Were I to apply today what we learned at VUB in the so-called historical-critical method, then remaining an informed citizen would become practically impossible. All the information that I receive, I have to fundamentally distrust. Our primary news sources are Facebook and Google, and they use algorithms based on our preferences, so we are always fed the information that confirms what we already believed. And what we don’t see doesn’t correspond to our profiles.
This is worrying. More than ever the rule holds: verify everything (repeatedly) and try to escape the algorithms.
The motto of Poincaré – Thinking must never submit itself – is so extremely correct, because once you examine any societal issue starting from an ideological point of view, you will come unstuck. The past few years I have refused to look through an ideological lens, e.g. at Brussels, at migration, at islam… No matter how unpleasant the truth is, you see it, you do not sugarcoat it if you want to truly think independently. Jean-Paul Sartre has covered up the reality of the Soviet Union – off course he knew about the gulag – but he looked through an ideological lens, and that is the opposite of critical thinking.
View on the entire history
When I ponder on Belgian politics then I know that I’ll read or hear other things from Dutch spoken sources as from French spoken ones, but I do want to hear both sides. The same holds for the conflict in the Middle- East. Traditionally on the left side – to which I still belong – most often the Palestinian side is emphasised, while I also want to hear about the less favourable things that happen in Palestina. I won’t try and portray Israel as a purely oppressive force, yet I try to get a grasp for its entire history. That is critical thinking.
The same goes for the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. You cannot keep bashing that man. Obviously part of that is justified because he is completely unstable, but you could also try to truly understand the entire situation. How can we explain that so many people voted for Trump? Or for Nigel Farage? If you do not try to understand it, you don’t make any true progress. So you keep looking beyond the information you are fed, you use different sources.
Reading profusely is one way, talking to the parties involved – to the extent that it is possible – also. The latter I don’t actually do enough. Only when you confront and interact, you obtain true information and augment your insights. That might be the crux of critical thinking. You also need an unbiased starting position. If not, you remain stuck in clichés and prejudice, and in a kind of authoritarian system. That might be reassuring yet it is diametrically opposed to critical thinking.