Critical thinking requires a complex combination of skills

WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?

Written by Joanne Reed

Critical thinking means many things, but at heart, it is a search for the truth. Critical thinking helps us determine what is real and what it is not. But before we are able to exercise our cognitive ability to think critically, we need to have a certain base of knowledge as a starting point.

Thinking is part of what makes us human. What differentiates humans from animals is our cognitive abilities such as fully developed language, reasoning capabilities, and the ability to make plans for the future. We are all born with the capacity to think, but not everyone is capable of critical thinking, and it is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced with discipline.

Socrates is credited for being the first critical thinker and the Socratic method is one of the earliest critical thinking instructions tools known to man. The Socratic method is described as a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was also a fan of critical thinking, often warning that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact; everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

I think therefore I am “

— Rene Descartes

Critical thinking means many things, but at heart, it is a search for the truth. Critical thinking helps us determine what is real and what it is not. But before we are able to exercise our cognitive ability to think critically, we need to have a certain base of knowledge as a starting point. We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge of, and we won’t have the structures in place to think deeply if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.

Critical thinking can be understood as a deep activity, one that requires the development of new habits of mind. It is not something that comes to us naturally, it requires extensive study and practice. When we have our critical thinking hat on we develop our problem-solving capabilities and our ability to look at the strengths and weaknesses of an argument; the result is that we are more able to see things clearly and this can help us make better decisions.

Is critical thinking a skill?

We all like to think of ourselves as rational, strategic creatures, but in reality, humans are deeply irrational and are often governed by emotion rather than logic. Moreover, we have a tendency to operate within our own echo chamber, where the only information that goes through our brain is information that validates our prior knowledge, vindicates our prior decisions, or sustains our existing beliefs.  We should get into the habit from time to time of walking down the road less traveled, the one taken by critical thinkers. If you decide to walk down that road it will require that you possess a certain fluidity of mind,  some discipline and be driven by the will to get to the truth of the matter rather than the urge to be righteous no matter what.

Critical thinking includes a complex combination of skills

RationalityWe are thinking critically when we rely on reason rather than emotion, when we follow evidence, when we are more concerned with finding the best explanation rather than being right, and when we get into a habit of asking questions.

Self-AwarenessWe are thinking critically when we recognize that we suffer from emotional impulses, selfish motives, nefarious purposes, and other modes of self-deception.

Open-mindedness.We are thinking critically when we evaluate all reasonable inferences, consider a variety of possible viewpoints or perspectives, remain open to alternative interpretations, accept new explanations, models or paradigms, because it explains the evidence better, is simpler, or has fewer inconsistencies. We cannot reject opinions just because they are unpopular.

Discipline.We are thinking critically when we are precise, meticulous, comprehensive, exhaustive, resist manipulation and irrational appeals, and avoid snap judgments.

Judgment.We are thinking critically when we recognize the relevance and/or merit of alternative assumptions and perspectives and recognize the extent and weight of evidence.

Critical thinkers are skeptical by nature. They are active and not passive. They ask questions and analyze facts and data. They consistently apply tactics and strategies to uncover meaning or assure their understanding. Critical thinkers are open to new ideas and perspectives. They are willing to challenge their beliefs and investigate competing evidence.

By contrast, passive, non-critical thinkers take a simplistic view of the world. They see things in black and white, as either or, rather than recognizing a variety of possible understandings. They see questions as yes or no with no subtleties. They fail to see linkages and complexities. They fail to recognize related elements. They take their facts as the only relevant ones. They take their perspectives as the only sensible one. They consider their goal as the only valid one.

Is critical thinking important?

We are living in a world of information overload, data about almost everything is available to all who wish to access it at the click of a button. We are constantly bombarded by a steady stream of information (sometimes misinformation, exaggerations and mischaracterizations) about a whole range of subject matters, making it very difficult to know what and who to believe. Critical thinking is important because we need this skill in order to navigate our way through all the information, mis-information and dis-information that is being served to us on a daily basis on all media platforms.

Trying to nail down the authenticity of anything and verify our knowledge about the world is a tall order. We are huge consumers of all types of media, but often lack the tools to think about how and why we are passively consuming what we watch, read and share. We are inundated with news. How can one discern between the real news and the fake news? We are often not thinking about how our own biases affect how we think about the world. We are also getting comfortable in our echo chambers, devoid of people and ideas who challenge our own beliefs.

We expect Facebook, Instagram TikTok, Twitter and Google to filter the truth for us, rather than putting in the hard work to do some thinking for ourselves. Some social media posts go viral in minutes after they are posted whether they carry with them the truth or an exaggeration of the truth or total falsehood. There is always the option of fact-checking some of the information via some sites such as Factcheck.org or Snopes‘ Website. The problem is that if the counter-information is not shared in the same manner of the viral post the damage from the false post cannot be counteracted.

There is a scientific term for this in psychology, it is called the Illusory Truth Effect also known as the Reiteration Effect, it is the tendency to believe information to be correct (even if it is not) after repeated exposure to that same information. Repeated affirmation fixes itself in the mind in such a way that it is accepted in the end as a demonstrated truth. Many studies have been conducted on this, and the conclusion is that familiarity overcomes rationality, the truth does not matter. Repetition does!

We need critical thinkers more than ever. The sheer complexity of the world demands that people are able to think about it in critical ways. Understanding our thinking process is important because we continue to believe in a lot of things that just aren’t true. Pre-existing beliefs and emotions powerfully shape our ideas and thoughts. We all have biases, but we should examine them and understand them better.

The other tendency is to relinquish your power to think critically on someone else and rely on the opinion of the experts instead. We rely on a daily basis on the expert opinion of a whole raft of people who are specialized in a particular field and who are being paid to share their knowledge, wisdom and experience with the world at large.  If you want to build a house, you instruct an architect to draw the plan of the house for you and you instruct a builder to build it according to the specifications. Once your house is built, you may want to have your garden landscaped; so, you ask a gardener to do this for you. If you ask the gardener to build your house for you, you may end up with a house that is defective and not fit for purpose. That is why society needs experts; society needs people who know a thing or two about their own areas of expertise and know what they are talking about.

Even experts can be wrong

This said, whenever you decide to ask an expert for his advice on a particular matter, I suggest that you put on your critical thinking hat to ensure that you fully understand the advice you are being given, the scope and limitations of the adviser’s expertise, his or her ability to see the problem in its proper context, the possibility that the  expert may be subject to bias, and in the worst case scenario, the possibility that the expert may be wrong.

History is full of anecdotes showing that even the experts can be wrong.

  • In 1876, senior executives at Western Union made the following statement: “this telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. It is inherently of no value.” In early 2017, Apple announced that it has sold 216 million iPhone
  • In 1895, Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society of Science, argued that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. The Wright Brothers built one anyway. Boing has built 10,000 of them since.
  • In 1943, Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM observed “I think that there is a world market for maybe 5 computers”.  A recent survey conducted in 2019 show that there are 4.39 billion internet users worldwide.
  • In 1946, Darryl Zanuck, the founder of 20th Century Movie Studio and winner of 3 Academy Awards noted that “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Today, over 2 billion hours of TV is watched in the USA alone each day.
  • In 1968, Time Magazine made the observation that “online shopping while entirely feasible, will flop.” In 2019, worldwide online shopping reached nearly $3.7 trillion.
  • In 1969, Margaret Thatcher told a listening audience that “it will be years – not in my lifetime before a woman becomes Prime Minister.” 10years later she would prove her own prediction wrong by winning the 1979 UK general election and staying in power for 11 years.

No one, including experts, really know with absolute certainty what will happen in the future. Every time there is a national disaster, a gigantic event, a pandemic, we can rely on television news to find an expert to come on TV and generously share his predictions and knowledge on why this happened and what will happen next. The truth of the matter is that sometimes those experts are wrong.

Philip Tedlock wrote a book in 2005 about expert predictions called Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is it? How Can We know? In this book, he explains that not only experts are sometimes wrong, but they are nearly never called out on it.

Tedlock explains that when experts are wrong, they are rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing or blindsided by an improbable event. They have the same repertoire of self-justification that everyone has and are not more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works or ought to work, just because they made a mistake.

Tedlock explains that experts fall into 2 categories: foxes and hedgehogs. The fox — the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events — is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems.

Foxes and hedgehogs

Foxes know many things while hedgehogs know only one. Being deeply knowledgeable on one subject narrows one’s focus and increases confidence, but it also blurs dissenting views until they are no longer visible, therefore transforming data collection into bias confirmation and morphing self-deception into self-assurance. The world is a messy, complex, and contingent place with countless intervening variables and confounding factors, which foxes are comfortable with, but hedgehogs are not.

Thinkers who know one big thing often display brisk impatience with those who don’t get it and display considerable confidence in their ability, with no time for dissenting opinions. By contrast those who know many small things are skeptical of grand schemes; they are flexible, curious, open-minded.

So, is critical thinking important? It is more than important, it is vital. Without critical thinking you will be another sheeple lost in the crowd and dutifully following the trend of the moment and absorbing the world’s accepted view. Critical thinking is a skill that should be nurtured and valued. The world needs critical thinkers more than ever. The ability to think about things in a critical way will make a difference to you and the people around you. 

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