By Martin Hunt
In the modern world there is a great deal of nonsense about. Pseudoscience abounds in myriad different forms, and there is an endless supply of cons and schemes to entrap the unwary. Still, not everyone falls for the various schemes to defraud us of money or convince us of untruth. What specific skills can you arm yourself with to become more skeptical? How can you become more critical and harder to fool?
In general, you need a specific skill set to distinguish fact from unsubstantiated claim, whether the claims come in written or verbal form on any media, or even in person from a sales pitch or a cultic recruiter.
First of all, you need to give yourself time to cover the material in question. Critical reading is a slow and careful process, and you must take the time to analyze the material in detail to determine its status. Therefore, don't allow yourself to be rushed. If the pitch is in person, ask for materials to read later. If you are tired, make it another day. Nothing is so urgent that it cannot wait another day, so don't allow yourself to be pressured. Cooling off periods are allowed after a heated sales pitch and subsequent careless purchasing decision in many countries, but make your own cooling off period before you sign anything or commit to anything or hand out any money. Give yourself time to think; if there is a tag-team sales pitch going on, walk away and say you will give it some thought and get back to them on it, and take your leave of the situation to consider it in a less pressured environment. Refuse to listen to arguments about how you need to commit immediately and completely, and that any hesitation is a bad sign or that going with your first impulse is the way to go. If the sales pitch is in a written format, make sure you are well rested before you tackle it, and that nothing else is on your mind at the moment.
The next technique you may apply to promote understanding and to detect the verity of a subject is to think about the topic carefully, not to just sit and absorb it. For example, if you are reading something new, put it down for a minute and ponder what is written. Ask yourself questions about the topic; what was the author's intent in writing it? Can it be independently verified? What is the author's background? Who disagrees with the author, and what are their arguments? These questions may lead you to examine other sources of information, and it generally a good idea to see both sides of an issue before making a decision about it.
If a vacuum-cleaner salesperson is in your house and giving you a good pitch about their product and you feel you want to buy the machine, you might want to check out an issue of Consumer Reports about the machine first before making up your mind rather than impulse buying after hearing only one side. If you are reading a book, you could preview it first and then stop to think about it and ask yourself questions or make predictions about the contents. What do you know about this subject? What is your gut feeling about it? What do you think about it? Making notes about the subject may help you to reflect upon it and get you thinking more about it rather than merely taking it in, unquestioned. Reading to evaluate a source is a more time- consuming task than pleasure reading of a novel, for example; but its purpose is different and more serious, and there may be consequences in the form of lost money or wasted life to not taking your time with it now. Take the time to make notes, pause and think, reflect, question, make predictions, summarize and evaluate.
Keep an eye on yourself and your progress with the subject. Ask yourself if you understand what you are reading, and, if you don't, tackle it from another angle. Does what you are reading fit with your predictions and expectations? Does it seem generally reasonable? If what you are reading does not fit in with what you already know, tread carefully, as this may be an area of deception or error. Does what you are covering make sense? If not, can you discover why that is? Is it too technical, does it appear illogical or irrational? Find out why you cannot make sense of a subject, if possible. The problem may well lie with the subject itself; understanding nonsense is oxymoronic. The fault may lie with the writer or with the subject matter itself, but if you have determined that the problem lies in your own inability to comprehend, then find other material on this same topic by another writer at a more elementary level. The responsibility for communication lies as much with the writer or speaker as with the intended audience; you are responsible for your half of the equation.
After you have finished reading the material, give yourself time to ponder its implications. This is the time to read over your notes if you made any and fit the new information into your present store of knowledge - if the information is deemed to be of acceptable quality and verity. Now would be a good time to check other sources; never trust simply one person about any subject. Do the other sources by different authors agree with the first one? If so, are they independent sources, or are they linked in some manner with the first source of information? For example, if the president of Dow Chemical says that a certain pesticide is safe and effective, and the other sources you find agree, make certain they are not employees of Dow or working under a Dow Chemical grant! Independent verification is vital to ensure that you are dealing with legitimate documentation.
It is also important at this time to reflect on the purpose and motivations of the source of the new and possibly questionable information. Don't take things at face value; dig into the topic and into the writer or speaker to find out why they are saying what they are saying. It is a given that ad copy, for example, is unreliable as the authors are hired to sell a product and are tainted thereby - be careful anywhere there is a monetary interest. This extends to your own money; be particularly careful if your money is on the line, as people are untrustworthy when money is involved. It is reasonable to reject out of hand anything someone tells you if they are to profit by the telling; salespeople are an example of this, but it extends into religions, for example, where salvation is a function of recruitment abilities or where your time and effort are desired as much as your money. Deception is often used in these circumstances as there is a direct profit, monetary or spiritual, to be made from you. Ask yourself what the person is going to get out of you if you believe them.
Realize that not everything you read will be true, no matter how fine the prose or scholarly the source. Where deliberate deception is not an issue, there is still room for errors to seep into the material due to unchecked facts, inadequate or outdated science, deception on the part of others who informed the writer or speaker, and many other reasons. It is important to pick through what you read; material is seldom of such provenance and quality that it is all useful to you. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? In general and normal reading, there should be a great deal you disagree with, if you are of a skeptical bent. Much of the material you will come across is not true or only half truth. Ask yourself if what you are reading is trustworthy and if you agree or disagree with the author as they make each and every claim.
One skill you must develop is the ability to distinguish facts from claims. Facts are statements that can be readily checked, as in an encyclopedia or other reference work. If you read that Betsy Ross designed the American Flag, for example, it should not be hard to either verify or refute this statement in many reference works. You can certainly question facts; they are statements that are amenable to challenging their accuracy. Question facts when the writer may have something to gain from their use. If Scientology, for example, states that they have 8,000,000 members and uses this fact to gain credibility and recognition, it may well be a fact that needs looking into and independently verified from another source, such as a census or other numbers from the organization such as numbers of churches and members at each.
An opinion or a claim is a statement open to interpretation and judgment. Claims are not necessarily open to the kind of checking that facts are. For example, a speaker might say that a liberal government is bad for the economy. This is an unsupported claim, not a fact. It lacks verification through the means of, for example, looking at the economies of various nations over time and comparing economic output with governmental liberality, which in itself needs to be defined. Opinions may be well supported or poorly supported, and you may agree or disagree with them to varying degrees. One method of finding out more about opinions and seeing if you may like to agree or disagree with them is to ask the person expressing the idea why they hold such an opinion, or, if reading material with such claims in it, ask yourself why the writer holds this opinion. In the example above, the speaker might say they hold this opinion because their daddy told them so, and you might then wish to discard the opinion as worthless and completely unsupported.
Opinions are often based on unstated assumptions about values or definitions, and it may be fruitful to dig out what the author's assumptions are that form the framework for their thinking on a subject. In the example above, one of the assumptions may be something along the lines of "daddy is always right" or based on the idea that liberalism is inherently bad in and of itself, and that no ethical person would be a liberal. This would be a value assumption, that is, a belief about the way things should be or what morality consists of, or a definitional assumption defining liberality to be a certain thing or a certain way that it may or may not be in reality. Read closely to see if you can spot the author's assumptions underlying their arguments. If an author states that detergent A is better at cleaning than detergent B because A is better at removing stains, the author is using a definitional assumption that cleaning implies stain removal. But what if another author were to point out that detergent B is better at whitening, and therefore a better detergent? They are using a different definition for cleaning; they are more concerned with whitening than stain removal. Read to find these assumptions underneath the writing and then determine whether you agree with them or not before making up your mind about the subject.
In conclusion, there is probably a large list of other techniques and skills of critical reading in the area of logical fallacies of many types, scientific reasoning, claims and proofs, and so forth, but a good grounding in the skills mentioned above would make people better consumers of both spiritual and commercial goods. Learn how to read closely and carefully, to pose questions, make predictions, to think about what you are being exposed to, to take notes, compare what you have read with other sources, monitor your progress with a topic, evaluate the source for motivation and credibility of assumptions, and distinguish fact from mere opinion. It will take more time to read and listen in this manner, but the result will be a savings in time wasted going down the wrong paths in life and a savings of money in avoiding making poor decisions - and who among us has not made a hasty purchase or a rash decision that was later regretted based upon a less than critical evaluation of the evidence at hand?
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August 23, 1997
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