In evaluating the ideas of others and developing your own,
it is important to distinguish facts from
opinions and assumptions.
FACTS are objective, observable, and verifiable:
- The new Cadillac Seville weighs three thousand pounds.
- Fred Allen drank three martinis at lunch.
- Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
The car's dimensions are objective -- they can be measured
or determined by examining manufacturer's specifications.
A person's behavior can be observed by eyewitnesses. The freezing
point of water can be verified by checking science books or
performing a simple experiment. Facts, though accurate, may
not provide sufficient evidence to support a thesis. Statistics,
for instance, may be objective and accurate but are easy to
misinterpret. The fact that reported cases of child abuse
have increased does not prove that more children are being
injured. It could indicate an increase in reporting or a change
in the definition of "abuse."
OPINIONS express judgments that must be
supported with evidence to be considered valid:
- The new Cadillac Seville is stylish.
- Fred Allen is an alcoholic.
- Cold water is the most refreshing drink.
What makes a car "stylish"? What constitutes an alcoholic?
Why is cold water more refreshing than other beverages? All
these opinions require further support for readers to accept
them as being valid. A writer might list details about a car's
design to suggest that it follows most people's concept of
what makes a vehicle attractive. More evidence of Fred Allen's
drinking behavior would have to be presented, along with current
medical research to suggest that he is an alcoholic. More
information is needed to show why cool water refreshes a person
better than iced tea, soda, or juice.
ASSUMPTIONS refer to things we believe
to be true:
- Large cars are safer.
- Alcoholics can never return to social drinking.
- People should drink 6 to 8 glasses of water everyday.
Assumptions may be basic truths which have been proven and
reproven so that they are universally accepted without reservation.
However, many assumptions are based on misinformation, obsolete
data, or cultural traditions. Like opinions, assumptions should
be tested. Students of critical thinking often refer to a
famous 1936 poll which confidently reported that Alf Landon
would beat Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election.
The pollsters called people listed in scores of telephone
directories. These random calls to men and women, blacks and
whites, young and old, city dwellers and farmers, liberals
and conservatives would, they believed, give them an accurate
view of the electorate. But, their basic assumption was flawed.
In the Depression, millions of people could not afford telephones.
These poorer voters, who tended to support Roosevelt's New
Deal, were never called. Despite the pollsters' hard work,
their research failed because of a false assumption.
Bias refers to a prevailing attitude, set of values, or
prejudices which influence the way people perceive new information.
Bias may be irrational, based on rumor, misinformation, fear,
A bunch of Muslims want to buy the old Methodist
Church and turn it into a mosque! We should organize the neighborhood
and protest to protect our children from terrorists and fanatics!
This kind of statement reveals prejudice and ignorance.
Similar statements were once made about Catholics and Jews.
Other forms of bias include sexism and homophobia.
Not all bias stems from racism or hatred. A bias may be based
on experience, knowledge, and research. A respected judge
may be biased against the testimony of jailhouse snitches.
Investigative reporters may be biased against official press
releases. Doctors may be biased against fad diets or herb
remedies. No one is free of such biases.
The key point is to recognize that exceptions do exist. People
should be aware of their biases and be willing to consider
and investigate new ideas and not dismiss them simply because
they seem unfamiliar or unconventional.
Groupthink is a term developed by Irving Janis to describe
lapses in critical thinking that occur in group dynamics.
Because companies, organizations, and research teams tend
to be headed by like-minded people, it is easy for groups
to make poor decisions. Members may be afraid to contradict
their leader, question statements made by friends, or appear
negative. As a result, groups fail to engage in critical thinking:
- Groups fail to consider alternatives. Focused on preconceived
ideas, they avoid discussing other possibilities -- or mention
them briefly, noting superficial defects in order to dismiss
- Groups fail to make contingency or fall-back plans. Because
they don't want to entertain thoughts of failure, they do
not outline a course of action to take if their plan does
not achieve its planned goals.
- Desiring to be positive, members of groups stifle criticism.
Not wishing to advance negative ideas, they will keep silent
-- often waiting for someone else to take action.
- Groups overestimate benefits and ignore or underestimate
- Groups may have a sense of superiority or invulnerability.
Believing themselves to be brilliant or morally right, members
will demonize or stereotype opponents, dismissing their
points of view.
- Groups may stifle, punish, or isolate dissenters in the
name of unity, assuring that opposing ideas will not get
a fair hearing.
Groups can overcome the problem of groupthink by recognizing
the need for constructive criticism and encouraging members
to voice opposing opinions. This can be done by having the
group seriously entertain opposing viewpoints:
- The discussion leader, after outlining the benefits of
his or her plan, may ask the group to volunteer objections.
- Groups may ask a dissenter to join or have a member play
the role of devil's advocate to advance opposing ideas.
- Groups should test ideas, products, and services before
large scale implementation.
When you work in groups or engage in collaborative writing,
make sure you avoid the problem of groupthink. Guard against
a collective avoidance of critical thinking.