EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Critical Thinking and Critiquing Information Sources


Critical Thinking

There has never been a time in human history where such a massive quantity of information is readily available to most people, but the ease with which information can be shared has led to an abundance of questionable information. As the adage goes, "You can always find someone that agrees with you on the Internet" (okay, maybe that's not an actual adage, but you have to admit it is difficult to disagree with it.) At any rate, enter critical thinking, an essential skill to have in our modern information-overloaded world.

Feel free to read through The Foundation for Critical Thinking's definition of critical thinking (here). The summary is as follows:

  1. Critical thinking requires a skilled evaluation of information using all manner of analytical and observational tools at your disposal. Regardless of what you are analyzing, you should use the same or similar set of skills. Critical thinking transcends the subject material.
  2. Critical thinking requires self-evaluation of what you know and do not know, your assumptions, the scientific basis of the problem at hand, and an analysis of the results. One aspect of this is looking at issues from viewpoints different than your own, to the extent possible.
  3. Critical thinking requires more than just "knowing things" and having information processing skills. You must apply this knowledge and these skills, and accept the results, whether they are the results you had hoped for/expected or not.
  4. If you are seeking selfish (subjective) motives, you may be able to think critically, but the results will usually be flawed. You must approach the issue with "intellectual integrity," which really refers to the above three points (thorough analysis and acceptance of the results).
  5. No one knows everything, and everyone is subject to bias by virtue of being limited in knowledge and experience. You can be an extremely skilled critical thinker but are limited by your knowledge and experience of the topic at hand. The best critical analysis may arrive at an incorrect conclusion due to this. The flip side of this is that the more you know about, experience, and objectively analyze a piece or type of information, the more likely you are to arrive at a sound conclusion. As stated in the article: "The development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor."

They also provide a good approach to critical thinking:

A well cultivated critical thinker:
  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Credit: The Foundation for Critical Thinking

I am asking you to apply these principles as much as possible. Keep an open mind, and try to analyze information using evidence, logic, reason, and with an eye on alternative viewpoints. Try to recognize the limitations of your knowledge, and attempt to be self-critical with regards to biases and limited worldviews that you have. Embrace discussion with others, and try to approach discussions with the intent of learning from each other to come to a reasonable conclusion, not to convince the other person that you are correct.

Critiquing Information Sources

In addition to critical thinking, assessing the quality of sources of information is an important part of determining whether or not the information is reliable. Though there is no universal method of doing this, with some practice (and knowledge) you can usually determine source validity with relative confidence.

Optional Reading

  • "Harvard Guide to Using Sources." Feel free to read through the entire webpage, but the key tabs for our purposes are "Questions to Ask About All Sources," "Evaluating Journal Articles," and "Evaluating Web Sources." 

Here are some general and additional tips for analyzing sources:

  • Always consider the author's credentials. This is not the only thing to look at, but it is an important element. All else being equal, someone who has spent many years analyzing a subject or has advanced training is more likely to be reliable than someone with thin credentials.
  • Be careful when using a source that is expressly opinion-based, e.g., in the Opinion pages of the newspaper (hard copy or online). An opinion is not necessarily wrong - there are certainly such things as "well-informed" opinions - but you should not use this as an academic reference. Opinions from people you trust are a great way to learn things, but you should not use them as unvarnished truth. Always seek to corroborate the information provided.
  • As indicated by the Harvard articles, I strongly suggest corroborating factual information presented in the article elsewhere (in general, not just for opinions).
  • As indicated in a previous lesson, peer-reviewed journals are generally the most reliable information sources. When not peer-reviewed, consider where the factual information came from. Often, non-peer reviewed articles use data from peer-reviewed sources. You should always try to find the original material if possible.
  • Related to the previous point, always consider where the author got their information from (check their sources!). 
  • Currency is important for some sources (especially for things like technology), but for others, it is less important (e.g., historical events, foundational theories). Use your best judgment.
  • If you don't know already, do some research on the author of the article. Use Google to your advantage!  You can search "<author or organization's name> bias" or "is <name> biased," etc. I strongly suggest searching for other articles/websites published by the author/organization. Oftentimes, you can click on the author's name on the website and it will link you to other articles written by them. Scan through them and see if a consistent bias (or at least worldview) is presented. It will often become obvious if someone holds a certain political/social viewpoint.
  • The same advice as the previous point goes for the site owner - look through articles published on the website, and try to figure out if a one-sided viewpoint is presented. All that said, keep in mind that just because someone holds a certain worldview does not mean that the information is unusable (complicated, I know!). There are many reliable information sources (people and organizations) that hold a certain worldview. You should consider the other aspects of the information, particularly the objectivity. Also, keep a lookout for consistently extreme viewpoints.
  • Do NOT take a website's self-description as proof of its objectivity. I wish it were that easy!  Even the most biased of sources want you to believe that they are unbiased.
  • Just because a website is a ".org" and not a ".com" does not mean it is unbiased. In fact, the type of organization is pretty meaningless. There are a lot of biased non-profits out there.

When analyzing sources in this course, I'll ask you to do the following things:

  1. The most reliable type of information is taken directly from a peer-reviewed article. If you pull your information directly from such an article, you just need to state the journal and the author, then provide some information about the author, per the next step.
  2. Analyze the author's credentials. Are they an authority on the subject? Do they have years of experience and/or an advanced degree in the topic? Are they a well-respected writer? Have they won journalism, academic, etc., awards? 
  3. Consider the objectivity of the way the information is presented. Is it matter-of-fact/objective or does it use sensational/emotional language? Does the author appear to inject opinion and/or use language that tries to get an emotional response?
  4. Consider the objectivity of the site the information is on. Investigate other articles on the website to see if there appears to be an agenda.
  5. Reliability. Can you find other reliable sources that have the same information? Corroborate the information.

Overall, understanding the reliability of sources gets easier with time. The keys are a) to keep reading and paying attention to other information sources, b) to constantly investigate the reliability of sources, and most importantly c) learn as much as you can! The more you do this, the more you will develop a "bias detector," so to speak.