De Omnibus Dubitandum

Are you a fan of received wisdom? Do you consume new studies, data, concepts or ways of working without question or deeper research, like a basking shark swallowing krill? There’s a strong chance you are, and that you do. You probably don’t know it, though. It’s even more likely that you do this if you work in the increasingly all-encompassing ‘digital media’ industry. But I think you should stop it. What you should start doing is thinking more critically and doubting things.

Everyone is looking for something that makes their lives easier, right? I know I am. I’ve lost count of the amount of different plugins I’ve installed on this blog alone to help streamline how I write and publish, and I’ve still only got a handful of posts on here. But that’s my personal time. At work, though, I tend to think differently, because my time isn’t just my own. Perhaps because I have an innate fear of snake oil salesmen and I don’t want to do bad work, I don’t readily accept that anyone has all the answers.

I’m a firm believer in training and studying to get better at something, but one course does not an expert make. That guy standing in front of you, lecturing you on hokey pop psychology? He probably doesn’t know any more than you do about who you or your colleagues are, what makes them tick, or the emotional complexity of anyone in your team. It’s almost the same as putting stock in horoscopes – every once in a while, a net cast wide enough will catch some fish. If you’re an adherent of received wisdom however, consciously or not, you’ll already be buying into whatever he’s selling.

It’s right about now that I’m going to implore you to take a step back from it all and think about what’s being pumped into you (passively or actively) from websites, social media, tutors, senior colleagues and authority figures. In this past week, what have you believed and accepted at face value from a single source? You can be honest with me. I know. It’s OK.

The more pertinent question, however, is what have you believed or accepted that you then went on to seek out more information on from multiple sources? What did you review, cogitate on and make a reasoned decision about? If your answer is “not a lot,” “nothing” or “shut up” then this next part is where I’m going to lay out what I want you to start doing next. And it doesn’t involve any Wikipedia philosophy lessons or pen chewing workplace psychoanalysis. Unless you said “shut up,” in which case go and kill the next few minutes sniffing marker pens and reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Whatever makes you happy.

As defined by The Practical Guide to Critical Thinking (one of many of course), the attitude of a critical thinker is embodied by:

  • Open-mindedness
  • Healthy skepticism
  • Intellectual humility
  • Free thinking
  • High motivation

These are the fundamentals to crushing the strong hand of received wisdom inside your own head. There are ways and means of improving the facets of critical thinking if you feel you could use some strengthening on any of those points, but essentially it’s just common sense, maturity and the willingness to question. More specifically, as Greg Haskins notes, “At the heart of critical thinking is the ability to recognize, construct, and evaluate arguments.” To that end, when you’re presented with any new source of information that is bowling you over and beginning to subsume your senses, you should consider the following as a mental checklist:

  • Does the information source have the necessary qualifications or level of understanding to make the claim (conclusion)?
  • Does the source have a reputation for accuracy?
  • Does the source have a motive for being inaccurate or overly biased?
  • Are there any reasons for questioning the honesty or integrity of the source?

By applying the above criteria to your work and those seeking to influence you or your working habits (as was my main point to this screed), you’ll be better prepared to make a judgement on the situation at hand, and work out how much you want to take on board, disregard or investigate further. Critical thinking has bigger implications, though. If you take the principles of critical thinking and apply them more broadly throughout your working life, the outcome to all this, as Richard Paul and Linda Elder note, is “a well cultivated critical thinker” who:

  • 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 open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems

After all, not everyone is selling snake oil. But wouldn’t you at least like to know what it looks like when it’s right in front of you?