This is something I talk about a lot, but haven’t written much about it yet. To that end, I thought I’d share some thoughts.
Critical thinking is not negative thinking.I’ve been a witness to, or part of, many, many conversations that begin with or include statements like ‘They say that…’, or ‘I heard …’, or something similar. Oftentimes the source being referenced is a blip from the previous night’s news, or something hastily read online. Let’s be clear about the latter, especially: there is far more rumor-mongering and un-validated material online than not. It is for this reason that I tell my friends or patients that if they have some sort of health concern, STAY AWAY from the web. This extends even to sites such as WebMD. It’s not that everything out there is a lie, or inaccurate; my point is that, especially when you’re talking about some kind of health concern, people (and I am no exception) tend to lose their capacity for critical thinking. To be sure, this is one of the primary functions of health care professionals. You may very well have access to the same information that they do, but you’re not in a position to make a differential diagnosis for many reasons.
They way most of us consume information is broken. That might sound harsh, but I find it to be almost universally true. Going back to the idea of information from second- or third-hand sources, what I often find is that people consume, without critical thought, what they’ve heard. Critical thinking merely means not immediately accepting what you’ve been fed. To quote a classic tune “believe half of what you see, son and none of what you hear” (Heard it Through the Grapevine). This is, in essence, the very fundamental of the scientific method: make an observation, and then ask a question (or questions) about it. Simple, right? And yet so few of us engage in even this basic step.
If everyone took a moment to stop and think like this, the world would be a very different place. In a way, I guess I wish we were all so scientifically-minded. Give it a try: the next time you find yourself confronted with a ‘I heard that…’ sort of statement, stop. Think about it. Ask yourself if what you’ve just heard is the end-all-be-all truth. Maybe even take it a step further and research the source. You might be surprised at what you find.