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Some Key Questions to Ask When Pursuing Information

One of the most important skills in critical thinking is that of evaluating information. This skill begins with the important recognition that information and fact, information and verification, are not the same thing. It requires also the important recognition that everything presented as fact or as true is not. A third important recognition is that the prestige or setting in which information is asserted, as well as the prestige of the person or group asserting it, are no guarantee of accuracy or reliability. Consider the following, very helpful, maxim: An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, and mendacious—that is, information is often just dead wrong.

Careful professionals use a wide variety of safeguards in the disciplines in which they work. It is not possible to learn these safeguards separately from an actual study of the disciplines. However, it is possible to develop a healthy skepticism about information in general, especially about information presented in support of a belief that serves the vested interests of a person or group. This skepticism is given in the regular asking of key questions about information presented to us:

  • To what extent could I test the truth of this claim by direct experience?

  • To what extent is believing this consistent with what I know to be true or have justified confidence in?

  • How does the person who advances this claim support it?

  • Is there a definite system or procedure for assessing claims of this sort?

  • Does the acceptance of this information advance the vested interest of the person or group asserting it?

  • Is the person asserting this information made uncomfortable by having it questioned?

These questions, both singly and as a group, are no panacea. Everything depends on how we follow up on them. Used with good judgment, they help us to lower the number of mistakes we make in assessing information. They do not prevent us from making such mistakes. In later chapters, we will follow up on these concerns in a deeper way. You should begin now, however, to practice asking the above questions when information is presented to you as true and important.

Test the Idea
Assessing Information

Assess the following claims by figuring out whether you think they are true or false. Explain your reasoning:

  1. You hear a male colleague say that women are not as good as men in supervisory roles because they are too "soft" on employees and too emotional in crises.

  2. A friend of yours claims that astrology is accurate because he has used it to figure out why people he knew were behaving as they were. He also claims that you can use it to predict people's most likely behavior, including deciding whom it would make sense to marry (or not to marry).

  3. You hear someone say, "Science should use statements from the Bible to help assess scientific findings because anything that contradicts the Bible (the word of God) must be false."

  4. You read about a person who is reported to have returned from the dead as the result of resuscitation after a heart attack. The person says there is definitely a spirit world because he met a spirit while he was dead.

  5. A friend of yours claims that the universe is run on spiritual principles, citing the fact that once, when he was alone in the desert, the universe gave him a mantra (a chant).

  6. You hear a woman say that it is clear that no man can truly understand a woman because there is no way, as a man, he can have the experience of a woman.

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