The Basics of Critical Thinking

Here is an overview of what critical thinking is all about and why it is probably the most important skill we have.

Critical Thinking is concerned with thinking clearly and rationally about what to think and what to do.

As we make decisions and choices thousands of times a day, whether actively or passively, this covers almost every situation and context in our life. Critical thinking can be used everywhere – in work, in romance, in home life, in our hobbies, on our holidays, and in our relationships with friends and family. It is important whether we work in education, finance, tourism, research, management, or any other sector or field.

Every day there are elements that reduce our ability to make clear decisions based on good reasons. Our friends or colleagues subtly pressure us into making biased choices, the news we read seeks to influence our viewpoint on something important, our own expectations and desires negatively impact on what we choose to do. Sometimes we simply go along with it, largely unaware of the manipulation. Sometimes we ‘just let things happen’ passively rather than getting involved.

Key concepts involved in critical thinking include the following:

Accuracy or clarity. If we are using unclear, misleading or incorrect information to start with, then any decisions we make based on such bad information are likely to be bad decisions. Garbage in and garbage out, as the saying goes. For example, a mechanic orders the wrong car part for a customer because it was not clear which model the customer’s car was.

Completeness is another related concept. Have we considered all avenues? Have some possibilities been obscured by our lack of research, or even by other people hoping for a certain outcome? For example, a tobacco company pays for research and then presents a report which omits key findings in the research in order to avoid taking responsibility.

Relevance. How relevant in the information we are using? Is someone else trying to fool us by using information that is not relevant or even related to the context we are dealing with? Any counter-arguments must remain relevant to be of genuine use to us when finding appropriate solutions. For example, in a discussion between neighbours about the location of the fence between them, one neighbour suddenly starts talking about noise issues to deflect quite reasonable debate on the original topic.

Consistency. We must always be on the lookout for inconsistencies in our beliefs and statements and the beliefs and statements of others. If our beliefs or statements contradict or oppose one another, we need to undertake more work to get to the bottom of which ones are more justified and why the inconsistency has occurred at all. We must also always guard against those who display inconsistency between what they say and what they do (many politicians fall into the category!) For example, a regional governor introduces a by-law to prevent fishing at a popular lake yet is seen just days later fishing there!

Fairness. Impartiality is at the very heart of critical thinking. We must not let our desires, personal preferences and biases (what we want to be the outcome) influence what the logic tells us really ought to be the outcome. The only arbiter is truth itself. And equally, if more evidence comes to light in the future to suggest we were wrong and that a different choice or result is more likely or more accurate then we must be able to accept that with good grace. Once again, the only arbiter is truth itself, and that truth is best identified by good evidence. This is the ‘tried and tested’ cornerstone of modern scientific thought and democracy. For example, a football fan complains about unsportsmanlike behaviour every time a member of the other team tackles players from his favourite team, yet never says a word when it happens the other way around.

Analysis and evaluation of possible consequences. Once we have weighed up various options open to us, discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each, and considered multiple perspectives and viewpoints, we must consider in detail the most likely consequences of each possible action. To do this, drawing diagrams and making lists can help us visualize the options, pros and cons of each, and possible outcomes.

And if we can incorporate critical thinking skills into our everyday lives, we can edit our habits in positive ways, and even benefit others around us and in wider society.