Do you suffer from information anxiety? Do you feel overwhelmed by the
amount of facts, data, statistics and news you're supposed to absorb? Are
you able to process all the information you're getting to be able to complete
school, to stay competitive in the job market and to make good decisions about
your personal life?
Critical thinking is a survival skill for today's fast-paced, knowledge-driven
world. The book Mastering the Information Age, by Michael J. McCarthy, includes
a chapter on how to think critically about information. This book takes a
13-step common-sense approach to dealing with personal and social issues.
We will apply these steps to a particular scenario -- that of extraterrestrial
activity in the Nevada desert! Here are some details:
On April 18, 1996, Governor Bob Miller of Nevada dedicated a stretch of
Highway 375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway. This road runs through a remote
desert area next to an air base so secret that its existence is denied by
the government. The site is known as Area 51 or Groom Lake. It is also recognized
by students of unidentified flying objects to be the landing site of many
Tourists have been flocking to the town of Rachel for years to explore
for themselves. There are conflicting stories about mysterious lights in the
night sky and unusual aircraft that have been observed by locals and visitors
alike. The base is very heavily guarded and numerous articles have appeared
about the strict security. Proponents, skeptics, humorists and journalists
of many specialties continue to voice their opinions and argue with each other
on the subject of what is really going on at the mysterious base in the desert.
Now, let's apply the 13-step critical thinking method to this news story.
Get All the Information You Need
Before you can decide on a course of action or make a judgment about a
controversial issue, you need to gather sufficient information to make sense
of the problem. You have to consider what you already know and what other
pieces of the puzzle are missing. Knowing how much information to gather can
also be difficult. How do you decide that you have enough?
In the case of UFO landings in the Nevada desert, consider what hard information
is available and think about what else you would like to know about it.
Check the Source of Information
Before you evaluate the worth of the information you've gathered, consider
your sources. Where did the information come from? How do you know? Has it
been verified? What kinds of authority, training, credentials or other qualifications
does the source of the information have? Does the source of the information
have a vested interest in the outcome of your decision?
There are hundreds of sources for UFO stories. What kinds of qualifications
should authorities speaking on this subject have? Who profits from publicizing
Be Flexible and Open-Minded
It is important to consider all sides of an issue. Consider whether you
are looking at a problem based on your belief systems or based on a variety
of information sources. Be willing to entertain new information even when
it contradicts long-held beliefs.
Is the existence of UFOs a suitable subject for scientific inquiry? Do
you have a set of beliefs about UFOs? Are you willing to entertain the possibility
that the contradictory view may be correct?
Be Sure You Understand
Young children are willing to ask hundreds of questions until they get
a satisfactory answer. Sometimes, as we get older, we become embarrassed about
admitting ignorance about a subject. In order to make good decisions you must
have a firm grasp of the subject matter. You have to keep asking questions,
investigating and clarifying, until you're sure you understand.
Do you understand why the Governor of Nevada named a road the Extraterrestrial
Highway? Why were some people opposed to his doing this? Who will benefit
from this designation?
When you get new pieces of information about a topic, you have to incorporate
them into what you already know. You have to recognize the connections between
new ideas and old concepts and see what aspects of the situation are changed
because of the new information.
Had you been aware of UFO literature before you read this story? Did your
understanding of UFO sightings change because of what you've found out? How
have these new bits of information modified what you knew already?
Life is filled with many, many choices. Even the same set of information
may carry with it the possibility of many different options for action. You
can use a variety of techniques to generate even more ideas. When you have
a sufficient number of alternatives, you can decide on a solution.
In the case of the UFO sightings in Nevada, you could ask, what are all
the possible explanations for the reported phenomena? Who may be presenting
what information for what kinds of uses?
Use available information to plan ahead. When you consider alternatives,
imagine the possible outcomes for each course of action. Examine the information
you've collected to discern patterns and evaluate whether these patterns are
predictors of the future.
If there are a lot of people interested in UFOs in Nevada, do you want
to go there as a tourist? Do you think there is so much activity around UFO
stories that this is something that you want to read about in the future?
Do you see opportunities for yourself? Is there a developing UFO industry?
Organize Your Thoughts
Are you able to make sense of what you know? It is important to keep organizing
your thoughts as you gather information. You have to figure out the relationships
among the bits of information you've collected. You have to examine what information
has high value and what is of little importance.
What is the probability that there is a secret airbase in Nevada? Does
this concern you in any way? Does the existence of an airbase have anything
to do with UFO stories? What information makes sense and what is questionable?
Use Writing and Mind Mapping to Help Clarify Your Thoughts
Writing down possible action plans, formulating "to do" lists or drawing
mind maps to show the relationships of various pieces of a problem can help
you figure out where you are in dealing with the problem. This is especially
true when you are faced with a goal-oriented task.
You may not consider the question of alien intelligences in the universe
and the possibilities of communicating with them to be of importance, so you
may not need to take any action to clarify your thoughts. If you're feeling
intrigued, interested or confused, you can use writing techniques to help
you devise further paths of exploration.
Read to Stimulate Your Thinking
Reading about a topic is a great way to gather information. Sometimes you
reach a block in your ability to absorb anything more on a subject or coming
to a satisfactory conclusion about it. In such cases it can be helpful to
read about totally unrelated subjects that are of interest to you to stimulate
your thinking. Consciously ignoring a problem sometimes lets your unconscious
deal with the areas where you feel blocked.
The exploration of space and the possibility of discovering and communicating
with aliens from other worlds has been a subject of interest not only for
scientists and UFO believers but also for people in all walks of life. The
subject has been covered objectively and in fiction and there is lots of material
to support multiple points of view on these topics.
Analyze and Learn from Setbacks
One of the key elements of critical thinking is to learn from all experiences,
both positive and negative. Analyzing failures can give you invaluable lessons
and insights for future action.
All science and exploration is filled with experiments that don't pan out,
theories that are proved incorrect and evidence that is later overthrown.
Space exploration and the belief in UFOs are driven by humanity's need to
know whether we are unique in the universe. Much more evidence is needed before
we come to a certain conclusion.
Tune In to Your Intuition and Inner Knowing
Information gathering, data analysis and step-by-step problem solving are
all required for critical thinking. All of the information you've collected
and processed can sometimes be reinterpreted through new insights brought
by intuition. Not all critical thinking is rational.
Many of the people writing about UFOs and extraterrestrials testify to
their existence based not on scientific observation but rather on belief or
intuition. When you choose to make a decision based on intuition, it is important
to be able to adapt the basis for your decision.
Completing these steps in the critical thinking process takes time. It
is important to devote the necessary time in order to be able to make effective
The Extraterrestrial Highway celebrates a cultural phenomenon. The truth
about what is happening in the Nevada desert has not been fully explored and
illuminated. You have to draw your own conclusions about how satisfied you
are with current explanations.