Question Everything: How to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skills
According to the website of a group called The Critical Thinking Community, critical thinking is “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
That’s a mouthful and a half, but in essence, critical thinking is a way of viewing the world so as to be able to reason, ask probing questions, and evaluate arguments and evidence.
It’s widely believed that college students are graduating without learning to think critically. Many don’t know how to distinguish facts from opinions, prepare a clear written argument, or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event without being swayed by emotional testimony or political spin.
Then again, are we adults any better? After all, we regularly jump to conclusions, fall victim to false assumptions, and are subject to all manner of cognitive biases. We become attached to our beliefs even when evidence suggests at least a consideration of alternatives. And some of us are too easily swayed by what we find on the web.
To think critically, don’t just accept any old idea. Instead, consider the origin. Aim to draw information from primary sources rather than from gossip, isolated quotes, and second-hand reports.
Check the date of information you’re using to draw a conclusion; more recent information is likely to be more accurate than older information, especially if it concerns a changing situation. Beware of anecdotes and groupthink. Look for evidence, and be willing to change your mind if the evidence warrants. And be willing not just to ask questions but also to question answers.
One of the seven recommendations from philosopher Daniel Dennett for improving our critical thinking is to ruthlessly analyze our mistakes and learn from them. He also recommends Sturgeon’s Law (named after science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon), which says “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Dennett concedes this may be an exaggeration, but the idea is that there’s no point in wasting your time on arguments that simply aren’t any good.
Dennett and many others urge us to remember Occam’s razor. This is the principle named after the 14th-century philosopher William of Occam that basically says, “Don’t rely on a complicated theory or explanation if there’s a simpler one that will handle the situation just as well.” When two or more theories can explain the same facts, favor the simplest explanation—unless there are very good reasons to prefer one that’s more complex, and therefore more unlikely.
Another part of Sturgeon’s Law, by the way, is that “Nothing is always absolutely so.” That one is absolutely worth reflecting on.