I have, for some time, been concerned about the quality of critical thinking, especially as it relates to our consumption of news. I pulled the following material together from various sources for a project I am working on and thought it might be useful to others who: 1) are similarly concerned about the general quality of critical thinking in the world; 2) would like some reference material on the subject; and 3) would like some documentation to share with friends and associates whose critical thinking skills could use some sharpening.
Basic Precepts of Critical Thinking (v 0.4)
Critical Thinking is making sure we have good reasons for our beliefs because good reasons make the belief probable. An argument is a set of statements called premises. Premises comprise a reason for believing a conclusion. In a good argument the premises support the conclusion. –Khan Academy: “Introduction to Critical Thinking” https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/wi-phi/wiphi-critical-thinking/wiphi-fundamentals/v/intro-to-critical-thinking
The earliest documentation of critical thinking are the teachings of Socrates recorded by Plato. Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in “authority” to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief.
He established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well. His method of questioning is now known as “Socratic Questioning” and is the best known critical thinking teaching strategy. In his mode of questioning, Socrates highlighted the need for thinking for clarity and logical consistency. Socrates asked people questions to reveal their irrational thinking or lack of reliable knowledge. Socrates demonstrated that having authority does not ensure accurate knowledge. He established the method of questioning beliefs, closely inspecting assumptions and relying on evidence and sound rationale. Plato recorded Socrates’ teachings and carried on the tradition of critical thinking. Aristotle and subsequent Greek skeptics refined Socrates’ teachings, using systematic thinking and asking questions to ascertain the true nature of reality beyond the way things appear from a glance.
Socrates set the agenda for the tradition of critical thinking, namely, to reflectively question common beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing beliefs that are reasonable and logical from those that—however appealing to our native egocentrism, however much they serve our vested interests, however comfortable or comforting they may be—lack adequate evidence or rational foundation to warrant belief.
Critical thinking was described by Richard W. Paul as a movement in two waves (1994). The “first wave” of critical thinking is often referred to as a ‘critical analysis’ that is clear, rational thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Barry K. Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned, well thought out, and judged. The U.S. National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” —Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinking
Farnam Street 11 Rules for Critical Thinking
- All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level. (Stephen Schneider)
- Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. (Dandemis)
- Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. (Francis Bacon)
- Never fall in love with your hypothesis. (Peter Medawar)
- It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
- A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong. (Francis Crick)
- The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. (Richard Feynman)
- To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact. (Charles Darwin)
- It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)
- Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. (Thomas Jefferson)
- All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)
*See “The Baloney Detection Kit: A summary of Critical Thinking”: https://fs.blog/2014/01/the-baloney-detection-kit/
Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Critical Thinking
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Carl Sagan’s Rules for Critical Thinking and Nonsense-Detection
- 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 — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
- Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.