Most people believe that they have a skeptical, critical mind. Some because they constantly question the arguments and ideas of people that they disagree with. Others because they adhere to some alternate, non-mainstream concept such as atheism, alternate medicine or even Flat Earth Theory. Most simply assume the existence of their skeptical mind because they’ve never actually challenged themselves on it and it makes them feel smart. The fact is, very few people think critically about the world around them, and even those that do, fall prey to the usual prejudices and biases. In our hyper-partisan world, a critical mind is vital to not getting sucked into the tribalism currently tearing our country apart. You need to humanize opposing viewpoints as the first step to tolerance. Not only that, but failing to think analytically and questioning your beliefs makes you less smart.
The first step to developing a skeptical mind begins with recognizing that most of what you read and hear is either wrong, misleading or incomplete. Find an article in a mainstream news publication on a subject for which you are an expert or very knowledgeable. Read it. Is it accurate? Chances are incorrect or imperfect information permeates the article. Completely wrong might also accurately describe it. Odds are that if you do this often enough, you will start wondering, “If every article I read that I’m knowledgeable of is so awful, what about the ones I know nothing about?” Now you are on the right track. From this point questions will start to flow every time you read something.
Next you start asking questions about things you just assume to be true. Start with minimum wage for an example. If you oppose it, ask yourself questions like: “How is someone with no skills supposed to support themselves without an adequate wage?”, or “If minimum wage earners had more money, would that stimulate the economy?”, or “Would raising the minimum wage reduce the costs of social welfare programs?” You could ask numerous other questions. If you can’t think of any, google it. Literally: “What questions should you ask if you oppose the minimum wage?” For balance, if you support the minimum wage, you might ask, “How does someone without the skills to provide the value of the minimum wage to an employer get a job?”, or “Won’t raising the minimum wage make things cost more?”, or “Won’t employers replace people with machines if we raise the minimum wage?”
Just the act of asking the questions will add to your skepticism, but that’s not enough. Now you need to answer them. Answer them honestly and with as much effort as possible. Here’s the hard part: answer them in a way that directly opposes your current belief. You don’t need a bunch of researching for this part (that comes later) you simply try to use logic. Follow a train of thought that leads away from your current belief. Every time you find yourself drifting towards your original idea, take the fork that leads away from it. You don’t have to agree with the points, just accept that they exist.
Now a true challenge. Take a repugnant or ridiculous belief. Racism, sexism, eugenics, anti-vax, flat earth. Try to figure out WHY someone would believe it. Don’t just assume they are unforgivably evil or stupid people. Very few people are actually bad people – selfish, ignorant and self-involved sure – but not evil. Try to think of a person you know who is both nice, and racist. Put yourself in their shoes. Recognize that calling them a racist is probably not the best way to change their mind. Knowing their motivations, biases and background makes a huge difference when it comes time to change their attitudes.
Which brings us to politics. Chances are, either you or someone you know reflexively disagrees with everything that one party does, and agrees with the other (unless something “bipartisan” is going on). The simple, obvious unanswered question is: “How is it possible that one group of politicians is always right and the other group is always wrong?” I’ll give you a hint…no I won’t, you get it. Take the party you identify with and list ten things they do that are wrong. Take the party you oppose and list ten things they do that are right. Here’s the catch: you can’t use “bipartisan” ideas – the other party must be opposed to the things you select. If you can’t do this, go back and re-read this whole essay and try again. Still not there?
Research. Crank up your Google-Fu and start searching. Read articles that oppose your viewpoint. Go beyond the normal news sources (we already figured out how wrong they were several paragraphs ago). Find academic blogs – professors LOVE to write, especially economics and legal professors. Do NOT make arguments against the points being made while you read. I know that you might find this hard, but try to think about why they might be RIGHT. You don’t have to conclude they’re right, just expose yourself to their ideas. Buy a book from someone you disagree with, preferably someone with a good bibliography. Ralph Nader writes excellent ones for you to try if you are a Republican and Ann Coulter is a good choice if you are a Democrat. I recommend them not because they are brilliant or accurate, but because of their bibliographies – a chance for you to see where their ideas come from.
Having a skeptical mind doesn’t mean changing your mind to another belief. The point is accepting that the other belief exists, and that while the arguments you hear may be wrong, they have at least some merit. Especially important is knowing that a person or group who doesn’t see things your way does so not because they are bad people, or ignorant, but instead they form opinions rooted in valid belief systems. You also might find out that you are wrong about some things, and being less wrong is the foundation of both human and individual progress.
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