Critical Thinking Is 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 feel they are thinking critically when they're actually doing the very opposite.
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 that's available and are always 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.