Critical thinking promotes the development of well supported opinions which facilitate making good decisions and taking actions. Critical thinking is based on a repeatable and reliable (in terms of consistently promoting good outcomes) methodology. The process should be disciplined, i.e. it must be:
- Rational— based on reason, facts and logic.
- Informed/Evidence Driven— based on verifiable facts.
- Open minded— willing to consider all points of view as inputs to the process.
- Explainable— if you can’t explain how you reached your conclusions, the process is flawed.
- Reproducible— other people must be able to go through the same process and get to the same end-point.
Critical thinking requires that the individual has the competence to understand and interpret the evidence that provides the input to the critical thinking process. As such critical thinking requires a rigorous approach to:
- Identifying a situation that merits an investment of one’s time. Not every subject requires or even merits critical thinking. And, we don’t have the time or energy to spend time on topics that don’t merit the effort;
- Evaluating the facts. This is often the most time-consuming portion of critical thinking and requires a thorough review of the situation, gathering the information necessary to do a proper evaluation.
- Understanding of the facts. And a rote understanding is not sufficient. Understanding the substance and context what we are really looking for. My favorite example is the Moldboard Plow. There are interesting engineering characteristics associated with the plow, it has a unique look and it is efficient. To look at it you wouldn’t realize that it changed the course of human history. I refer those that are interested in understanding why to William McNeill’s The Rise of the West.
- Making a decision or set of decisions. Good decisions rely on good information and a rigorous approach to reviewing, weighing and interpreting the facts in the context of the current (often influenced by a knowledge of the history—more facts!) situation. I would like to reiterate that it is important that the decision-maker have the competence (either themselves or from trusted advisors) to correctly interpret the facts; and
- Acting upon them. I would argue that this last item, which involves taking affirmative action, is the reason for critical thinking, i.e. if you don’t act (or explicitly, based on the first 4 steps outlined above, decide not to) your investment in critical thinking is wasted.
What are the alternatives to critical thought:
- Heuristics— heuristics can be thought of as rules of thumb. They substitute for critical thinking when one runs into the same situation again and again. Once a pattern can be discerned, a simple rule substitutes for the more rigorous (time and energy consuming) process associated with critical thought.
- Analytical thinking with a Cognitive Bias—this often masquerades as critical thinking. It is driven by a desire to get to a predetermined finding irrespective of the facts. It often disregards, misinterprets or makes up facts to support its predefined outcome. And, it may be overly (I say overly, because all thinking is influenced to some extent by emotion) influenced by emotional considerations.
- Impulsive Decision-making. This has many of the same general characteristics as Analytical thinking with a cognitive bias, but dispenses with the pretense of using facts or analytics. This approach to decision-making is often referred to as being based on gut instinct.
I outline these alternatives, because, more and more, they are being substituted for critical thinking and understanding their shortcomings helps to reinforce the power of a more rigorous approach to thinking and making good decisions:
- Heuristics— This approach is effective when it is used appropriately. One must pay attention to ensure that the situation to which it is being applied is the same as the situation for which it was developed. So, even here some of the attributes of critical thinking must be applied to produce good outcomes.
- Analytical thinking with a Cognitive Bias— takes facts and consistency, logic out of the decision-making equation. This make decisions potentially inconsistent and fundamentally unpredictable because the practitioner of analytical thinking with a cognitive bias isn’t constrained by having to reconcile their thinking (facts or approach to decision making) across subject areas or time.
- Impulsive Decision-making—same as above, but with even less constraint on consistency or predictability.
As I think about the last two alternatives (bulleted directly above) to critical thinking I am reminded of a quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Moving forward. If you don’t believe that better decisions are made using a rigorous methodology built around facts and logic, learn more about the OODA-loop. The OODA-loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) was developed by the US Air Force for its fighter pilots. The methodology is based on taking facts (observe), understanding their meaning (orient), making a decision (decide) and doing something about it (act).
And, the fighter pilots who used the OODA-loop performed statistically better than those who didn’t use it. They also, importantly, achieved a 10 to 1 kill ratio against enemy pilots (who were equipped with more capable jets) who also didn’t use the methodology.
Let me be clear, I know that there are more to decisions than facts and numbers. Other inputs include one’s judgment, worldview (moral compass, values, etc.), experience and understanding of human nature. But, having an approach and going through a process which validates the numbers and facts and then carefully applies the subjective mask in the decision-making process provides a let of rigor that provides a level of validation to the decision.
In closing let me make two points:
- Two people both applying the same critical thinking methodology will not necessarily come to the same conclusion and take the same action. This is because as stated above, not all inputs to a decision are facts. Opinion, values, experience and how one weights the facts also play a role in decision-making. So, the use of critical thinking does not result in everyone agreeing on the answers.
- The likelihood that two individuals who have both used discipline critical thinking to form their opinions (as a prelude to making decisions and taking actions) will be able to easily identify where their differences are and be able to discuss them rationally is much higher than if they had not employed critical thinking. And, this is something that is both very important and (more and more) generally missing from discourse on the most critical of issues that we face.
Once one becomes used to applying the discipline of critical thinking, it becomes a regular part of every decision that one makes, even if one decides not to apply a fully rigorous application of critical thinking to a given situation. Why is this. I believe that it feels good to have a support (coming out of a disciplined process) for one’s decision-making. And, “feels good” is a legitimate reason to do something. But more than that, being able to provide a rational, well informed reason for an action makes it easier to justify (to yourself or others) if that should become necessary.
Copyright 2017 Howard Niden