Critical Thinking: A Mindfulness Skill

By: Christopher Brennan

“Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.” – Christopher Hitchens

The ability to think critically, to examine ideas, to separate the known from what we believe we know, and to draw conclusions that match reality may be the most important quality a person can cultivate. If you lack this capacity, or at this stage in your life the desire to acquire it, then you will find yourself marching in step with someone else’s ideas. We can learn from others, we must learn from others. However we also need to make sure that what we are learning is valid. Tradition is a powerful factor in the fire service, but that doesn’t mean that all of our traditional views are rooted in valid information.

Among the facts of life is that children are predisposed to believe their parents, and other adults. This is a highly useful trait when it comes to keeping kids safe as they grow and learn. I think it is safe to say that many of you reading this wouldn’t have lived this long if you had not be predisposed to listen to the adults around you. When we enter the fire service in many ways we are entering the second childhood of an apprenticeship. We are confronted with a wealth of information and expectations that are completely new to us, and we inevitable trust those around us to instruct us well.
We cannot ignore the fact though that all of us at times have repeated, spread, or held an idea that later turned out to be just plain wrong. Among the Mindfulness skills we seek to cultivate is the ability to catch ourselves and others before we disseminate bad information that can cause us injury.

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.” – Carl Sagan

What is critical thinking? I like the definition that critical thinking is, “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” What does this mean? Let’s break it down into pieces.

First, to be disciplined in our thinking means that we do not allow our speculation to wander around, we think about a topic in a systematic way. Second, rational thinking is when we allow logic and the facts steer our thinking. Now, I am a huge proponent of allowing your intuition (your gut feelings) to play a role in guiding you, but I will caution you: if you allow your feelings to steer your thoughts and you are not suitably aware of what those emotions are telling you and why, you may reach a conclusion about an idea that has no basis in reality. Third, we must be open-minded. I cannot say this in any more simple way: question everything. Look for evidence that disagrees with what you think. It is very easy for us to look for information that supports what we believe, what we want to be true, yet ignore facts that contradict our viewpoint. This is called confirmation bias. Finally our thinking should be informed by evidence. What is evidence? Our dictionary reference tell us that the legal system considers evidence to be, “data presented to a court or jury in proof of the facts in issue and which may include the testimony of witnesses, records, documents, or objects.” I like to think of evidence as things that we can prove through experimentation, through experience (when we have controlled for variables), or through research.

Many times in your life you will come across “facts” that end up being incorrect. This is where the open mindedness becomes critical; if you are confronted with rational evidence that was obtained in a disciplined way and it contradicts what you already believe to be true, you must keep an open mind and explore it. You don’t need to jump ship and believe the new information just because it seems as though its better, you need to examine it, evaluate how the author or scientist came to his or her conclusion and see how it fits with what you have already learned. An open mind is perhaps on of the most challenging things to maintain when we try to be critical thinkers. The quote from Carl Sagan at the top of this section reminds us, this is no easy task. To hold two or more seemingly contrary ideas in mind and evaluate them to ascertain where the truth lies is a difficult task. It takes practice, discipline, and the understanding that what is objectively true often lies somewhere between the ideas.
Following the lead of a biologist and scholar whose work I have learned much from, Professor Richard Dawkins, I would like to contrast a myth of the creation of the universe with what we know to be true. In this case I would like to take a creation myth of the Quiché tribe of Guatemala. I’ve read and heard this story in a few different ways, and I will tell it to you in my own way.

In the beginning there was nothing except for Tepeu and the feathered serpent, Gucumatz. They sat together and anything they though came into being. They thought the sun and the moon, the earth and the planets, they thought the land and the sea, and the animals and the fishes. They thought men of clay, but these creations fell apart when they thought of rain. So the gods sent a flood to wipe out the clay beings. Then with the help of the mountain lion, the raven, and the coyote they thought of a pair of men and a pair of women. These people pleased the gods and became the parents of all Quiché.

Primitive people who did not have the benefit of the wealth of science we now know to be factual tried to understand how and why they came into being. It is human nature to use our large brains to explore why, how, and what our world is all about. In the absence of evidence we make up stories that serve to explain what we believe to be the case. This is perfectly normal. What we must realize though is that as our access to facts increases we must remain open to adjusting what we believe to be true.

For those of us who are watching the 21st Century of Firefighting unfold before us it is using our critical thinking skills to understand how our traditional operations and the continual emerging science fit together that is essential. We mustn’t just accept the next new idea as the right idea, nor can we discard new information just because it doesn’t line up with previously held beliefs. Be mindful of this.

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