February 19, 2021 / Ed Rutkowski

From the Archives: Readings in Critical Thinking

Next week, Colin Brown, PhD, MSOH, CSP, CIH, is presenting an AIHA webinar on critical thinking for OEHS professionals. Brown will describe ways to use mental models to make better decisions and improve problem-solving, which he discussed in a recent SynergistNOW post.

Over the years, several Synergist articles have addressed issues related to ideas that are central to Colin’s webinar. Below are summaries of Synergist articles that may be good primers for those interested in tools for critical thinking.

Judgment Day: How Accurate Are Industrial Hygienists’ Qualitative Exposure Assessments?

By Susan Arnold and Gurumurthy Ramachandran

In this feature article originally published in the January 2014 issue, Arnold and Ramachandran summarize research that suggests qualitative exposure assessments based on subjective professional judgment are often inaccurate and are likely to underestimate exposure. The authors offer advice for using algorithms as part of a process for incorporating objectivity into exposure assessments. “According to the literature,” they write, “initial judgments have a mean accuracy of approximately 30 percent; in some cases, they are no more accurate than judgments based on random chance.”

Confirmation Bias: How to Counter Your Audience’s Preexisting Beliefs

By Peter Sandman

Sandman, a risk communication expert well known to OEHS professionals for his “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula, addresses confirmation bias, the unconscious way we filter information through our own preexisting opinions to protect ourselves from potentially troubling knowledge. In this first installment of a two-part article, originally published in the October 2016 issue, Sandman explains how confirmation bias works and suggests ways we can overcome it when communicating with others. He encourages readers to “look for ways to reframe your core message so it is more compatible with your audience’s preexisting opinions, attitudes, values, and expectations.”

Confirmation Bias, Part Two: How to Overcome Your Own Preexisting Beliefs

By Peter Sandman

Sandman returned in the November 2016 issue to suggest ways we can try to minimize our own confirmation bias. His tips include consciously seeking out opposing views, guarding against overconfidence in our opinions, and realizing that few arguments are 100 percent correct. “Always require yourself to be able to summarize the opposition’s strongest case,” Sandman advises. “If you can’t summarize it, you have fallen victim to confirmation bias.”

Small Decisions: Using Cognitive Science to Improve Communication with Workers

By Ryan Campbell

Campbell examines decision-making from the perspective of workers, emphasizing the ways seemingly random decisions can accumulate to cause unexpected outcomes. This article, from the March 2020 issue, explains the differences between “System 1” thinking, which is quick and intuitive, and “System 2” thinking, which is slow and deliberate. Campbell argues that workers often make decisions based on “present bias,” a strong preference for immediate gains over future rewards. The lesson for OEHS professionals: “During the risk assessment process, rather than focus on a possible future, the occupational hygienist or safety professional may instead present controls as a way for workers to conserve or improve current health.”

Readers interested in attending Colin Brown’s webinar “The Power of Thought: Critical Thinking for Occupational Health and Safety Professionals” can register through the AIHA website. The webinar will be held Thursday, Feb. 25, from 1 to 2 p.m. ET.

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.


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