The Death of Critical Thinking

The media have been having a field day as the new arbiters of reality. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman invented the term “post-truth politics.” Al Gore reflected on The Assault on Reason. And Kellyanne Conway will forever be known for coining “alternative facts.” But why isn’t everyone stepping back from the information we receive—and send to others—and holding it to the highest standards of evaluation?

As a student, I was taught the art and craft of critical thinking—skills intended to last a lifetime. It’s time for a national refresher course! In this age of information overload and opinion-laden journalism, it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction. Regrettably, most of us no longer try—including healthcare communicators.

According to The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking: Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: Clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

By that definition, critical thinking is now, at best, moribund, and at worst, dead.

We in healthcare communications are certainly not immune. Forbes reported earlier this year, “Fake medical journals are spreading, and they are filled with bad science.” The journal, Nature, reported recently that “predatory journals are recruiting fake editors.”

We healthcare communicators have a dual responsibility—as consumers and conveyors of scientific information—to assiduously vet everything we read, view, see, hear—and anything we provide to others, including the media. Here’s how we can remain vigilant:

Consider the source: Who is providing the information or comment? Is it a company spokesperson? A medical expert? Is that medical expert connected with the company in any way? Is this the most qualified person to speak on this topic? You should ask yourself the questions that reporters are likely to ask.

Assess the evidentiary support: Sweat the details and question the data. Where are the holes? Does the study come from a credible source? Is it well designed? Where might you receive pushback? Be skeptical and anticipate skepticism from others.

Apply the “smell” test: Industry veterans have well-honed instincts. Trust them. For those just getting started in healthcare communications, ask others you trust. If something seems amiss, it probably is. At least follow the line of reasoning to confirm or reject your hunch.

It appears most of us tend to gravitate toward and process news and information that confirms what we already believe. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, in his latest book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, opens with this quote attributed to Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Don’t be that person. Let’s make America THINK again. Be sure to start with yourself.

  • Lee A. Davies

    Lee Davies is Director of Client Services, Health Practice at Makovsky. Lee oversees Makovsky’s media relations efforts. He previously served as the Director of Global Media Relations at Merck & Co. where he represented the company as a spokesperson for oncology, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and women’s health.

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