Critical Thinking workshop

Every month we also have a study/discussion group (which are now called learning groups) about an aspect of critical thinking, logic or argumentation. Our first one in October was about informal logical fallacies, the previous one was on confirmation bias.  This month’s group was an overview of critical thinking.  Critical thinking is an enormous topic which encompasses numerous skills and philosophies, and I may consider making a whole separate meet up in dedication to it.  But in the very least I’d like to provide an introduction to it.  First off…

What is critical thinking not?

Critical thinking is not just thinking.  It is not even thinking a lot, nor thinking “deeply.”  One can be contemplative without being a critical thinker.  It is not knowing a lot.  Retaining vast amounts of knowledge can be credited to having a good memory, not being a good thinker.  In fact, a very good number of knowledgeable, even intelligent, people suffer from this misunderstanding: one’s amount and depth of knowledge does not automatically make one a good thinker.  Critical thinking includes skills that go beyond passive acquisition and retention of information.  It is about judgment, but not about being judgmental.  It is about having criteria, not about being a critic.

So what is critical thinking?

It is hard to pin down a precise definition of critical thinking.  First, to establish one thing: Thinking is a means of learning, explaining and, basically, communicating.  Essentially, it is a reasoned method for determining the truth or falsity of a claim.  It is also, thereby, a method for reaching valid conclusions.  It is a process, an ongoing process.

It is evidence-based, disciplined and rigorous.  It is domain-independent, or domain-general, meaning it can applied to any and all domains of life.

The purpose of it is to organize and clarify reasoning, as well as recognize errors and biases in reasoning (both one’s own and others). Listening and unequivocally accepting another’s belief or opinion as your own leads to “inherited” opinions; believing simply because someone told you so (such as our families when we were children).  There is nothing wrong with such opinions per se, but those opinions only become strong when they are supported by reason.

It is critical – no pun intended – towards a foundation of science and a democratic, autonomous society.  Most, if not all of us, have the right to and the capacity for decision-making.  The less informed our decisions are, the more precarious their results are. While persuasion itself is not a skill of critical thinking, ideally critical thinking skills themselves make arguments more persuasive.

It utilizes skepticism.  Skepticism is not the instant dismissal of any and all claims until they are irrefutably proven, it is a questioning attitude towards claims or positions particularly when they are stated as having a factual nature.  It is a tentatively held suspension of judgment or doubt until sufficient evidence for a claim is presented.  A critical thinker tends to examine the reasoning as well as possible assumptions and biases behind claims before accepting them.  A critical thinker realizes that the truth value of factual claims is not determined by the emotional impact that accompanies it nor people’s preferences but on the strength of the reasoning and evidence.

It does not ignore emotion, but rather validates it. As pointed out in our bias group, emotion is a useful tool as well, but only in certain situations or for certain reasons.  However, regardless of their utility (or lack thereof) we cannot detach ourselves from emotions completely.  Critical thinking is a system through which we can determine whether or not an emotion is justified; whether it should be given credence or not. For example, fear of drinking poison is highly justified; it should be heeded.  However, fear of talking to strangers at a party, for instance, should not; it is not justified, and one should behave, in fact, in a way that overcomes the fear. What this is to say is that emotions are certainly efficient, but they are not necessarily an effective way of assessing all situations; through the usage of reason and critical thinking, we can determine when they are, and this is quite important for decisions which will or may have a massive impact on our future.

It is also useful for knowing what not to do, which we have started to apply by studying logical fallacies and cognitive biases.  It also involves learning how to do certain skills well, and recognizing when they are done poorly. Critical thinking involves the following, roughly in the following order

  1. Defining
  2. Conceptualization
  3. Listening
  4. Analysis
  5. Inquiry
  6. Examination
  7. Inference
  8. Synthesis

We will talk about each of these individually in a future meet up.

Why should we think critically?

There are more reasons to think critically beyond what has been stated already.  Consider this: we often hold our beliefs and ideas sacred, but are they?  Is there some magical quality about them?  What harm does it do to change them or realize they were wrong and others are better?  I hold that there is nothing special about them, and that few, if any, of them are essential.  Concretely speaking, if we realized they were wrong we could abandon them or change them indiscriminately and no immediate harm would come to us.  Critical thinkers tend, therefore, not to have “cherished” beliefs.  They are willing to abandon beliefs should better arguments or evidence present itself.

Conversely, thinking uncritically can lead us to a whole host of problems.  Among them are the possibility that we:

  • Become impulsive and rush to erroneous conclusions
  • Fail to consider the implications of our positions
  • Ignore, miss or distort biases, evidence, information, errors, unjustified assumptions and fallacies in other people’s arguments as well as our own
  • Forget the purpose of the discourse, utilize irrelevant arguments, and/or focus on the trivial
  • Unwittingly hold unrealistic positions
  • Communicate poorly, vaguely or with unwarranted presuppositions or respond to others’ arguments incompetently
  • Confuse and conflate meanings and statements
  • Basically think narrowly, imprecisely, irrationally, simplistically, superficially, egocentrically or in a contradictory manner.  We become passive thinkers, going with whatever pops into our minds and pursuing any thought or desire
  • Become egocentric or sociocentric
  • Most importantly, make poor decisions as a result of all this that affect our and possibly other people’s lives (which is why I think this is so important)

If we are to develop as thinkers, we must learn the art of clarifying thinking, of pinning it down, spelling it out, and giving it a specific meaning.  The whole purpose of thinking at all is communication, in particular discourse; conversation that takes in the principles of critical thinking.  It is the most peaceful and civilized way of changing minds.  One could argue it’s the only way.

How do we become critical thinkers?

First, we must recognize and adhere to the standards of critical thinking.  Depending on which text you consult or which authority you ask, you will hear different ones.  However, I have put together what seem to be the most prominent.  They are, in order of priority:

  1. Relevance
  2. Clarity
  3. Precision
  4. Accuracy
  5. Depth

Relevance deals with whether or not the arguments are actually related to the topic at hand. For example, bringing up a politician’s marital status when discussing their foreign policy is most likely not relevant.

Clarity has to do with whether or not the arguments were understood by those listening to it. Life is concrete, life is not abstract, we don’t live life abstractly, so offering clear, concrete examples or explanations is important.  For example, a statement like “Hope is good” is less clear than a statement like “People who express optimism are less likely to suffer from depression.”

Precision is about detail and specificity.  It is contextual; it is dependent on the particular issue at hand.  For example, if I am ill, I don’t want my doctor saying “You’re sick,” I want him to tell me what, specifically, I have.  Context determines the level of precision required.  For example, if I’m taking someone’s temperature I want to know it to the tenth of a degree (36.8, for example), but if I’m measuring lead in water, I want to know it to the millionth of a degree; I need a more precise measurement.

Accuracy is assessing whether or not the information is true, or accurate.  For example, I could say “I am 42 meters, 16 centimeters tall” and that would be clear and precise, but hardly accurate.

Depth is related to how well the argument or information deals with the complexities of a given issue.  Not all issues require a lot of depth to deal with.  When giving an explanation for why you are late, “I didn’t hear my alarm” is sufficiently deep.  However, when trying to understand why someone killed themselves, attributing it to “drugs” may not be.  The relevance of depth is in direct relation to the complexity of the issue.  The less complex, the less relevant depth is.  You cannot adequately deal with complex questions with superficial or shallow answers or reasoning.

Some examples of questions to ask yourself or others to ensure these standards, again in order:

  1. Does it have any bearing on the issue/question at hand? (relevance)
  2. What exactly is meant?  Can examples be provided? (clarity)
  3. How much/many?  How can we measure that? (precision)
  4. How do you/I know that?  How can we test, check or observe that? (accuracy)
  5. Does it completely deal with the intricacies or complexity of the issue/question? (depth)

Richard Paul and Linda Elder, two experts on practical critical thinking, talk about five stages of thinkers in their book Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning. It’s a rather lengthy description, so I’m going to try and sum it up here:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking)

Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker (we try to improve but without regular practice)

Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice)

Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice)

Stage Six: The Master Thinker (skilled & insightful thinking become second nature to us)

To elaborate:

Stage One: Unreflective Thinkers

We start unaware of the role thinking plays in our lives, how it helps us or causes problems for us.  We assume what we believe and think of is true, we assume we are, at least compared to others, unbiased, objective and rational.  We assume experience, feelings and common sense are sufficient and base our beliefs and positions on them.  Basically, if it feels good, it must be right/true.

Our intuition may be quite competent at this stage, or we may even be good critical thinkers in particular domains.  But we have no sense of “metacognition”, the ability to think about our own thinking.

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker

We stop denying we have a problem; we admit that we are weak thinkers and largely ignorant. We acknowledge and accept that, as Einstein once said, one cannot solve a problem at the level on which it was created.  We start to recognize our own fallacies and assumptions.  We begin to properly utilize information and concepts, make inferences, understand implications, define terms and problems and admit to our own fallibility.  We start to understand the tremendous long-term challenge before us.  It’s easy to retreat to the first stage at this point.

Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker

We embark on this challenge.  We are, in a sense, “beginning” critical thinkers.  We begin to take thinking seriously.  We simultaneously see the vast expanse of knowledge that is critical thinking but also feel invigorated by our new quest.  We begin to be more perceptive of our own flawed reasoning and biases.  We begin, maybe instinctively, to analyze the logic of situations and ideas.  We begin to question ourselves more.  We start to prioritize not only the information itself, but its accuracy and relevance.  We become aware of our own interpretations and vigilant of it. We pay attention to the meanings of words and the implications of our reasoning.  We begin to consider and respect alternatives.  We begin, most importantly, to apply standards to our thinking.  Our values shift.  We value reasoning, intellectual honesty and rigor more.  As tempting as it may be to give up on difficult problems, in order to move past this stage, we must change our values, lest we assume that we are “good enough” thinkers, or that we cannot improve as thinkers.

Stage Four: The Practical Thinker

We begin to develop a systematic plan for how to think. We become intellectually organized and rigorous about changing our thinking.  We commit to this change.

Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker

Our regimen for thinking starts to pay off.  We can routinely identify and find solutions for problems in our thinking.  We are aware of the particular domains that need the most work and strive to improve them.  We find and begin to reduce bias in our thoughts.  We no longer have an ego investment in being right or winning arguments, but rather learning and improving our thinking.  We begin to enjoy constructive criticism and entering other’s perspectives.  We find the process satisfying and fulfilling.  We continue to look for ways in which we need to improve.  We also, sadly, begin to see how egocentricity and bias can be destructive.  We acknowledge its innateness, but reject its necessity or benefit.  We regularly monitor and assess our own thinking as well as others’.

Stage 6: The Master Thinker

We have developed a systematic strategy for thinking which we are constantly improving.  The basic skills and standards of thinking are deeply internalized and have become intuitive.  Thoughts are now much more rigorous, objective and careful.  We are intellectually humble, honest, persevering, responsible and autonomous.

How do we further improve our critical thinking?

To move past stage 1 we must first recognize and acknowledge that we are not perfect thinkers.  It’s that simple.  But many people do not even do this.  Our recognition must also be specific.  How is your thinking flawed?  What specific biases do you have?  What specific fallacies are you guilty of committing?  We continue to improve by practicing, such as we did during the meet up.  We assess the clarity of the questions and statements presented to us.  We ask questions for more clarification.  We even offer ways for others to clarify their points to us.  We assess the relevance of what is being said or asked.  Is it tangential?  Does it pertain, perhaps in a way I hadn’t recognized earlier?  We develop an intuition for irrationality and illogical in both our and others’ arguments.  We strive to gather and assess all the relevant data.  We work to recognize and break down our own biases and prejudices.

Can you be more specific?

We tried out a couple exercises during the meet up that you can also try to do on your own or, preferably, with a partner or partners.  Here they are:

1. Analyze social norms

We can analyze the behavior that is expected of us in our social groups.  What is encouraged and discouraged?  What are we expected to believe and agree on, and what are we expected to deny, reject or disagree with?  Do you agree with those norms?  Why do you think we have them?

2. Tour Guide for an Alien

Pretend that you have been assigned the task of conducting a tour for aliens who are visiting earth and observing human life. You’re riding along in a blimp, and you float over a professional baseball stadium. One of your aliens looks down and becomes very confused, so you tell him that there is a game going on.

Try to answer the following questions for him.

1. What is a game?  What is a team?

2. Why are there no female players?

3. Why do people get so passionate watching other people play games?

4. Why can’t the people in the seats just go down on the field and join in?

Half of the group can take on the role of the incredulous and highly skeptical aliens, while the other half takes the role of the tour guides.

3. Consider a complex problem

Let’s consider a complex issue, an issue with some depth.  Let’s analyze the elements of this issue.  First, why is this issue important?  Why should anyone care about it?  What is/are the problem(s)?  What are our underlying assumptions about it?  Are they fair and rational ones?  Do others have any objections to them?  What questions do we have about our own position or the opposition’s?  What are we trying to solve?  What information do we need in order to do this?  How can we get it if we don’t already have it?  Be as specific as possible.  Our purpose is not necessarily to reach a conclusion; we probably can’t do that in one day.  It is, instead, to calmly and deliberately reason about the problem.

Some things you can do at home, by yourself:

1. Ask yourself some fundamental questions.  What are your values and beliefs, particularly ones that you or others haven’t questioned?  What do you take for granted or assume is common sense?  Identify them.  If you can, try to question them: Why do you believe those things?  Do you have reasons?  Can you rationally justify them?

2. A problem a day: Find some time each day, even just 5-10 minutes, and consider a problem, maybe an issue you’re not sure about or that you’ve found some opposition to or that you realized you didn’t have fully thought out.  What exactly is the problem?  What relevant questions could I ask an opponent or myself to determine the solution?  How does it relate to my assumptions, beliefs or ideas?  What are the implications of my ideas?  Where could you find some helpful information?  If you have time, look for it.  Share it at the next group meet up.

3. Keep a critical thinking journal.  Write situations or issues that are emotionally significant to you, maybe even hot button issues.  Keep it to one issue per entry.  Describe your mental reactions to this situation.  What do you think about it?  What are your beliefs and opinions in relation to it?  Be specific.  After, analyze them: how objective are they?  What are the implications of your positions?  Are you left with any questions or problems?

Your attitude is also important.  You must be willing to figure out the answers for yourself, rather than demanding that someone provide them for you.  You must be willing to exercise your mental energy in pursuit of a solution rather than indolently relying on feelings.  You must be willing to review assumptions, claims, and information over and over and over again.  You must be willing to change your position, perhaps several times, should better arguments or evidence present themselves.  You must be willing, most importantly, to be wrong and to be criticized (hopefully in an objective way) for it again and again.  You must be open-minded and prudent.  You must desire to be well-informed and knowledgeable.  You must be willing to make unbiased and objective judgments on the credibility of sources.  You must want to ask questions.

To start with we are going to use Robert Ennis’ three underlying strategies he calls “RRA”.

Reflection, Reasons and Alternatives:

1. Reflection: stop and think rather than make snap judgments or go with the first idea that pops in your mind.  Give yourself some time and space to formulate your position, your counter argument or questions.

2. Reasons: Consider and question reasons.  Ask “How do you know?” or “What reason(s) do you have to believe that?” or “What are your sources?”

3. Alternatives: Remain alert for possible alternatives.  Offer them by asking “What about…?” or “Is it possible that…?”




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