Drilling down: the first step in critical thinking

Earlier this week, we raised the subject of critical thinking and why it’s important. To marketing, to advertising, to civic life, and to communication generally. Today, we’re drilling deeper. From overview to details — not just what it is, but some of the key components. (Again, disclosure: I’ll be drawing on content written a few years ago, but the principles still hold.)

Excuse me, I’d just like to ask a question … 

Critical thinking is about many things, but it starts with not just accepting everything we read or hear. In a word: skepticism. Ideally, we evaluate everything we take in: we ask whether it makes sense, what the evidence for it is, whether and to what extent it holds up under examination, how well it stacks up against other points of view.

There’s a lot of information coming at us, necessarily, and a lot of things competing for our attention. How we sift through it all, how we decide what’s relevant and worth our attention, how we decide on relative validity and importance – all these are functions of our critical thinking skills. Filtering is part of that process as well. And it’s probably the most important factor in how we decide whether something is authentic or not.

(Again, let’s define our terms at the outset. I’ll discuss three of the most elemental terms below, but let’s also talk about narratives. A narrative is a series of consistent statements or implicit cues designed to lead an audience toward a certain conclusion or mindset. And the secret to establishing a narrative depends on messaging, and on repeating that message, with as many variations as necessary. If the messaging is authentic, the narrative will be as well; conversely, if the messaging doesn’t ring true, the narrative will seem manufactured.)

As is often the case, we can start by drilling down: by challenging the discourse, by looking critically at the underlying assumptions, and by changing the framing. All of these influence the stories we tell and the way they’re heard. Let’s look at each of them in turn.


At its most basic, discourse refers to conversation, to the way we talk to one another, to the words we use. Discourse can take many forms, and it can be characterized in any number of ways. It can be civil. It can be logical. It can be dispassionate. It can be emotionally loaded. And it can be visceral. One could argue, for instance, that the current state of public discourse in the United States is profoundly toxic, thanks to you-know-who. Whatever way you like, the state of discourse determines messaging and narrative, and that’s true regardless of whether the subject is marketing, advertising, and / or civic affairs.

And yes, the way things are said is important, but so is the way they’re worded. Word choice shapes the stories we tell, and the way those stories are heard. When we describe someone as “slim” or “svelte,” we’re telling one story. But if we say “skinny” or “scrawny,” we’re telling a whole different story. The words may have similar meanings, but the connotations are entirely different. Words aren’t value-neutral. The words we choose establish certain narratives. They say a lot about the choices we’re making before we even open our mouths. That affects the way we’re heard, shapes the discourse, and has a large effect on how our product is perceived.


Assumptions form the basis of an argument. They’re generally agreed upon, and usually they’re implicit; because of that, they’re not part of the discussion. They’re just there. The choices we make long before we open our mouths? Those are part of the underlying assumptions.

This plays out in marketing. Here’s this wonderful product. It’s got this great feature. That feature provides this advantage. That advantage brings this benefit. Underlying assumptions: you have a problem, and that problem can only be solved by this product. That’s why you need it.

But do you? One of the keys to approaching it critically is to tease out the underlying assumptions and evaluate them dispassionately. Do you really need it? Is what you’re currently doing really so inadequate that you need to “upgrade?” Or are you just being led to believe that you need to upgrade? If the underlying assumptions don’t hold up, then neither does the argument built on them.

This is why drilling down and exposing implicit assumptions is another component of critical thinking. Whenever someone’s trying to push a particular narrative, it’s useful to examine the factual underpinnings of that narrative — and if the facts don’t bear up under examination, then neither does the narrative based on them.

One of my (least) favourite examples is the way complex issues are reduced to simple and easily digestible terms. Critical thinking means being on guard for that. One of the most recognizable constructs, in that regard, is the straw person of “facts versus ideology.”

There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with ideological viewpoints per se. Ideologies arise precisely because they provide a tool for the reduction of complexities — or if not reduction, then a lens through which those complexities can be viewed, placed in context, and made sense of.

The chief concern in dealing with ideological narratives is ensuring that people can recognize them for what they are — because as much as we would wish otherwise, people aren’t always straightforward about their biases. Frequently, they’re not even aware of them. That’s why ferreting out underlying assumptions is so important.


How we approach issues and ideas is determined, in large part, by the way they’re framed. It’s not just about how questions are asked, but whether they’re asked at all. We can have arguments about running deficits all day, but perhaps we might also ask whether deficit reduction should be pursued at the expense of maintaining public infrastructure or a social safety net.

But how often is the discussion framed that way? Again, it cuts across several contexts —  public policy, marketing, business strategy, and the like. We can talk about business expenses and pared-back benefits and defined-benefit pensions all day, and we can listen to lectures about them no longer being sustainable in the face of the need to be “competitive,” but do we ever take a moment to step back and ask what the competition’s about? Are we ever encouraged to do so, or is someone pushing a particular framing? And is it possible that that framing gets repeated over and over again because we’re being encouraged to buy into a particular narrative?

This dynamic plays out in private-sector business and marketing decisions. A couple of weeks ago, my friend Mathew Ingram discussed the problems stemming from Facebook’s decision to take the human factor out of what it promotes as “news.” By using algorithms rather than human editors to rank the “news” stories it serves, FaceBorg’s opened the door for a lot of garbage to go shooting to the top of its “Trending News” section. True, you don’t have to pay algorithms, but when you fail to distinguish worthwhile content from crap, you lose credibility and authority. (This plays into Facebook’s consistent insistence that it’s not a news source, but that’s a whole other essay in itself.)

The company claims that it cares about the fake news problem, but if it’s not a media outlet then why should it? If a story is being shared a lot and clicked on a lot or is generating a lot of comments, what difference does it make to Facebook whether it’s fake or not?

Here’s where the question of framing arises: is it clicky, or is it credible? Do we want to be seen as authoritative, or do we simply want to maximize traffic? Can’t always have both. And when you take human editorial judgment out of the mix, you remove one of the most important safety measures.

This isn’t the beginning and the end of critical thinking, of course. Critical thought isn’t about agreeing or disagreeing. It’s about being able to follow a line of reasoning. It’s about being able to see shades of meaning, to understand that things are rarely black and white. It’s about the ability to hold more than one idea simultaneously, and seeing merit in positions that contradict one another. In sum, it’s about being willing to embrace complexity.

We’ll return to the question of narratives shortly.


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