Critical Thinking: An Often Misunderstood Idea

A while back, I read about a father who told his son that he should not accept the Theory of Evolotion just because he learned about it in Biology class at school. Just because experts in the field of Biology say that Evolution has and does occur, we shouldn't simply take it as truth. He went on to say that he is teaching his son to think critically.

Obviously, this father assumes that critical thinking refers to questioning and criticizing in the more negative sense of the word. But this father completely misunderstands what critical thinking actually is. In fact, this is not at all uncommon. Many people will make the claim that there is no such thing as truth. Everything is just someone's opinion and no one is actually right or wrong. These people think they are thinking critically when they are actually doing the very opposite.

La Pensierosa (The Thinker) by John William Godward (1861–1922)
La Pensierosa (The Thinker) by John William Godward (1861–1922)

What is Critical Thinking?

One definition of critical relates to finding fault, which is probably the definition the father above used when he thought he was teaching his son how to think critically. But the word critical in critical thinking refers more to using "skillful judgment as to truth, merit, etc." 1

There are many definitions of critical thinking. To put simply, critical thinking refers to:

  • Identifying and evaluating arguments
  • Finding inconsistencies and logical fallacies in arguments
  • Problem solving
  • Thinking about our own beliefs and why we hold them

Diane Halpern, author of Thought & Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, a book about teaching critical thinking skills uses this definition:

...making judgments and solving problems—it is using skills and strategies that will make "desirable outcomes" more likely.

Critical thinkers are also able to change their mind or the conclusion that
they reached, when new information warrants such a change. They do not need to hold onto an old idea that is no longer justified.

She defines noncriticial thought as:

...the rote recall of information (e.g., listing state capitals) or the failure to consider evidence that might support a conclusion that you do not like.

Halpern says that learning critical thinking skills will:

...help everyone recognize propaganda and thus not fall prey to it, analyze unstated assumptions in arguments, realize when there is deliberate deception, consider the credibility of an information source, and think a problem or a decision through in the best way possible.

Closed-Minded and Open-Minded Thinkers

A closed-minded person is someone who responds negatively when presented with new ideas that challenge their existing beliefs. They don't even want to consider new ideas or evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. These are the people who insist that everything is just an opinion and even an expert's opinion is no better than anyone else's.

In contrast, an open-minded person suspends judgment. They seek out more information, including information that goes against beliefs they currently hold. They review the evidence and are open to new ways of thinking. They consider all options and persist in finding a solution.

How a Lack of Critical Thinking Impacts Policy Making

Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governours, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
--- James Madison

On a policy level, most people pursue a closed-minded approach. For example, people are usually either for or against illegal immigration. Very few people approach policy questions in an open-minded way: considering both sides of the issue and trying to find the best possible solution. Voters will often reject politicians who try to be open-minded in favor of those who take a hard stance on one side or the other. This leads to either stalemate when trying to solve problems, which is definitely the case with illegal immigration right now. Or it leads to solutions that are far from the best.

If we are to have open-minded, critical thinking policy makers who come up with the best solutions to the problems we face, we must have an open-minded, critical thinking electorate. Unfortunately, we are far from that. According to Diane Halpern:

...only 25% of first-year college students possess the skills needed for logical abstract thought—the type of thought needed to answer "what would happen if.. ." questions and to comprehend abstract concepts

How to Become a Critical Thinker

To become a critical thinker you need to ask questions and be open-minded about the answers. You need to know how to do research and look for credible sources. You have to think about your own thinking and question why you hold the beliefs you do. Be aware of the preconceived ideas you bring to an argument. You should become aware of the various logical fallacies (there are a lot of them) and learn to look for them in arguments. 2 You need to learn how to evaluate evidence.

If you want in depth information on how to think critically there are many good books available that cover logical fallacies, reasoning, evaluating arguments and evidence.

References:

1. Dictionary.com
2. Wikipedia has a list of the various logical fallacies with a brief definition of each

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Comments 5 comments

f_hruz profile image

f_hruz 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Great hub!

It's quite hard to do any self-analysis without first learning how to apply critical thought ... but for many, the highest level of thought is the creation of an idea to validate their own emotions and not even try to understand them rationally!

It's such a silly thing when people say, we are all free to have our own ideas and imply with it, all ideas are of equal value to any other, no matter the difference in experience, education or qualification of the person presenting the idea or its foundation.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 5 years ago from California Author

Thanks f_hruz. Critical thinking is very hard to do. It's so much easier to continue believing what you have always believed and insist that your beliefs have validity even when evidence proves they are wrong.


carcro profile image

carcro 5 years ago from Winnipeg

Good info here, critical thinking is important to everyone that wants to succeed in life. You use it in your personal and business life, it is the way to achieve your dreams. Thanks for sharing! Voted Up and Awesome.


adagio4639 profile image

adagio4639 19 months ago from Brattleboro Vermont

Excellent Hub. Evidence that so few people employ critical thinking is that there are only 3 comments on this Hub. Personally, I don't know how people function without applying critical thinking to everyday life, but it's clear to me that they don't. I think it's necessary to question our own beliefs. Really challenge them and see if they lead us into a state of infinite regress in trying to justify a basis for what we believe. Foundationalists have this problem. They require a foundation for their belief. The problem is that when they do that, they're saying that beliefs require foundations or bases. If that's true then what is the foundation for the foundation? If everything requires a basis, then what is the basis for the basis? a basis cannot be it's own basis. That's circular reasoning and a logical fallacy. When arguing with a person, if they hold an ideology, it won't ever be able to withstand any critical thinking. It can't justify itself. All attempts to do that will lead to infinite regress which I mentioned above.

I think that the enormous gap and division that we see in our country today is a result of a large segment of the country rebelling against critical thinking, logic, reason and all rationality.


Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 19 months ago from California Author

adagio4639,

It's a large segment of the world's population that either doesn't know how to think critically or is actively opposed to it. I'm often astounded when I read online discussions where people express beliefs that are clearly wrong or hypocritical but they won't ever budge from those beliefs no matter how much contrary evidence is shown to them. It's nice to come across those rare mature few who are willing to change their minds when presented with evidence that conflicts with their prior beliefs.

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