I was recently looking at a picture on a photography site. The picture was nowhere near as intriguing to me as the statement that accompanied it:

“Ever since my first encounters with many of the great photographers who inspired me, I became aware of the value of turning my attention away from the main event. So often, the temptation is to look where everyone else is looking. But, time after time, I have chosen to observe what’s going on by looking in the other direction – before, or after, or at the edges of the main attraction. There, I find the textures, moods, atmosphere, and emotion that enable me to arrive at a more profound level of feeling.”

To me, this describes exactly what critical thinking is really all about. When I trace back to when I became politically aware – and conservative – it all began in high school. I remember sitting at the lunch table with two friends who used to talk about how awful Ronald Reagan was. This was during the Iran-Contra scandal.

I’m not going to cover the details of that here, but I remember thinking that they had all these facts that led them to believe that he was an evil and horrible man. The only conclusion I kept coming back to was my belief that if he was truly evil, he couldn’t have been elected.

And if he somehow turned evil, or did an evil thing, the entire country is smart enough that they would figure it out quickly.

But that wasn’t the case. Much of the country still supported him, and he was obviously elected by a wide margin. It all just seemed too easy. There had to be another side of the story. So I sought it out.

I started by watching the news, and I was fascinated to get a version of the story that I was hearing at the lunch table – only without the venom. It was the same facts, minus the opinion.

After some looking, I ended up at the editorial section of the Wall Street Journal. There I found the counter arguments I was seeking.

What most impressed me about what I found was that they not only presented the other side of the story, but they took on – nearly point for point – all of the facts I was hearing at the lunch table.

When I presented the counter arguments the next day at lunch, the first response was “where did you hear that?” After telling them my source – the Wall Street Journal- they pounced on it saying that it’s a newspaper for wealthy business people who have a stake in Reagan’s presidency, so of course they’re going to use lies and manipulate facts for their gain.

My point is not who was right about Reagan or the Iran Contra Affair. My point is that if you look into any issue, you will find that both sides have their arguments and supporting facts. They always do.

It’s up to you to seek and then truly consider both sides and decide what you believe. This is not always easy. But I can tell you how I’ve come to the conclusion that the conservative side is usually correct.

In matters of the environment, much of the argument that climate change is happening – it’s man-made, and we must do something about it – comes from predictions of the future. These predictions are presented as facts. In 10 years, 30% of the world’s population will be starving because of global warming. This is presented as a fact.

But there’s no such thing as a fact about the future. Yesterday happened. That’s a fact. Tomorrow will happen. That’s not a fact.

When you point out that predictions are not facts, the argument shifts to “but all indications point to this, and are you willing to risk it?” Given the accuracy of the environmental movement’s predictions thus far – yes, I’m willing to risk it.

Predictions that come from liberalism usually have this one thing in common – they’re based on static information that does not account for the dynamic elements.

With the environmental movement, you only hear predictions based on current emissions, business practices and personal behavior.

But it is inarguable that our society has made many massive changes that are supposed to be alleviating the human affect on the earth. We recycle, we bike to work, we drive Priuses, we have greater restrictions on business and pollution, we separate our garbage, we’ve all but done away with Styrofoam, etc. And we’ve been moving toward or doing these things for more than a decade now.

Where’s the progress? Where’s the acknowledgement of progress? When do we know when we’ve done enough? How far do we have to go? If you listen to the environmental movement, you will seldom, if ever, hear any acknowledgement of how far we’ve come. You will only continue to hear how horrible we are and how much damage we’ve done.

When you hear climate predictions, they’re based on current behavior with little accounting for natural variations in the earth’s atmosphere. I’ve never seen a prediction accurately account for all of the variables. It’s almost like planning the perfect crime, but not accounting for the fluke that ruins the plan.

When I make this case to my liberal friends, I am usually met with “You watch too much Fox News,” or “turn off Rush Limbaugh.” But these statements do not address my premise. These statements only serve to ridicule the source without intellectually dealing with the presented argument. Do not fall into this trap.

It is this approach to debate that tears apart our society and destroys critical thinking.

What I’m saying boils down to this: when someone presents you with an argument and with supporting facts, immediately begin to wonder what the other side would argue in return. Seek out someone you know who’s on the other side and ask them what they would say to that.

We can’t immediately write people off because of their information sources. If Rush Limbaugh says something that another disagrees with, it is not enough to just say “Oh, well that’s Rush Limbaugh.” It is now the responsibility of that person to address what was said and prove that it is wrong.

Just because President Obama said something, I don’t immediately complain that he’s wrong or lying. In fact, often what he says sounds like solid thinking. So, when I would hear Obama say something, I immediately wondered what his usual opponents had to say about it. If they directly addressed what he was saying and illustrated why he was wrong, then I changed my mind. If I listened to the argument and found they didn’t address his premise adequately, I would agree with President Obama.

In 2010, the Tea Party movement took hold across the nation. Many tried to discredit it as a home for racists. But that is simply changing the subject. Whether or not every single person in the movement is racist or not, it is still up to every individual to consider the arguments they are making.

It is absolutely possible that their arguments are sound – even if they are coming from racists. If all the known and admitted racists in the world banded together and concluded that all humans must drink water to survive, that wouldn’t’ suddenly make it possible to live without water.

It doesn’t matter if Rush Limbaugh or Nancy Pelosi is the origin of an argument. It’s the merits of the argument that must be addressed, not the person making the argument. Whether or not one hears a news story on Fox or MSNBC, it’s not the source that makes it true or false, it’s the legitimacy of the premise.

Too often we let ourselves get away with lazy thinking by dismissing an argument because of its source. This has to stop for our society to begin having productive debates.

When I hear someone make fact-supported argument to me, these are some of the questions I ask:

  • Is this consistent with what this person has said or, more importantly, done in the past?
  • What is this person’s ultimate goal, and how does this fit it?
  • Do I think this person is fundamentally good, but misguided, or do they have a different agenda?
  • What would the other side say about this?
  • Can the other side address the argument head on, or do they turn it into a different argument?
  • Is the other side dealing with what the person said, or the merits of the person?
  • Are the facts I’m hearing partially true… or true at all?

We’ve got to start asking some of these questions before we immediately dismiss each other. This country can’t really start moving forward until we can, on some level, start listening to each other and thinking about what we’re hearing.