It’s easy to say “be more skeptical” or “exercise better critical thinking,” but just how do you go about doing that? Where are you supposed to learn critical thinking? Learning skepticism isn’t like learning history — it’s not a set of facts, dates, or ideas. Skepticism is a process; critical thinking is something you do. The only way to learn skepticism and critical thinking is by doing them… but to do them, you have to learn them. How can you break out of this endless circle?
Learn the Basics: Logic, Arguments, Fallacies
Skepticism may be a process, but it’s a process that relies on certain principles about what constitutes good and bad reasoning. There’s no substitute for the basics, and if you think you already know all the basics, that’s probably a good sign that you need to review them.
Even professionals who work on logic for a living get things wrong! You don’t need to know as much as a professional, but there are so many different fallacies that can be used in so many different ways that there are bound to be some that you aren’t familiar with, not to mention ways those fallacies can be used that you haven’t seen yet.
Don’t assume you know it all; instead, assume you have a lot to learn and make it a point to regularly review the different ways fallacies can be used, how logical arguments are constructed, and so forth. People are always finding new ways to mangle arguments; you should keep abreast of what they are saying.
Practice the Basics
It’s not enough to simply read about the basics; you need to actively use what you learn as well. It’s like reading about a language in books but never using it — you’ll never nearly as good as a person who regularly practices using that language. The more you use logic and the principles of skepticism, the better you’ll do it.
Constructing logical arguments is one obvious and helpful way to achieve this, but an even better idea may be to evaluate the arguments of others because this can teach you both what to do and what not to do. Your newspaper’s editorial page is a great place to find new subject matter. It’s not just the letters to the editor but also the “professional” editorials which are often filled with terrible fallacies and basic flaws. If you can’t find several fallacies on any given day, you should look more closely.
Reflect: Think About What You’re Thinking
If you can get to the point where spot fallacies without having to think about it that’s great, but you can’t get into the habit of not thinking about what you’re doing. Quite the contrary in fact: one of the hallmarks of serious critical and skeptical thinking is that the skeptic reflects consciously and deliberately on their thinking, even their critical thinking. That’s the whole point.
Skepticism isn’t just about being skeptical of others, but also being able to train that skepticism on your ideas, opinions, inclinations, and conclusions. To do this, you need to be in the habit of reflecting on your thoughts. In some ways, this may be harder than learning about logic, but it produces rewards in many different areas.