Critical thinking is the ability to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and facts from fiction, as paraphrased from Dr. Martin Luther King. It is our personal responsibility to make decisions based on thinking critically. With so much information, disinformation, and misinformation coming at us from so many different sources, sometimes it’s difficult to determine what to believe. This is where having the honed skill of being able to think critically comes in, so let’s explore what critical thinking is, how to do it, and how to improve our skillsets.
WHAT CRITICAL THINKING IS
We already defined critical thinking with the first sentence of this post but to explain it, The Foundation for Critical Thinking says that critical thinking has two components: information, belief generation, and processing skills AND the habit of using those skills to guide behavior. The first component can be broken down into observation (which is our ability to notice opportunities, problems, and solutions), analysis (gathering, understanding, and interpreting data and information), and inference (which is drawing conclusions based on data, information, and personal knowledge and experience). The second component is using critical thinking all of the time that it becomes second nature in our lives any time we are presented with information or a so-called fact and need to determine if we should believe it.
Critical thinking is a process and Norman Herr, Ph.D., a professor at California State University, Northridge, says it includes these five elements:
- Identification of premises and conclusions. Step one is breaking arguments into basic statements and drawing logical implications.
- Clarification of arguments. Step two is to locate the ambiguity and vagueness in arguments and propositions.
- Establishment of facts. Step three is to determine if the premises are reasonable and identify information that has been omitted or not collected.
- Evaluation of Logic. Step four is when you ask if the premises support the conclusions.
- Final Evaluation. The last step is to weigh the evidence and the arguments. Supporting data and evidence increase the weight of the argument. Contradictions and lack of evidence decrease the validity of the argument. Herr says, “Critical thinkers do not accept propositions if they think there is more evidence against them or if the argument is unclear, omits significant information, or has false premises or poor logic.”
Let’s go through the elements or the whole process with a concrete example. Let’s pretend a news story said that all children need at least one pet if they are to have a fulfilling and happy childhood.
In step one, we break down this argument into basic statements. So all children means children everywhere around the world need at least one pet, otherwise they won’t be happy or feel fulfilled. Hmm.
What vagueness or ambiguity is in this argument? We could posit at least one is ambiguous, so is happy (what does that mean exactly and how is it defined?) and fulfilled (same questions as happy but also isn’t this determined by the individual and very personal?) Also, what can be considered a pet?
In step three, we look at is the premise reasonable? Has information been omitted or not collected? Has the person who made this original statement reported by the news considered that not everyone (children included) like animals or pets? Many children don’t live in situations where pets are possible or welcome. Some people can’t have pets due to allergies, illnesses, etc.
And what about the fact that happiness and fulfillment waxes and wanes, and sometimes it has nothing to do with external forces and what we have or don’t have, and for that matter, having a pet doesn’t always make us happy (especially if the pet has a problem, causes a problem, or dies). The death of a pet can be very tragic regardless of your age (and may be worse for young children because it may be the child’s first encounter with death).
In final evaluation, we would weigh all of our evidence and our thought processes. I’m sure you have already reached the conclusion that the example we are using has too much ambiguity and not enough fact to back up the claim.
If only all claims made from scientific studies, by politicians, and by the media were as easily discernable. Critical thinking is a skill that can be mastered and refined. The following are five ways to do so.
5 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS
- Become more self-aware (Know what you believe and where your biases are and how they may cloud or interfere with your thinking and acceptance of facts.)
- Understand your mental processes (How do you think? Do you easily jump to conclusions before having all of the facts? Do you like to research and know as much as you can before reaching a decision?)
- Question assumptions (Part of thinking critically is being comfortable with questioning any assumption you or anyone else makes. Look for concrete facts. Research. Read. And understand as much as you can before accepting an assumption as the TRUTH.)
- Reason through logic (Reason is the power of the mind to think and form judgments by using logic, which means factual validity.)
- Diversify thought (Brene Brown asks people to work on themselves and their thoughts by asking them to ask themselves if it is possible that the opposite or other variations of what they think is true. When we stop and do this we realize that many of the things we think are have opposites or other sides that may also be factual or true. Once we realize this, our thinking expands and we grow more accepting.)
It is our personal responsibility to think critically and make decisions based on facts; doing so is part of being a Whole Champion and is one way we determine who we vote for, what causes we support, and the ways in which we choose to change our lives and the world.