Critical thinking

Joel Achenbach, author of one of the Washington Post’s many blogs, raises some general points about critical thinking. I thought I’d use them as a way of generating some general meta-discussion about thinking well–as a complement to the many posts about thinking badly. Here is what he had to say:

>Learning How To Think

>Why is it that, 40 years after Vietnam, all the revolutions in information and the explosion of media outlets and the 1000 different TV channels and information available in handheld instruments and beamed from around the world at the speed of light STILL made absolutely no difference in keeping us out of a quagmire?

>Part of the answer may be that, although technology changes, people don’t. And they’re not always good thinkers. We don’t employ what is known among academics as “critical thinking.” Critical thinking isn’t emphasized in schools. I was just reading a book on critical thinking, “Hoaxes, Myths and Manias,” by Robert Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford, that lists the most important elements of learning how to think critically:

>1. Ask questions; be willing to wonder.

>2. Define your problem correctly.

>3. Examine the evidence.

>4. Analyze assumptions and biases.

>5. Avoid emotional reasoning.

>6. Don’t oversimplify.

>7. Consider other interpretations

>8. Tolerate uncertainty.

There’s more to this entry of his, but it veers off topic.

While I teach critical thinking–or a course called “critical thinking”–for a job, I’m often surprised at how many different conceptions of it there are. I thought I’d take what Bartholomew and Radford consider the most important elements of critical thinking as a starting point for a discussion of the process of thinking. You’ve probably gotten a sense of my process if you’ve read any of the items posted on this site. Since I’m continually impressed by the work of others, I wonder if some of them might chime in with a response to the above description.

15 thoughts on “Critical thinking”

  1. It’s a pretty milquetoast list. Sagan’s baloney detection kit was better.

  2. “Tolerate uncertainty”

    i’m not really sure what this would entail. is he glossing argumentative ambiguity? i mean, there are circumstances under which we might have to accpet uncertainty, for instance in certain claims in philosophy of science or philosophy of religion, but i’m not sure i like his choice of words here. tolerance, for one, is a concept so overused as to have passed beyond any serious application; besides, tolerance seems to imply that the tolerator holds not just an opposite, but a superior (read:correct) view, but is so philosophically magnanimous that s/he will tolerate the (obviously) inferior view. additionally, he need to delineate what he intends by uncertainty. perhaps he does so in his book, but this seems to be a list of hard and fast rules and i’m not willing to tolerate the uncertainty of his last rule. then again, perhaps i’m just arguing emotionally in my unwillingness to wonder.

  3. Thanks for the input. I’d like to hear more about this from the both of you as well as others. Here’s the Sagan stuff reprinted from the comment in the above link:

    * Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts
    * Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
    * Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
    * Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
    * Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
    * Quantify, wherever possible.
    * If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
    * “Occam’s razor” – if there are two hypothesis that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
    * Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

    Maybe I’ll pull this out and put it on the front page tomorrow.

  4. how about putting each item on the list already on the front page up for consideration, a la your treatment of disouza’s column?

  5. I wonder if there is a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions that constitute good critical thinking. We may not be able to articulate this set of conditions, but I suspect we can come close. I usually ask myself if the information that I provide about how one critically thinks is sufficient enough to allow the person to do it successfully.

    If we analyze the points given by Bartholomew and Radford it would appear that a person could not be a successfully critical thinker with just what was provided. I’ll focus just on one problem. Statement four tells us that we should analyze assumptions and biases. Exactly how is one supposed to do this given the few other guidelines that are provided? What I suggest is that one needs to have a rule set that defines what is good reasoning and what is incorrect reasoning. Perhaps the eight provided statements are meant to serve as the foundational axioms of the rule set. If so, then it appears that the rule set is incomplete. I have no means to know that when I analyze assumptions and biases if I have done anything worthwhile or simply wasted my time. Perhaps Bartholomew and Radford mean that I should merely identify biases and assumptions in people’s arguments, which seems like a good start. But what should I conclude when I discover these assumptions and biases?

    I generally view simple guidelines, like the ones given by Bartholomew and Radford, as being good common sense suggestions. However, if one wants to be a good critical thinker one needs to do more than merely follow these few common sense guidelines. It’s doubtful, though not impossible, that one can do algebra correctly without knowing the rules. I believe that critical thinking works in a similar way. Most people have an intuitive sense of how to logically think, but to do it well consistently one needs to have a full set of rules to tell them when they are doing it correctly and when they are not.

    Sagan’s list looks restricted to scientific thinking so it does not apply well to critical thinking in general. I think it looks a bit more promising than Bartholomew and Radford’s set however, it does have some problems. What is an unambiguous test? Also, falsification has several counter-examples, like Aristarchus of Samos, who first proposed the heliocentric theory of the solar system, having his theory unambiguously falsified by the lack of observed parallax of the stars. We, obviously, now know he was right and the reason there is no apparent observed parallax is because the stars are so far away, which ironically is the response Aristarchus gave to his critics. Also, the particle theory of light seemed falsified in the mid-19th century because light was observed to run slower through denser mediums (particle theory at the time predicted that light should move faster because of gravitational interactions). However, we now have strong and solid evidence for both the particle theory and wave theory of light, which raises its own problems. I notice Sagan doesn’t mention anything about the use of induction, which seems to be something we (including scientists) use everyday.

    If you want to know my proposal for a list of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, I don’t have one specifically. I will refer everyone to the numerous introductory logic textbooks that are available. There are obviously better ones, but I’m not sure if I should be endorsing them on this site.

  6. I am self taught. The Baloney Detection Kit was not enough. This ‘Critical Thinking movement’ that I hear people talk about was too shallow for me to be comfortable with. Critical thinking is a discipline and a lifestyle choice. I choose to do it, my family, in-laws and most of my friends do not and call me weird, but they tell me that I’m ‘really smart’ and trust my judgment.

    my short list:
    After studying critical thinking on my own intensely the last two years, for me the most ‘bang for the buck’ came out of studying Informal Logic, Persuasion theories, Debate tactics, Toulmans rationale and model of argumentation, argumentation schemes and presumptive reasoning (Douglas Waltons book), Theories of Dialectics and pragmatism, Social Psychology and scientific studies of motivation, and altruism.

    my long list:
    I think that people learn by observation. We learn how to communicate by reading, watching T.V., teachers, parents, friends, advertisements and politicians. We learn a lot of poor reasoning skills this way. I think everyone learns differently but here is what works for me as I do it on my own.

    It is organized according to level of effort, the audience for this are my kids.
    – Redefine ‘argument’ for yourself to exclude the word ‘quarrel’. Decide you will not ‘quarrel’ again.
    – Eat right, get plenty of rest, because above all the brain is a bag of chemicals.
    – Pay attention, listen, read carefully
    – look for oversimplification, this covers a lot of ground in argumentation schemes.
    – Use the scientific method, chances are we learned it in high school.
    – look for the conclusion and find the premises in a paragraph, we learned this in high school too.
    – Learn the basics of reasoning, DATA, PREMISE, WARRANT, BACKING, CONCLUSION
    – learn to use ockhams razor
    – learn to expect extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.
    – Listen to or watch science shows
    – Pick up a copy of the skeptical inquirer, or skeptic magazine
    – Listen to skeptical podcasts or tv shows ( I half-heartedly recommend Penn and Tellers Bullsh**)
    – Pick up an LSAT test prep book that has the answers and an analysis of the answers and do it.
    – Read Informal Logic books or High School Debate strategy books (for the sections on reasoning and persuasion). Reading creates mental shortcuts to memory. Be careful about “critical thinking” books or books about ‘Fallacies’. I’ve found ‘critical thinking’ and ‘fallacy’ books and websites to misrepresent Argumentation Schemes as typically being fallacious. The truth about ‘fallacies’ didn’t sink in until I read books by van Eemeren and Grootendorst, Douglas Walton and the team of Johnson and Blair. I highly recommend Douglas Walton.

    Once you have learned the basics, then start applying them.
    – Pick something easy and analyze Bill O’Reilly interviews on TV or in transcripts from Fox news website.
    – look for loaded language
    – look for Bias
    – Look for the ‘dependencies’ which are presumptions and unexpressed premises in O’Reilly and Op-Ed pieces from or articles picked by
    – Eavesdrop and listen to discussions around you.
    – Watch news interviews to help you learn how to ask critical questions
    – learn to use ‘I’ statements and avoid ‘you’ statements when you…
    – learn to ask critical questions. Remembering the right question at the right time has a lot to do with creating mental shortcuts.
    – try to pick your battles, you may have to learn to keep your mouth shut.
    – Take a psychology course and a social psychology course
    – Start a blog anonymously and type in what you think or keep a diary. Go back and read it after a few days to critique yourself.
    – be careful what you say because the more people know you and trust your judgement, the less they doubt you. Peoples trust is invaluable.
    – do a variety of logic puzzles or games. They can be found at the bookstore in the magazine sections.

  7. I also forgot to add to my long list some easy arguments to cut your teeth on, in additon to Bill O’Reilly are church sermons and religious apologetics. Be careful, because with a little introspection and biblical criticism, you might find yourself deconverted.

  8. Matt K has a good point here –
    “I notice Sagan doesn’t mention anything about the use of induction, which seems to be something we (including scientists) use everyday.”

    What a mess Mr. Sagan would be in if we held him to his own criteria here:
    “If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.”

    For an anti-theist, that’s ridiculous.

  9. this is a request for comment.
    I came up with three ‘rules of thumb’ for critical thinking. Look for these things and question them. Not sure how they fit in creating a rubric of the sort jcasey was describing.

    – Look for presumptions, or unexpressed premises that the claim/argument/statement depends on
    – Look for generalizations
    – Look for extremes

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