Critical thinking is essential, especially around emotionally-charged subjects like Gaza Sophia Schultz The Skeptic

“You should attack every Jew possible in all the world and kill them,” said Islamist ruler Fathi Hamad. “I would encourage the other side to not so lightly throw around the idea of innocent Palestinian civilians as frequently said. I don’t think we would so lightly throw around the term innocent Nazi civilians during World War II. There’s not this far stretch to say there are very few innocent Palestinian civilians,” said US Representative Brian Jefferey Mast. People who do not question the information they encounter or are victims of misinformation genuinely believe this.

These quotes underscore the significance of addressing misinformation and stereotypes in our quest for understanding and resolution. The journey toward becoming a better critical thinker is about personal growth and promoting a more informed and empathetic society.

Such unchecked assumptions and stereotypes, like the harmful beliefs that we should kill all Jewish people or that all Palestinians are not innocent, thrive in environments where misinformation is rampant and critical thinking is scarce. These stereotypes not only oversimplify complex situations but also fuel animosity and misunderstanding. This danger becomes especially clear when we consider how we consume and interpret news about highly charged topics, such as conflicts in the Middle East.

When I woke up one morning, I scrolled through social media as I usually do, and came across a ton of stories on an apparent bombing of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. My first reaction was to be sad, but then I started asking myself questions about the situation. I wanted to know what had happened and who did this. Some sources blamed the Israeli government and their airstrike, and others blamed it on a rocket malfunction from the Hamas terrorist group. More and more questions came to me, and I kept searching for answers, but no source seemed reasonable.

Reaching an evidence-based conclusion was difficult, considering the explosion of misinformation on social media and news outlets. It seems to be inevitable to fall victim to it. I realised the importance of discovering the truth, especially for sensitive matters, where your opinion or thoughts can have an incredibly impactful effect on others.

I remember feeling afraid the first time I ever visited my great aunt in Palestine, who works and lives as a humanitarian there. After all the American news I was exposed to, I genuinely thought it would be an extremely dangerous place to go. However, after meeting the people and gaining a better understanding of what has been going on in Palestine, I was shocked at how little I had known and, looking back, how my view was clouded by misinformation. Today, I can acknowledge that as a consequence of my personal experience and family ties in Palestine, I have a bias on the conflict going on today, but just because I have a bias does not mean I should only follow pieces of information that satisfy my sentiment. There are always two sides to a story, whether we like it or not, and it is essential to acknowledge that and act accordingly.

I was keen to show how anybody can improve their critical thinking skills, regardless of their prior biases and personal feelings, so I spoke to Matthew John Hammerton, a philosopher with an interest in critical thinking. He highlighted three key aspects: first, the critical role of accurate reasoning, enabling me to differentiate valid arguments from fallacies amid complex narratives; second, the need to cultivate intellectual virtues like humility, skepticism, and curiosity, to help me approach this profoundly divisive issue with an open mind; and finally, the awareness of strategies to address cognitive biases, ensuring that I can navigate the complexities of this conflict with a discerning perspective. These principles have been invaluable as I strive to understand this enduring and multifaceted issue better.

After reading what felt like thousands of news reports, I wondered whether the specific arguments I was reading were valid. Eventually, I became aware that the arguments I was reading could be classified into what Hammerton describes as “deductive reasoning” and “inductive reasoning.”

In simple terms, deductive reasoning boils down to two essential things: valid inferences and invalid inferences. A valid inference is when the argument is like a lock with a perfectly-fitting key: if the argument is valid, the premises (the information you start with) guarantee that the conclusion (the final point you are making) is accurate. It is like a foolproof plan – if the premises are true, the conclusion must be proper, too.

On the other hand, an invalid inference means that the guarantee is not there. Even if the premises strongly suggest the conclusion or make it likely, they do not guarantee it. In essence, it is an all-or-nothing game when dealing with deductive reasoning – an argument either 100% guarantees the conclusion, or it does not.

Deductive reasoning can uncover inconsistencies and contradictions within news stories. If an argument or claim does not follow logically from its premises, it may indicate a potential problem with the information presented.

Using deductive reasoning to analyse the bombing at Hospital Al-Ahli, we can start with the premise that any act of violence that results in the loss of innocent lives is a tragedy. Then, we have the fact that the bombing at Hospital Al-Ahli caused the loss of innocent lives. Therefore, the bombing at Hospital Al-Ahli is unquestionably a tragedy.

On the other hand, inductive reasoning operates differently, as it involves drawing likely, but not necessarily guaranteed, conclusions based on available evidence, which introduces an element of uncertainty in the context of this complex conflict. An inductive inference may not offer a 100% guarantee, but its conclusion is very likely. Even if an inference seems incredibly likely based on recorded data, there remains a slight chance, however minuscule, that the conclusion may not hold.

So, when applying inductive reasoning to the complexity of conflicts like the Israel-Palestine issue, it is vital to understand that the strength of arguments varies. Some may provide robust reasons that strongly support a particular viewpoint, while others, despite being quite convincing, retain a hint of uncertainty. Embracing this understanding can lead to more nuanced and informed discussions as we assess the strength of evidence and the probability of various conclusions.

We can see the intricacies of inductive reasoning in the following example: Pro-Israel news outlets argue that the hospital blast resulted from a malfunctioning Hamas rocket. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) conducted a thorough analysis, examining more than a dozen videos from the moments before, during, and after the hospital explosion, in addition to satellite imagery and photos. The CBS’s analysis concluded that the rocket, which broke up in the air, was fired from within Palestinian territory. The balance of evidence, according to CBS’s analysis, points toward a malfunctioning of a Palestinian militant’s rocket as the probable cause.

In contrast, the pro-Palestine perspective asserts that the hospital’s destruction was the result of an Israeli airstrike. Al Jazeera’s investigation supported this viewpoint by identifying the exact moment of the attack through video analysis. The aftermath paints a picture of a tragic event, labelling it a massacre, with the hospital engulfed in flames and numerous lives lost. This perspective emphasises the humanitarian crisis faced by Palestinians in Gaza amid continued bombardment and restrictions on aid.

Inductive reasoning, as highlighted by these two differing viewpoints, allows the formation of either conclusion, based on the aspects of the available evidence. However, inductive reasoning cannot conclude with 100% certainty what happened in this case. These examples demonstrate the importance of being logical and critical, as well as considering the weight of evidence before jumping to definitive conclusions in situations of complex conflict.

The conscious effort to try to discern between valid and invalid arguments and to avoid logical fallacies is a cornerstone of being a skilled critical thinker. In the context of the examples provided, we can identify patterns of reasoning that constitute solid and valid arguments. Conversely, we can recognise patterns of reasoning that exemplify flawed reasoning, commonly called fallacies.

Another of the fundamental aspects of critical thinking lies in how we formally reason. Do we employ solid and valid inferences in our arguments, or do we succumb to common fallacies? This element of critical thinking, where we actively assess the soundness of our reasoning, enables us to engage in more robust and well-founded discussions, particularly when navigating contentious issues such as the complex Israel-Palestine conflict.

In trying to be consciously aware of the role of inductive and deductive reasoning amid the intricate web of news and information, I began to see a shift in how I approached the information I encountered, and began to appreciate the value of intellectual humility. I realised there were limitations to what I knew, and that the world was far more complex than I had initially assumed, leading me to try to be more open-minded and willing to entertain diverse viewpoints and ideas.

I initially believed the Israeli government was responsible for the bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital, but I reflected on the limitations of my knowledge. After extensive research from both points of view, I find myself in a position of uncertainty regarding what really happened to Al-Ahli Hospital. Rather than hastily adopting a definitive stance, I embrace the humility, and acknowledge that there is much I still do not know and may never know. I prioritise the pursuit of truth over unwarranted certainty, recognising that the situation’s complexities demand an ongoing commitment to understanding.

Slowly but steadily, I have come to embrace the power of positive skepticism, of asking questions and not accepting things at face value. I understood that doubting claims was essential, not out of contrariness, but in a genuine pursuit of truth. I became eager to explore, to dig deeper into issues, and to look for underlying truths. It was not sufficient to accept things as they appeared; I yearned to uncover the bigger picture.

When encountering divergent news stories, I actively engage with my Israeli and Palestinian contacts, seeking their perspectives to complement my understanding. Through these conversations, I gain nuanced insights and additional details, recognising that the more information I gather, the better equipped I am to form my evidence-based conclusions, with minimal interference from my own biases. While these perspectives may not offer a complete picture, they contribute valuable facets to my evolving comprehension of the complex Israel-Palestine conflict.

Diligence became an essential companion on this journey. I recognised the value of putting in effort, being attentive to detail, and avoiding shortcuts. I realised that taking the time to think critically paid off in the long run.

Through this journey, I evolved from readily accepting information from various sources, to someone who continually sought to improve and refine their understanding. These intellectual virtues were not innate, but had to be cultivated and nurtured over time. Amidst this transformation in my approach to information and critical thinking, one more facet often hovers in the background – cognitive biases. Some might relate these biases to virtues and vices, but they are distinct. Intellectual virtues are cultivated dispositions consciously developed over time. I control them, and they guide my thinking and decision-making. Cognitive biases, on the other hand, tend to be hidden in the depths of our subconscious. They operate instinctively, influencing how I perceive and process information without realising it. These biases can lead me to interpret facts, data, and arguments in a skewed way, all without my conscious awareness.

As I continue navigating the vast sea of information, I understand that identifying and mitigating these cognitive biases is challenging. It requires self-awareness and a commitment to critically examining my thought processes, something I am continuously working on. I overcame my cognitive biases by refraining from hastily assigning blame to one side or another based on a single source. Instead, I tried for a more comprehensive approach – exploring actions from both perspectives, reading diverse articles, talking to experts, and then formulating a tentative conclusion. To mitigate cognitive bias, I prioritise gaining a reasonable, objective understanding of a situation before being exposed to emotionally charged content, preventing undue influence on my judgement.

Becoming a more critical thinker is demanding and challenging, as you must constantly question all information you encounter, scrutinising it with diligence. This journey, which I am still on, was mentally draining, because I had to go against my personal beliefs and understandings of situations I was sure were true. The only way to thoroughly understand the truth is by trying to evaluate how strong or weak specific arguments are, valuing curiosity and skepticism, and – importantly – being aware of our own biases.

It’s important to note that for many aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, we may never be able to make firm and objective conclusions due to the lack of information, and that is something we must accept. However, we can use what information we do have, to draw reasonable conclusions, which may be the closest to the truth. To this day, I do not know who bombed the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, because there is a lack of evidence on which to make a thorough conclusion. However, I know that I will continue searching for an answer, and we should continue to do so for all that matters, striving for a deeper understanding of our complex world.

If there is one takeaway from my experience, it is the importance of questioning everything, including our deepest convictions. Ultimately, our commitment to uncovering truth, no matter how challenging, defines our ability to navigate the complexities of our world.

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If we want to better understand what’s going on in situations like the Israeli-Gaza conflict, we need to be aware of our biases, and how to mitigate their impact
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