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A lot has been written about fake news and the problems associated with it. Many pundits have suggested ways to combat the problem, from better fact checking to flagging fake news sites.

Unfortunately, the Internet makes controlling the prevalence and access to false or inaccurate information very difficult, which makes these approaches ineffective. In addition, people seem to believe whatever they read and do not appear to question its source or validity.

The real problem, then, is not that fake news exists or that it’s widely accessible; it’s the reader’s apparent lack of critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the process of evaluating the truthfulness and the value of information and opinions in a systematic, purposeful, and efficient manner.

Unfortunately, not many people demonstrate high levels of critical thinking, such as focusing on the most relevant information, asking the right questions, and separating facts from assumptions. According to a survey of HR professionals conducted by SHRM and The Conference Board, 70 percent of employees with a high school education were deficient in critical thinking skills. Even among employees with a four-year college education, 63 percent had adequate skills, and only 28 percent were rated excellent critical thinkers.

We live in a complex world, and making sense of it is hard work. It would be extremely taxing to analyze in depth every issue or idea we encounter. That’s why our brain often takes “shortcuts” to more efficiently deal with the vast amount of data we encounter day-to-day and save on mental energy. Some of the “shortcuts” or biases are:

  • Availability—Choosing solutions we are familiar with. When solving problems, we often choose solutions we’ve heard about; we feel more comfortable with them and assume that if we’re familiar with them, they’ll work.
  • Generalization—Drawing inappropriate conclusions from specific cases. People often leap to general conclusions after seeing only one or two examples. We do not realize that the specific example we are relying on might not necessarily represent the true probability or frequency of an event or phenomenon.
  • Anchoring—The first information learned about a subject or issue can affect future decision-making and information analysis. Anchoring occurs when individuals overly rely on the first information they get about a situation or event. Once the anchor is set, there is a bias toward adjusting or interpreting other information to reflect the “anchored” information.
  • Confirmation—Seeking only evidence that supports our assumption or intuition. In solving problems, one of the most dangerous traps is to gather information selectively; favoring data that seeks to confirm our ideas and excluding data that might disconfirm them.

While helping to speed up our thinking on mundane matters, these tricks and biases can blind us and result in ill-informed decisions on issues that are truly important.

The good news is that critical thinking is a skill that can be learned and developed. It starts with a comprehensive framework for tackling assumptions, evaluating arguments and drawing conclusions. The next time you encounter information that seems questionable—whether it’s a news article or a proposal for a new initiative at your company—use the following framework to think it through.

1. Recognize Assumptions – Separate Fact from Opinion

  • What information do you have about this issue?
  • What are the ideas and assumptions that support your point of view?
  • Is there solid evidence to support those assumptions, and what might be some gaps in your reasoning?
  • Who are the key stakeholders and what are their viewpoints?
  • What other ideas should be explored, and what else do you need to know?

2. Evaluate Arguments – Analyzing Information Objectively

  • What are the pros and cons of the solution you are proposing?
  • What are your biases? (Ex., if you are part of the sales team, you may be more motivated by the bottom line than the overall customer experience)
  • Have you run your ideas by someone who is likely to have a different opinion?
  • Who would disagree with your perspective? What is the rationale that supports their viewpoint?
  • What key points, models and/or perspectives do you need to keep in mind as you evaluate the options?

Draw Conclusions

  • After evaluating all of the facts, what is the best possible conclusion?
  • What specific evidence is driving your conclusion?
  • Is there new evidence that would impact your decision?
  • What does your common sense and experience tell you to do?
  • What risks are associated with your conclusion?

In general, critical thinking skills can be improved by following these three guidelines.

    • Check your reasoning process. This increases the likelihood you will identify, be aware of, and take into account your biases and logical gaps.
    • Apply a systematic process. Critical thinking is enhanced if you follow a systematic approach that provides a comprehensive framework for tackling assumptions, evaluating arguments and drawing conclusions.
    • Become well-informed and open to new experiences. By increasing your knowledge base and life experience, you become more aware of the complexity and various perspectives on issues. This enhances your flexibility and reduces the risk of repetitive and narrow thinking.

While it’s tempting to blame ignorance on the proliferation of “fake news” and point fingers at those who write and spread it, we should be more concerned about the lack of critical thinking that allows half-truths and flat-out lies to spread so quickly. As individuals and as leaders in the workplace, we should all be concerned that a lack of critical thinking can impact some of the most important decisions we make.

Before we go with our gut and jump into something because it sounds like a good idea, we should check ourselves and make sure our logic passes the critical thinking test. This five-step decision-making checklist is a good guideline to follow.