Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking: Reliable, Clear, Logical, Fair

While we can trace critical thinking at least as long ago as Socrates, there has been a much greater emphasis on critical thinking in recent years.

Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends.          —  Edward Glaser

To many students, critical thinking sounds difficult. It isn’t hard. We just need to know what it means.

Think of movie critics. They watch a lot of movies. They think carefully about what they see. They consider the plot, characters, acting, photography, and more. Then they rate the movie. Sometimes they say it’s awful (thumbs down). Sometimes they tell us it’s wonderful (thumbs up.)  Being a movie critic doesn’t sound difficult. It sounds like fun.

A young man with his hand on his chin is thinking.Movie critics and book critics actually don’t use what we call critical thinking. They are making judgments.

Critical thinking means making judgments about thinking.  We can say we are thinking about thinking. To make it easier, we can use checklists to remember the kind of problems we are looking for.

Dmitry, the man in the picture, read an article on the future of electric and gasoline cars. He must write a critical evaluation of the article. He does not need to agree or disagree with the author.

His task is to examine and critique the author’s thinking. He needs to decide if the sources were reliable and if there were other sources the author should have consulted. He will look for bias, over-generalizations, and assumptions. He will decide if the author considered all points of view. He will decide if the purpose of the article was clear and the conclusion is clearly stated. Finally, he will analyze the author’s reasoning to see if it is logical.

Critical Thinking and the four big questions

Critical thinking means thinking about thinking. We need to ask four questions? Is it Reliable?  Clear? Logical? Fair?

1. Is the information reliable?  This means we need to evaluate the sources of information. Is the author a respected expert in the field? Does he quote respected experts?  Are there other sources of information that should be considered?  Does the author use overgeneralizations?  Does he say something ALWAYS works right, that EVERYONE who uses this product is satisfied? Does he Claim the NO ONE disagrees with a certain popular idea? Or that something is OBVIOUSLY TRUE?  These are overgeneralizations. They are common in political statements and speeches where one side is ALWAYS right, and the other side is ALWAYS lying to you.

2. Is the language clear?  We should understand the purpose of the article. In math, the purpose is usually to prove absolute truth. Mathematical proofs are used.  In science, the purpose and method varies. Often experimental methods are used aiming for experimental proof.  When they cannot do an experiment, they may do large surveys and use statistical methods to show what is probable.

But science and math are the exceptions.  For most material, the purpose is to explain something or to persuade the reader or listener to believe something.

Is the conclusion clearly stated?  Do you understand exactly what they are they trying to prove or get you to believe? The language should not be ambiguous or exaggerated. There should be no unstated assumptions.

3. Is the reasoning logical?  Can you identify the premises or reasons used to support the conclusion?  Do the facts or reasons (premises) lead to the conclusion? Are they relevant and adequate? Relevant means they have something to do with the conclusion. For example, a politician may have a degree in law and have a beautiful wife and children. None of these proves he will do a good job as mayor or governor. They are nice but they are not relevant. The fact that someone did an apparently good job as mayor is relevant to whether he will do well as a governor… but is it adequate? (Is it enough to prove his abilities?

4. Is the information and reasoning fair?  Has the author or speaker shown any bias? Does the statement represent all relevant points of view? Are there other points of view or other information that should be considered?

Examples of Critical Thinking

Example 1:  “A professor is someone who teaches in a college. Dr. Franklin teaches in a college. Therefore Dr. Franklin is a professor.”

This is totally logical. There might, however be problems. Perhaps Dr. Franklin is a medical doctor visiting to teach first aid. This doesn’t make him a professor. Some logical conclusions miss essential information. The problem is we can never be certain we have all the information. We must rely on information we do have.

Example 2.: Sonia says “I love my husband.”  We cannot prove this. If Sonia says she loves her husband, and Sonia seems to be honest….and if Sonia displays loving behaviour toward her husband, her statement is reasonable. Unless we have evidence to show that Sonia does not love her husband, we assume, for purposes of the argument, that she does love him.

Example 3:  Alice will make an A on her final exam. Alice has made all A’s in every class she has taken. Alice studied hard for this exam. Alice always takes good notes in class. Alice has good test-taking skills.

We cannot prove Alice will make an A.  But, with this evidence, it seems likely. Many arguments are of this type.

Is each premise or reason relevant?  “Alice thinks the professor is good-looking”? This would normally be considered irrelevant. However, if Alice studies hard, trying to impress her professor, only when the professor is good-looking, this is relevant. ”

Are premises or reasons adequate? If all we know is that Alice takes good notes and Alice studied hard, these are relevant but not adequate. Other students take good notes and studied hard but we don’t  believe they will all make A’s

Unstated assumptions: We assume this class is like other classes Alice has taken. If all of Alice’s other classes have been in reading-based classes but this class is Calculus, her performance in other classes is not as convincing.

Bias: Someone might say, “Alice went to a highly-rated private school so  she is more likely to make an A.”  This is bias. Hard-working students who went to public schools, even in poor neighborhoods, can also make good grades.

Over-generalization:  Everyone knows Alice will make an A.  Peter always cheats on tests. Nobody likes Mary. Over-generalizations often use words like Everyone, Nobody, Never, Always.  They are rarely true.

Critical Thinking is one of the most important skills you can learn.

Some students don’t understand what critical thinking is and assume it’s not really that important. They have a lot to learn.

Many colleges and universities list Critical Thinking and Problem Solving among the most important goals for their students. It is surprising, however, that they rarely teach either skill. Professors often assume that students understand Critical Thinking and ask them to do critical reading (analyzing the thinking of the author as they read) or to write a critical essay (describing the author’s thinking).

Even when the term isn’t used, Critical Thinking improves a student’s ability to evaluate what they read, to separate facts from opinion, truth from wishful thinking, to identify bias in what they read, and so much more. Students doing research for term papers will find it easier to identify tustworthy sources and easier to detect poor reasoning.

Critical Thinking will help improve your reading, research skills, and writing. It will help you think more clearly and do better on tests. After graduation, Critical Thinking is an imortant skill in many areas of work.

Whenever you read, write, listen, or think in any way, you are more likely to consider whether the information is reliable, the language is clear, and the reasoning is logical and fair. You will be able to evaluate or critique an argument, an explanation, or a statement of beliefs. You should be able to use well constructed arguments in your own writing and speaking.

When you see a commercial for a new product you might decide to do some research and think first before buying it. When you hear speeches by politicians or commentators, you can think for yourself and evaluate the truth and reasoning in their speeches.  You will use critical thinking to evaluate ideas from creative brainstorming, to evaluate the alternatives in decision-making, or to develop the basic criteria for judgment,

Michael Gelb reflects on Charles Darwin.

 Darwin reminds me that an open mind is a point of departure for understanding the world and for the process of personal evolution, a process that requires me to questions my assumptions, preconceptions, and prejudice on a daily basis. (346)

Related areas:        Creative Thinking               Critical and Creative  Thinking  

Decision Making                 Judgment

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