What is critical thinking?

I have been hearing the term “critical thinking” a lot in the popular media lately, usually related to the political debates that are ongoing here in the US. While critical thinking seems to be a hot topic as the general elections grow nearer, it is by no means a new one. Educators in particular have been beating the critical thinking drum for years – possibly decades. Indeed, the very first class I was required to take on entering my PhD program was one in critical thinking.

But what is it?
What do we mean when we talk about being able to “think critically” about a topic? Is it simply weighing the different options, and trying to come up with a solution to a problem? In short – no. Critical thinking is a different way of assessing or analyzing the world around you. While problem solving and options weighing may be involved in some instances of critical thinking, they do not make up the whole process.

It is not enough to simply try and make sense of a situation, or to rely on “common sense” to make decisions or solve problems. After all, “common sense” told us that the world, and the Earth was the center of the universe in the not too distant past. To think critically involves thinking deeply about the world around you, not relying exclusively on “common sense” or even rationality (although rationality is a fundamental part of critical thinking). Critical thinking is not even about making decisions or solving problems, although being able to think critically will certainly help do both.

So again, what is it? In short, critical thinking is looking at the world in a reasonable, reflective way. It is a way of deciding what is true and what is not, or what to believe or what not to believe, based on objective and rational analysis of all available evidence. In order to think critically you must want to come to truth, be able to think rationally, and have the ability to evaluate the information you are using to come to a conclusion.

Wanting to come to truth. Part of this is avoiding the human tendency to see what we want to see, or to be emotionally attached to a certain conclusion. Avoiding this emotional attachment to a conclusion, or pre-judging the conclusion, is absolutely necessary to thinking about a situation critically. Emotion and pre-judging clouds the “facts”, making it impossible to make objective assessments and conclusions. (For an interesting experiment, check out my video “Confirmation bias and maps of reality” to see how our minds and our perspective can affect our conclusions).

Thinking rationally. Closely related to wanting to come to truth, thinking rationally means looking at all of the available data, and assessing it based on its merit without pre-judgment. Additionally, rational thinking means avoiding the temptation to rely on “what you know,” or “what makes sense.” By avoiding the common sense approach, you open yourself up to new possibilities that can lead to more accurate truths.

Evaluating information. Having found the will to actually critically and objectively evaluate information, you will now have to develop the skills to do so. The dark secret of American education is that we are not taught these skills, at least not at a deep level. I do not think I new what a “primary source” of information was until I started at the Naval Academy, much less how to actually evaluate the validity of a piece of information or the strength of an argument. While I will not go into a detailed discussion of the skills required in this short post, I will say that the first skill to develop is logical argument. In order to evaluate any complex situation, you must be able to follow the logic of the arguments. You should also learn which sources to rely on, and which ones are more suspect. And finally, understanding how to conduct basic research to verify information is a must. Without these skills, and others not mentioned, it is very difficult if not impossible to think deeply or critically about a situation and form a reasonable conclusion.

Whew! It sounds like a lot of work! And, sometimes it is.This blog post is really just a sniff of what is involved. If you are researching health care in the US, it can be very time consuming and emotionally draining sifting through the contradictory claims that are flying around out there. But think about what is at stake, and you may find it is worth the effort.

And don’t worry, as with any skill once you really start practicing and mastering the skills of critical thinking, it almost becomes second nature.

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