Critical thinking can save your life, especially during a pandemic of viruses, disinformation and misinformation. Laying aside all the academic jargon, critical thinking is the rational assessment of a claim in order to determine whether you should accept a claim as true, reject it as false or suspend judgment about the claim. People often forget that they have the option to suspend judgment—in a time of misinformation and disinformation this can sometimes be the best option.
Suppose that you see a post on Facebook claiming that drinking alcohol will reduce your chances of getting sick, you see a tweet about how gargling with bleach can kill the virus, or you hear President Trump extoling the virtues of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus. How can you rationally assess these claims if you are not a medical expert? Fortunately, critical thinking can help you here, even if you got most of your medical knowledge from watching Grey’s Anatomy.
When you get a claim that is worth assessing, the first step is to run it against your own observations and see if it matches them. If it does not, then this is a mark against it. If it does, that is a plus. Take the bleach claim as an example. If you go look at a bottle of bleach you will observe that it has clear safety warnings. While it will probably kill viruses it contacts, the warning label also indicates that it will also hurt you. Hence, the rational assessment of the claim that gargling bleach is a good way to protect yourself against the virus will reveal that this is not true. While your own observations are a good check on claims, they are obviously not infallible—so it is wise to critically consider their reliability. But do not gargle with bleach.
The second step, which usually happens automatically, is to test the claim against your background information. Your background information is all the stuff you have learned over the years. When you get a claim worth testing, you match it up against your background information to get a rough assessment of its initial plausibility—how likely it seems to be true on first consideration. This initial plausibility can obviously be adjusted as you investigate more. As an example, consider the claim about alcohol’s effect on the virus. On the one hand, you probably learned that alcohol can be used to sterilize things—so that raises the plausibility of the claim. But you probably have not heard of people protecting themselves successfully from the flu or cold (which are also caused by viruses) by drinking alcohol. Also, you probably have in your background information the fact that the alcohol used to sterilize things is poisonous and that the alcohol your can safely drink is not used in this manner. So, the rational thing to do would be to take the claim about alcohol to be probably false.
One obvious problem here is that everyone’s background information is chock full of false beliefs. From my own experience, I know that I have believed many false things—so I infer I still believe false things. I just do not know which ones are false—if I did, I would stop believing them. Because of our fallibility, this method has a serious flaw: you could be accepting or rejecting a claim because of a false belief in your background information. This is why it is a good idea to assess your beliefs and weed out the bad ones—you can only be rationally confident of your assessment of a claim to the degree that you can be rationally confident that the background information you are using is correct. The more you know, the better you will be at making such assessments—so learning is a good thing.
While having false beliefs can cause errors in assessing claims, people are also impacted by biases and fallacies. Since there is a multitude of both, I will only briefly discuss a few that are especially relevant during this pandemic. People tend to be biased in favor of their group, be it their religion, political party or sports team. This leads people to tend to believe claims made by members of their group, which fuels the group think fallacy: believing that a claim is true because someone in your group made the claim and you are proud of your group. This can also be seen as a version of the appeal to belief fallacy in which one believes that a claim is true because their group believes that it is true. While the virus kills across party lines, the pandemic has become politicized. Because of this, people who have strong partisan feelings will tend to believe what their side says and disbelieve the other side—but this is bad logic. As such, making rational assessments in the pandemic (or anytime) requires taking the effort to set aside such biases and consider the claim as objectively as possible. This is a hard thing for some people to do, but your life depends on it in this time of misinformation and disinformation.
Since pandemics are terrifying and people want to have hope, it is also important to be on guard against the poor logic of appeal to fear/scare tactics and wishful thinking. An appeal to fear occurs when a person accepts a claim as true because of fear rather than having actual evidence or reasons to do so. Something that provides good reasons can be scary—but if the only “reason” to accept a claim is fear, then the fallacy is committed. To illustrate, the virus is scary because it can kill you. This does give you a good reason to take precautions against it—so reasoning that because it is deadly, you should be careful would not be an error. But if someone believes that bleach will protect them because they have been scared into accepting this, then they are a victim of the fallacy (and bleach). In addition to fear, there is also hope.
Wishful thinking is a classic fallacy in which a person believes a claim because they want it to be true (or reject a claim because they want it to be false). Since there is currently no vaccine or cure for the virus, it is natural for people to engage in wishful thinking—to believe claims simply because they want them to be true. For example, a person might think that they will not get sick from the virus out of wishful thinking—which can be very dangerous to themselves and others. As another example, a person might believe that drinking alcohol will protect them from the virus because they want it to be true; but this is not true. The defense against wishful thinking is not to give up hope, but to not let false hope make you believe things without evidence. This can be hard to do—these are difficult times and objectively considering claims can lead to disappointment. But wishful thinking can get you and others killed—so keep hold of hope, but do not let false hope blind you. In the next essay, I will discuss how to assess experts and alleged experts.