vital questions, look at issues from a wide-angle lens, and make a balanced assessment to form your own opinion or decision. It’s part of a long tradition of rhetoric and oratory, and in the United States, our very democratic tradition was born out of the ability to think critically and dialogue together to create a new reality that honored both unity and diversity.
When I see leaders using critical thinking, they are seeking contrasting perspectives to gather and assess all relevant data. They know how to get the best thinking out of others around them through dialogue skills, and they understand how unconscious bias and assumptions impact their decision-making. They resist the urge to settle on what seems like a simple answer to complex issues, and know that more exploration is needed beyond simple tweets or posts. They come to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria, and the acknowledge when they don’t have the full picture and need to learn more.
Critical thinkers don’t settle for mere black and white answers. They dig into complicated issues, and with wide perspective, curiosity and thoughtfulness, help us unearth natural tensions and tradeoffs and find greater clarity in the grey.
Most of us probably use critical thinking on our good days. The problem is, we face this challenge at the same time we face a rapidly accelerating pace of change and an explosion of technology. Together these forces are starting to overpower our brains’ abilities to harness information at the exact moment that it is pushing us to make quality decisions faster than ever.
And the quality of our decisions depends on the quality of our thinking and dialogue.
Today we stand at a crossroads. Without critical thinking and dialogue, we risk acting without wide perspective and collaborative action… at a time when broader thinking may be needed more than ever. As the Dalai Lama has said, "The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual's own reason and critical analysis." For me, this may be one of the most important things I teach my children this year.