Blog Post: So What is Critical Thinking?

Gerald Nosich
Feb 01, 2020 • 4y ago
So What is Critical Thinking?

{"ops":[{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"So What is Critical Thinking?"},{"insert":"\nThe idea many people have about critical thinking is just a vague one: it is just “good thinking,” or “careful thinking.”\n            One problem with this is that we usually compliment people on their “good thinking” only if the conclusions they come to agree with what we ourselves believe:  If "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"they "},{"insert":"believe what "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"I "},{"insert":"believe, that’s a sure sign that they are thinking critically.  It often seems that for some people, they just assume that, whatever critical thinking is, it is the kind of thinking that they themselves do.\n\t            We can advance a step by shifting from “thinking” to “reasoning.”  A standard explication of "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"reasoning "},{"insert":"is that it is “coming to conclusions based on reasons and evidence.”  "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Good "},{"insert":"reasoning, therefore—"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"critical "},{"insert":"thinking—would be starting with "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"good "},{"insert":"reasons and evidence, and then coming to conclusions that are justified on the basis the reasons and evidence.  \n\tThis is a little more precise than some vague sense of “good thinking,” but it runs into problems of its own. In study after study, people do not look at reasons and evidence, and then draw conclusions.  Rather, they do the opposite: they have their beliefs, and "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"then "},{"insert":"they search for reasons to back them up.  And it is not as if they are "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"trying "},{"insert":"to slant the case.  Of course, some people do intentionally slant the case, and that is bad enough. But, even more disturbingly, people do this "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"unconsciously"},{"insert":", with full sincerity. \n            To give just one example: In a study, people with opposite views about capital punishment were given mixed evidence on both sides about how effective it is as a deterrent. You might expect that would lead people to be more balanced in their judgments about whether capital punishment is a deterrent, to see more of both the pluses and the minuses of it.  In fact, it did the opposite: it left their own views "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"more "},{"insert":"entrenched.  They simply passed over or dismissed the evidence on the other side. They accepted evidence only if it supported their pre-determined beliefs.  It’s discouraging.\n\n            The far bigger problem with any of these standard concepts of critical thinking, however, is that none of them helps you know what "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"to do "},{"insert":"to think critically (or even really to understand what critical thinking is): Good thinking about "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"what"},{"insert":"?  Thinking carefully or better about "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"what"},{"insert":"?  And how do you do that?  How can "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"go about"},{"insert":" drawing conclusions that are justified by reasons and evidence?\n\tThe "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"how "},{"insert":"comes in several inter-related ways. It comes in cultivating the intellectual traits—such as intellectual humility, fairmindedness, intellectual empathy. (See the \"Virtuous Virtues.\")  It comes in the form of consciously confronting the barriers to critical thinking—the egocentricity and sociocentricity that distorts our thinking whether we want it to or not. (See the \"Wall of Barriers.\") But most directly, it comes in the conscious, explicit application of the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"elements of reasoning "},{"insert":"and the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"standards of critical thinking"},{"insert":".  (See the \"Wheel of Reason\" and \"Criteria Corner.\")\n            We could say that, in a nutshell, critical thinking involves two parts. First, it involves explicitly reflecting on your thinking.  Specifically, this means that what you think "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"about "},{"insert":"are the elements of reasoning: your "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"assumptions"},{"insert":", your "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"goals"},{"insert":", the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"questions"},{"insert":" you should be asking, the way you are "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"interpreting"},{"insert":" things, and so forth around the circle of elements. You do this with your own thinking, with respect to the thinking of anyone else, and with respect to the thinking that is embedded in an issue or a situation.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that you examine all eight of the elements every time, but that you examine the ones that are most relevant in the circumstances you are in.  And if the issue is serious enough, you do take on all eight. \n            Second, it means that what you think "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"about"},{"insert":", again explicitly, is the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"quality "},{"insert":"of your reasoning, "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"how well "},{"insert":"you are thinking.  But the “how well” is not just something vague and directionless.  Still less is it the extent to which other people agree with your own views. It means you consciously examine the extent to which you are meeting the “standards of critical thinking.”  To focus on just three of those standards: \n·     It means you ask yourself about "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"accuracy"},{"insert":": How exactly do I know that this is true?  How did I learn this? What actual evidence is it based on? \n·     It means you ask yourself about "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"importance"},{"insert":"? Am I focusing on the most important part of this issue, or just some part that happens to catch my attention? How can I tell what is most important? \n·     It means you ask yourself about "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"depth"},{"insert":". What are some of the complexities of the issue?  What underlies this? In what ways is this issue more complicated than I’ve taken account of?  (After all, virtually any large-scale social, cultural, political, religious, or scientific issue will involve multiple, serious complexities.)\n            Applying the elements and standards is a conscious, focused, effective way of thinking things through.  Of course, it isn’t foolproof.  Probably, nothing substantive is foolproof.  Thinking does not come with guarantees.  My egocentricity, for example, can still intrude itself.  My intellectual arrogance can lead me into distortion.  But the elements and standards, applied explicitly and with whatever good faith I can muster, show how to go about the work of thinking critically about anything.\n"}]}

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Posted by: Joseph Halter

{"ops":[{"insert":"Gerald, I enjoyed the overview of critical thinking with the standards, elements, traits, centric thinking and application. I like the comparison you made of were individuals justified their beliefs or conclusions and then look for evidence to support it. Having an open fair-mind and curiosity to learn more about the complexity of the issue is a good mindset to start the process of critical thinking using the outline stated. \n\nSo...critical thinking is analyzing and assessing our thinking to improve it. \n"}]}

Posted by: Kashia Simmons

{"ops":[{"insert":"Gerald, \nThank you for bringing together the different elements into a well composed explanation, I'm new to the community and very interested in growing in practicing CT. \n\nAs i read your post, I couldn't help but wonder if apathy and/or indecision are potential hazards of fairminded reasoning on difficult, complex issues? It seems that until some impetus (potentially outside of reason) comes along to force a final decision, a decision maker could be stuck in an appreciation of the complexities of the problem. Are we compelled to continue thinking about our thinking, examining and turning over the elements until we reach a rational conclusion? \n\nIn your example of capital punishment, no question the stakes are high and deserve the effort. In the end, though, someone has to make a decision. What stands as an acceptable basis for the final decision? How does CT assist in ensuring the endurance of the decision?\n"}]}