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What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is an intellectual model for reasoning through issues to reach well-founded conclusions about them. It is a thoughtful and reflective process with the goal of establishing the validity of ideas or beliefs.

Certain popular misconceptions about critical thinking can distort our understanding of it. The following table highlights what critical thinking is and is not.

Critical thinking is…Critical thinking is not…
– an objective approach to evaluating opinions or claims, including our own.
– inquisitive, since the critical thinker must ask questions in order to reach conclusions.
– a process. Critical thinking is developed and improved by “thinking about our thinking.”
– negative thinking directed at finding fault in others.
– argumentative, in the sense in which this term is generally used. The critical thinker does not set out to dispute a point for dispute’s sake.
– a belief system. It evaluates the validity of beliefs, but it is not itself a belief.

The History and Evolution of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has been an important subject matter for philosophers and scholars since the late 19th century. Watch the following video to explore the range of definitions that leading experts on critical thinking have put forth.

A Matter of Attitude

Becoming a proficient critical thinker, most experts agree, begins with developing the proper attitude. This attitude comprises a few key characteristics, including open-mindedness, healthy skepticism, intellectual humility, free thinking, and motivation.

characteristics-of-critical-thinking

Open mindedness

Being open-minded is a willingness to look at issues from all sides, without forming prejudgments or jumping to conclusions. Open-mindedness obligates us to consider that our own opinions might be in error. It requires us to be willing to reevaluate what we believe and change our views when change is warranted by the evidence. To be open-minded is also to accept that others’ viewpoints might be more valid than ours. Open-mindedness, however, does not mean we must give equal weight to every idea or claim we come across, no matter how incredible or far-fetched. It does not obligate us to suspend disbelief.

Healthy Skepticism

Healthy skepticism means not accepting any claim or proposition at face value. It means asking tough but fair questions, looking for weak links in arguments, and insisting on evidence that confirms a source’s credibility. Skepticism is healthy when it is not absolute. Blanket skepticism, as Robert Todd Carroll warns, leads us to doubt everything and commit to nothing. Such total skepticism is incompatible with critical thinking.

Intellectual Humility

Intellectual humility means acknowledging that we might not be right. It requires us not to hold onto our opinions so tightly that we are unwilling to rethink them. It also keeps us from taking complex issues and trying to reduce them to simple “black-and-white” terms. The Greek philosopher Socrates succinctly expressed the importance of intellectual humility more than 2000 years ago: Arrogance does not befit the critical thinker.

Free Thinking

Free thinking requires an independent mind. A free thinker follows his powers of reasoning and observation wherever they take him. He resists social pressure to conform to popular opinion or to accept consensus thinking on an issue.

Motivation

Motivation is the drive to do the hard work of critical thinking. It is the determination to fully understand an issue and the willingness to invest every effort until you do.

Thinking Skills

Critical thinking embodies a set of fundamental reasoning and problem-solving skills or competencies, listed in the graphic below.

critical-thinking-skills
Critical thinking skills

The critical thinker applies these systematically in reasoning through issues and analyzing problems. Like any skills, they are honed through diligent effort and constant practice.

Methodology in Arguments

Being able to recognize, characterize, and evaluate arguments is at the core of critical thinking. The process involves three steps:

1- Recognizing and characterizing the argument:
The critical thinker must be able to detect an argument wherever it might appear, in spoken or written communication. He or she should be keen to indicators*, word clues alluding to the presence of an argument and to its construction. Words such as “since,” “because,” or “for” are flags for reason statements, while words such as “therefore,” “thus,” “so,” and “hence” are flags for conclusion statements.

2- Evaluating sources
An argument rests upon the reasons it cites to support its conclusion. These reasons often take the form of facts drawn from sources of one kind or another. If the facts don’t hold up, neither does the argument. Validating the argument hinges on confirming the facts against reliable sources. For sources to be trustworthy, they must be credible, accurate, and unbiased. The task for the critical thinker is to establish that sources meet these criteria.

3- Evaluating the argument
The critical thinker follows three steps in evaluating an argument:

  • First is to establish whether its assumptions are warranted. In an argument, the assumptions are statements whose truth is taken for granted. An assumption is warranted when it is either known to be true, or is reasonable to accept without another argument supporting it. An assumption that fails to meet either of these criteria is unwarranted.
  • Second is to assess whether the reasoning behind the argument is relevant and sufficient. In other words, does it really pertain to the conclusion? And are there enough reasons presented to validate the argument?
  • Third is to determine whether relevant information has been left out. For an argument to be strong, it must present all the relevant evidence—not just what supports its conclusion. An argument that omits relevant evidence can appear misleadingly strong. The task for the critical thinker is to determine if an argument has failed to include all the relevant information.

Why Critical Thinking Matters

Critical thinking comprises a set of practical skills that, when applied effectively, can benefit us in every dimension of our lives. Mastering these reasoning and problem-solving skills enables us to identify arguments and evaluate their validity. It leads us to make more informed judgments about issues. When we think critically, we are less likely to jump to conclusions or accept others’ claims at face value. Reasoning things through fortifies us against those who would seek to manipulate our opinion. It also deepens our confidence in our own viewpoints because it sets high standards of justification for holding them.

Critical thinking is bound to make you a more effective communicator. As M. Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley observe, the skills you develop when you think critically will improve the quality of your writing and speaking. You will become more aware, when you write and speak, of how your own communication stands up to critical evaluation.

Examples

Consider a few hypothetical examples to see how critical thinking can benefit you in different facets of your life.

Consumer

home-for-sale-sign

You want to buy a house. You’ve shopped around for a mortgage and feel confident you’ve found a good deal, which you’re ready to seal. Before you do, you receive an unsolicited call from a competing mortgage lender who offers you even better terms. The offer, on its face, seems too good to be true.

You’re inclined to ignore it because, as a rule, you don’t trust telemarketing appeals – although you yourself have never been scammed by one. Plus, having already made a tentative decision, you’d rather not have to invest the effort in evaluating another offer.

You put aside your misgivings. You reason that the potential financial benefit to you, if the offer is legitimate, outweighs whatever effort you’re likely to incur to check into it. So you don’t dismiss it outright based on a presupposition that all telemarketing appeals must be bunk. You keep an open mind. You begin to formulate a chain of questions aimed at determining the offer’s credibility. You plot how to investigate the lender’s legitimacy. You are guided in your thinking by a healthy skepticism. In the end, you may find out that the offer is fool’s gold. But if your critical investigation reveals the offer to be “as advertised,” you will reap the benefit.

Professional

colleagues-shaking-hands

At work, you are tasked with solving some problem. You’re confident you have a suitable solution when a colleague approaches you with unsolicited input. The input, it turns out, includes a recommendation that runs counter to what you had in mind. The colleague is someone who, to your knowledge, has no demonstrated expertise regarding the problem. In the past, you have found this colleague’s ideas to be “undercooked” or not always relevant to the issue at hand. What’s more, you don’t have the smoothest working relationship with him. There’s no conflict between you. You just never have “clicked.”

This history might sway you to give the colleague’s input short shrift. Why bother with it? But you are not so dismissive. You resolve to give his input a fair hearing. As it turns out, his ideas are better formed than you would’ve expected. They seem cogent. So you choose to weigh them more carefully. You will evaluate them not on the basis of prejudicial feelings but on their merit (or lack of it). Points he raises expose some weaknesses in your proposed solution. His insights force you to rethink the problem. In the end, you arrive at a better solution for having welcomed your colleague’s ideas and allowed them to stand or fall based on their worthiness.

Concerned Citizen

vote-graphic

You attend a public forum about a proposed new commercial development in the town where you live. The forum takes place a week before a local election in which the proposed development will be put to a referendum vote. Advocates on each side of the issue, pro and anti, speak at the forum.

You find that both sides make persuasive cases for their positions. This you hadn’t foreseen. The truth is that you walked into the forum inclined to vote against the development. Your predisposition derives partly from your attitude in general about development and developers. But it also relies on a flyer you got in the mail detailing the case against the development. Now, having heard both sides, you’re not so sure what to conclude. You want to make an informed vote because the outcome of the referendum, one way or the other, will greatly impact your town’s future. You leave the forum resolved to do your homework on the issue. You will carefully weigh the claims on both sides. You will scrutinize the evidence each gives to support its position. You’ll look for any possible hidden agendas or lies of omission. You’ll solicit your neighbors’ opinions. When election day arrives, you’ll be confident of your vote and the reasoning that went into it.

Learning How to Problem Solve

Problem solving is a skill. Like any skill, it must be learned and then honed through repeated practice in order to achieve command of it. Problem solving through critical thinking is a systematic labor. It takes intellectual discipline and rigor. It requires an understanding of how a problem is properly approached: How to identify it. (What is the problem?) How to analyze it. How to reason your way through it via the elements and standards of critical thinking.

Effective problem solving begins with asking questions, what critical thinking experts instruct us are the right questions. Watch the following video to learn more about this topic.

Barriers to Critical Thinking

In our everyday lives, we constantly come up against influences and forces that impede our ability to think critically. These barriers, what critical thinking experts call hindrances, loom everywhere in our experience. Some are innate in us. They’re part of who we are. Others we encounter in the world around us. The barriers, wherever they exist, thwart thinking that strives to be critical. They limit our ability to reason and to be reasonable. They close our minds. They distort our view of something. These impediments discourage independent thinking and lead us to misunderstandings.

Our worldviews, biases, and established patterns of thinking also can impede us when we try to think critically. We can never be entirely free of these barriers. But if we aspire to think critically, we must recognize them, understand how they affect us, and strive to overcome them to the greatest extent possible.

Reasoning and Logic

Reasoning and logic are what power critical thinking. Reasoning directs our thinking to some order and coherence. Logic*, simply put, is what we apply to determine whether reasoning is valid or invalid. Without logic, we would lack the foundation for distinguishing a sound argument from a flawed one.

Elements of Reasoning

The elements of reasoning represent the basic building blocks of logical inquiry. Richard Paul described them as the “parts” of thinking. They are present whenever we reason through anything. The elements convey what we do when we think – make assumptions, for example, or conceptualize or draw conclusions.

Elements-of-Reasoning
Elements of Reasoning

When we think critically, we consciously use these elements as tools in our reasoning. Moreover, we measure them against the standards of critical thinking, which tell us whether our reasoning is sound and well-founded. These standards – accuracy, clarity, relevance, sufficiency, depth, breadth, and precision – determine the quality of our reasoning. The elements of reasoning applied hand-in-hand with the standards are the basis for critical thinking.

Logical Systems

Logic is the study of inference or reasoning. The realm of logic distinguishes between formal and informal systems. Critical thinking takes account of this distinction, as we will see.

Formal logic deals with deductive arguments. A deductive argument is said to be valid when the truth of its premises entails the truth of its conclusion. In any valid deductive argument, in other words, it must be impossible for both the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false. Consider the classic example of the deductively valid argument:

Deductive-Argument
Deductive Argument

A deductive argument infers to one-hundred percent certainty. This form of argument is not relevant to critical thinking because it involves conclusions that must follow from the premises and which are therefore beyond dispute.

Informal logic deals with inductive arguments. An inductive argument is based not on necessity, but on reasonable inference. The premises in a strong inductive argument support the conclusion. The truth of its premises, however, does not establish with absolute certainty that its conclusion is true. In an inductive argument, the premises do not (and are not supposed to) entail the truth of the conclusion.

The following illustrates a strong inductive argument:

Inductive-Argument
Inductive Argument

The strongest inductive argument can never meet the high standard of deductive validity. The most it can do is establish that its conclusion is in all probability true.

Most of the arguments we run up against in life are inductive. They produce probable conclusions based on reasonable grounds. But they cannot prove their conclusions with absolute certainty. For this very reason, inductive arguments and the informal logic by which they are judged are relevant to critical thinking. The critical thinker sets out to determine how well (i.e., to what degree) an inductive argument’s premises support the probability of its conclusion.

Weak inductive arguments commit informal logical fallacies, which are errors in reasoning. Even well-intentioned inductive arguments can include reasoning fallacies. The skilled critical thinker must be able to recognize the errors in reasoning and understand why they undermine the argument in which they appear.

Benefits of a Logical Approach

Logic benefits the critical thinker because it provides a rigorous construct for judging the reasoning behind an argument. When we apply logic to evaluate a claim someone has made, we ground our evaluation in something objective. A logical approach steers our reasoning to outcomes that can withstand challenges to their soundness. We might reach the same outcomes haphazardly, unguided by logic. But a logical approach delivers us to them with the rationale for how we got there.

The Human Factor

We should keep in mind the constructive limitations of logic in the human realm of problems. A logical approach goes only so far in helping us solve the complicated, confusing, often messy problems we so often face in the real world. Logic is crucial to critical thinking. But it can never take full account of the emotional human factor affecting how we see and respond to problems.

Mini-Case: Unstated Assumptions?

You are a business journalist visiting Laro Tech Software, a once-dominant company in the field of telecommunications software. In recent years, it has been struggling to compete with start-up firms from India and Israel, and has been plagued by complaints from customers that the company isn’t responsive when software bugs are discovered.

As you enter the main lobby of Laro Tech, there is a huge banner hanging from the ceiling. It reads:

laro-tech

When you ask your host for the day, Leslie Williams, a corporate communications specialist for Laro Tech, who she considers to be the company’s major competitors, she says the following:

“I’m not sure that Laro Tech has any real competitors. What we do is unique. Our software is the world’s best, and we have the largest market share. The companies that do try to compete are fighting for crumbs. At least that’s the way we see it.”

Williams introduces you to the Vice President of Customer Satisfaction, Alger Kirkland, and when you ask him about customer concerns regarding problems with Laro Tech’s software, he responds as follows:

“The problem isn’t with the Laro Tech software. We’ve discovered that the clients don’t install the software properly. So it isn’t a software bug, it’s a customer bug. We’re now looking at ways to explain and document the installation process—idiot-proofing it, in a sense —so we don’t have any whining about the product in the future.”

Then you conclude the day with a brief interview with John Laro, the founder and CEO of Laro Tech. When you ask him about Laro Tech’s strengths and weaknesses, here is what he says:

“Strengths and weaknesses? I don’t see Laro Tech in those terms. We are the global leader in what we do. I challenge you to find any other company that can develop software as elegant and efficient as ours. That is what we will be known for today and tomorrow. Excellence in software engineering and design. Some people might say that such an intense focus is a weakness. Let them. We have been successful because of my philosophy and we won’t change.”

Based on what you have learned from your visit to Laro Tech, what would you say are the unstated assumptions that its managers make about the world? What are the unstated values?

Suggested/Sample Response

What a critical thinking expert thinks Laro Tech’s assumptions and values are.

Laro Tech’s assumptions and values

What are the unstated assumptions that LaroTech managers make about the world?

What are the unstated values?

Among the assumptions that LaroTech managers make about the world are the following:

1. LaroTech’s success will continue in the future. Because LaroTech has been successful in the past, it can continue to be successful in the future (this is clear from the huge banner in the lobby, and the comments made by the founder, John Laro, who says: “We are the global leader in what we do. I challenge you to find any other company who can develop software as elegant and efficient as ours. That is what we will be known for today and tomorrow.”

2. Having the world’s ‘best software’ is enough. LaroTech’s corporate communications specialist and CEO both cite excellence in software development as the key to success. Yet other factors, including marketing and sales and customer support, play a part in customer satisfaction and these factors are ignored.

3. LaroTech has no credible competitors. In today’s global marketplace, this is a very dangerous assumption to make. Those firms from India and Israel that are gaining market-share should be seen as competitors, but they aren’t.

4. LaroTech knows better than the customer. Alger Kirkland, the head of LaroTech’s customer service makes it clear that “customer bugs,” not “software bugs” are responsible for any customer concerns. That suggests LaroTech isn’t listening to customers and isn’t looking at its products and services from a customer-centric perspective.

Some of the key values LaroTech’s corporate culture emphasizes are:

  • Technical expertise
  • Product design excellence
  • Industry leadership
  • Market dominance

Some of the values LaroTech apparently doesn’t emphasize are:

  • Customer responsiveness
  • Competitive awareness
  • Humility

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