Investigation and Critical Thinking

Investigation and Critical Thinking

Investigation and critical thinkingHow an investigation is structured and functions can significantly affect its credibility and the organization who sanctioned it. Large or small, an investigation is viewed as an impartial fact-finding process mandated to reveal the truth—a simple concept that often gets derailed from the start. There are many investigations that have failed and met with public criticism. Allegations and situations were either reacted upon too quickly, too slowly, not at all or structured inappropriately for the complexity of the task at hand.

So why do investigations fail? The world is changing rapidly and every person, organization and investigator needs to understand and develop the skill of critical thinking.

As humans, we have the ability to process thought both logical and illogical. We are the only animal that interprets information with conscious thought, formulating meaning, ideas, concepts, models and theories to explain, predict, control, and sift through information to discern relevance. We also have the mental capacity to negate, contradict, deceive, misconceive, distort, stereotype, form prejudices and narrow-minded perceptions. Have I missed anything?

Start from the premise that no one acts purely objectively and rationally. We connive for selfish interest. We gossip, boast, exaggerate, and equivocate. We collectively accept (and perhaps excuse) this behaviour with truisms like “It is only human”.

Critical thinking is an objective analysis of a problem based on rational thought, self-awareness, honesty, open-mindedness and an awareness of the frailty (and danger) of our own judgements

So what is critical thinking? It may be best described as a form of disciplined thinking – an objective analysis of a problem based on rational thought, self-awareness, honesty, open-mindedness and an awareness of the frailty (and danger) of our own judgments. Because investigations often rely on the observation, interpretation and judgment of humans, we have a greater predisposition for preconceived notions or confirmation bias in the evidence presented.

Critical thinking in investigation is paramount – and effective – in that it avoids common pitfalls. It prevents the discounting of evidence that disconfirms your ideas; diffuses narrow-mindedness that makes you otherwise see only one side of an issue; prevents reasoning from passion rather than logic; and, safeguards against embracing conjecture that is not supported by evidence.

Mature teams that are self organized and self-directed, usually think critically. An effective investigative team can only be effective if they think critically, and, with awareness that even they aren’t immune to the thought traps I’ve described. A critical thinking investigator understands human nature and their own nature, and so uses caution, critically assessing their own thoughts, and using novel ideas so as not to apply the same templates to different problems. An experienced investigator experiments and finds new and better ways to yield an unbiased, factual result.

There are many different kinds of investigations such as workplace, criminal, regulatory, civil and so on. As diverse as they may seem, investigations have commonalities of structure protocol and process. Conducting an investigation to a standard that withstands scrutiny requires a structured approach, appropriate resources and skilled investigators. What makes a skilled investigator skilled, will largely be found in his/her ability to think critically. The criticism of any investigation will challenge either its results or its methodology. If the findings cannot be challenged, there may be an attempt to discredit the investigation and in its entirety. The importance of doing an investigation well, with a focus on thoroughness and objectivity and an articulable display of critical thinking makes any dispute before an adjudicator, a court, the media or public very defendable.

About the Author

Pat Fogarty is a former organized crime investigator now leading Internet research and investigations at Fathom Research Group. Read more about Pat.