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Updated on August 13, 2014

What is "Critical Thinking?"

Do you feel confident that you know what "critical thinking" as a skill refers to?

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The Trouble with Critical Thinking Skills

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has devised and has been administering the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, by means of which high school students across many different countries are evaluated for critical thinking skills. The test targets the areas of Math, Science and reading. Successful performance is a good predictor not only of higher-education accomplishments but also of future financial success. High-paying jobs crucially require performance that draws on critical thinking and analytical skills that can be applied in contexts across the board. These skills are objectively testable; terms like "critical thinking" connote specific abilities to evaluate arguments, test for consistency, and so on; they involve complex reasoning, not emotional or reactive rendering of opinion.
PISA tests are administered to 15-year old high school students across the 65 countries that generate 90% of global economic activity. There is no pre-selection based on grade, achievement, or socio-economic status for participation in the testing. It is alarming that American high school students always lag behind their counterparts from the other developed economies. College ought to pick up the slack but university education too has been flailing when it comes to honing those analytical and complex skills which are crucial for attacking and solving nascent problems both in rigorous disciplines and in the working place.
In a study published by the University of Chicago Press in 2011, under the title Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa tracked 2,300 college students attending 46 institutions of higher learning: their conclusion, based on extensive data and rigorous analysis of student performance, was that nearly half of college students did not show any significant improvement in the range of skills that include critical thinking and complex reasoning, analytical reasoning and writing skills. The gains were higher in the liberal arts and smaller in business and vocationally oriented majors. The book triggered a debate about the value of higher education but, it is worth noting, colleges and universities are still the only institutions, within the raucous cacophony spewed by video-gaming and the entertainment industry, which can make relevant courses available for the development of reasoning-related skills. The book found that students who showed no improvement whatsoever avoided challenging classes and took only courses that assign fewer than forty pages of reading per week and fewer than twenty pages of rigorously reasoned writing per semester. The press advertisement for the book puts it succinctly: "... Higher education faces crises on a number of fronts, but Arum and Roksa’s report that colleges are failing at their most basic mission will demand the attention of us all." The prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education characterized the book as a "damning indictment of the American higher-education system." Bill Gates mused, “Before reading this book, I took it for granted that colleges were doing a very good job.”

What Are Critical Thinking Skills

It is fast becoming a trite cliche to insist that college students need to cultivate "critical thinking skills" but a survey of both students and academics in most fields of study would probably show that it is not clear to them what "critical thinking" refers to in this context. A simple test can be applied, though: an immediate reaction to what we mean by "critical thinking" is likely to include paraphrases like "being able to react critically to what is being studied." It might be a sign that the person so responding has not studied critical thinking in the first place because this response suffers from a defect that is immediately obvious to the student of critical thinking: circularity. The defieniendum (what is being defined, "critical thinking") is included, still undefined, in the definiens (what does the defining.)

Another common view of what "critical thinking" must consist in - extracted from a surface reading of the word "critical" - takes this cluster of skills to consist in something like reacting to what is being studied in ways that question and possibly challenge; the contrast in this respectis to the passive acceptance of tutorial authority that had been characteristic of traditional systems of education. To be sure, blind acceptance of what authoritative sources dictate is an educational pathology that both hampers genuine learning and makes progress in any area of human achievement difficult. A moment's thought, however, should show that, so defined, "critical thinking" turns out to be so over-broad that, surely, almost every class practices it. It is hard to imagine classes in which students are asked to make they ... don't think critically in the sense of "critical" indicated. Of course, in the hard subjects, only a genius could exercise critical reactions to the subject even at the level of preliminary or introductory courses. This may reinforce the impression that "critical thinking" might have something to do with the open-ended, often undisciplined practices of certain popular academic subjects that lack rigor or method. This is unfortunate because the problem with such subjects is precisely that they do nothing to recognize the need for the development of "critical thinking" skills in the proper sense of the term. When you hear affirmations to the effect that "it all depends on opinion" or "everyone is right" - this smacks of a complete breakdown of attempts to cultivate critical thinking. Because "critical thinking" as a skill to be cultivated in education has to do with reasoning! A better term really is "complex reasoning." Of course, one could philosophically subscribe to the view that reasoning works in such a way that "truth is the same as opinion, and, hence, everyone can be right even though they disagree." There is a response to this. It might surprise you that I am not responding by outlawing, dogmatically, this approach. Rather, I would put it this way: if this is the view you adopt philosophically - a relativistic view about truth, for instance - it is not that you make reasoning norms go away and be replaced by lazy "do-as-you-please" habits. Instead, you actually raise the stakes: the norms that govern reasoning become more complicated, not less! Not only you can give up the study of Logic; you actually need more and more Logic to accommodate non-traditional claims about how reasoning works. And, by the way, the fundamentals of reasoning terminology and such matters do not change, of course.

It should have emerged by now that "critical thinking skills" have to do with reasoning and with the study of what is known as Logic - which includes both Formal and Informal Logic. It is not the case that this some novel discipline. The study of Logic is ancient - it works something like the study of grammar which does not depend on prior developments in some academic environment but is a foundational or preliminary matter that offers a "basement", so to speak, for the whole edifice of studies. This is because whatever one studies - and any time one reasons, obviously - the "logical grammar" comes into play: is our reasoning correct or not? Aristotle called the compendium of his Logic lectures "Organon," which means in his language "the instrument." You need to learn how to play this instrument if you are to advance in any area that utilizes reasoning - and it is inconceivable, of course, that any field of studies can be unhinged from reasoning. When your physician draws conclusions from premises, she produces a new statement (the conclusion, which is new to everyone, including her); the question is whether the premises she used support this conclusion or if the inference is warranted. At this point, your physician is operating as a logician and not as a physician! It is important that you understand this so you can make sense of what we mean when we say that Logic is foundational to all endeavors.

So put, the trouble with critical thinking is that it is not required in school! How can we explain this?

There are unexpected difficulties in the study of reasoning. Evolutionary pressures exerted on our biological ancestors did not select reasoning ability. So, we find the study of Logic difficult while we are attracted to sugar or ice cream. Visual processing is also important - our biological ancestors must have benefited for survical and reproduction from processing visual stimuli rather than drawing conclusions about their surroundings. The animal fled, just to be on the safe side. Notice the unhinghed panic-reactions that plague us today - sustaining a whole industry of psychotropical drugs. On the other hand, a course that requires precise reasoning and scrutnization of arguments is bound to be unpopular! Add movies to a course and it becomes "fun."

Moreover, unlike the grammar of a language that can, to some extent, be picked up by just playing along with the natives in learning the language, reasoning norms (the rules of the reasoning game) cannot be picked up by just studying more and more. A historian who had studied Logic wrote a book once, entitled Historians' Fallacies. Not to take his word for it, but he presented a sustained analysis of hundreds of arguments from classical texts, academic work and textbooks in History, showing that those arguments are defective. You could be studying those texts, and more of them for everafter, without ever coming to realize that arguments (and which arguments) are defective (or "fallacious" as the term of choice is.)

Logic comes in two basic varieties: Deductive and Inductive. It is shocking to the beginner - often the shock is not overcome and learning halts - that deductive reasoning does not depend on empirical content (information about the world, factual descriptions, verifying or testing something "out there" in the "real" world.) Instead, deductive reasoning depends entirely on logical structure or patterns ("logical form" is the term used in Logic.) Deep down, deductive reasoning correctness depends on the meanings of certain special worlds of a language (at least this is a widely accepted theory.) You might object now that "how a language works" is very much an empirical matter. Sure, but we take us as being competent in linguistic matters. Now, you can cut yourself off entirely from the world, in a prison cell in perennial isolation, and you aren't any worse off if your target is the study of deductive reasoning. This apparent oddity (the deductive reasoning is a matter of how abstract structures work) is the reason why such stalwarts of antiquity as Socrates or Plato, whose life was dedicated to reasoning and refuting, did found the study of Logic. This privilege belongs rather to Aristotle who understood that deductive arguments are to be studied not empirically but in the way we study abstract objects. For instance, Geometry commences with stipulating that certain truths (axioms) are to be accpeted - without proof and without empirical testing or verification - and certain rules of inference are to be granted, and then proceeds to prove theorems. Aristotle accepted an abstract argument structure as his axiom and proceeded methodically to investigate if other argument forms are also correct (like his axiom is.) "Correctness" means this: whatever sentences you plug in as premises and conclusion of an argument that has a "correct" logical form, you are guaranteed that IF the premises are all true, then the conclusion cannot fail to be true. Aristotle's axiomatically posited argument form is: "All X are Y; All Y are Z; Therefore, all X are Z." Notice that it doesn't matter what classes of things you plus in for X, Y, Z. This is it. Aristotle defended his axiom as being self-evident or obvious but an additional complication, and difficulty, in Logic is that the subject of Logic is NOT a matter of psychology and it is not at all about what may come across as "obvious." The scores of suckers who "buy" defective arguments made all the time by advertisers, politicians, preachers or anyone else "think" psychologically that the bad arguments are persuasive. They are persuaded, of course, but they should not be if they could reason - if thay possessed those critical thinking skills we are talking about.

Beside deductive reasoning we also have inductive reasoning. Unlike deductive, inductive reasoning does not work with "correct" abstract logical structures. Instead, in inductive reasoning the conclusion is given on the basis of the premises in the understanding that: if the premises are indeed true, the conclusion is quite likely to be true too (but it doesn't have to be true as in deductive reasoning.) There is no systematic way of specifying how to assess the degree of probability that the conclusion is true if the premises are true; or to determine a threshhold of probability of this, below which inductive arguments are to be rejected. It is better to think of inductive arguments as being stronger or weaker when compares with other inductive arguments. For instance: the inductive argument that concludes that "all pigs like to wallow in the mud" on the basis of observing 1,000 pigs over 1,000 days is stronger than the inductive argument that reaches the same conclusion on the basis of observing 500 pigs over 200 days - and this again is stronger than one that reaches this conclusion with premises from observing 100 pigs over 30 days, and so on... It is, however, the case that certain inductive arguments are to be rejected altogether - not simply considered rather weak but considered unacceptable. Induction itself can be too weak to be acceptable: for instance, concluding that "all swans are white" on the basis of observation of just 100 swans; even doing so by observing 1,000 swans can be considered as too weak to be acceptable. Such inductive arguments suffer from the informal fallacy called "Weak Induction."

Inductive arguments can also suffer from other types of logical flaws (informal fallacies) that make them unacceptable. For instance, the premises may be irrelevant to the conclusion that is presumably supported by them. Or some word or phrase may be used equivocally (not having the same meaning in all sentences in which it occurs.) Or crucial premises may be suppressed or omitted. Or, perhaps, some assumptions are made or presumed, which are not warranted. All these reasons generate logical flaws that are typical of inductive arguments - and these flaws are called Informal Fallacies.

Deductive arguments, on the other hand, are "correct" or "incorrect" (the terms in Logic are, respectively, "valid" and "invalid") based only on the form or abstract structure they have. Deductive argument correctness, then, does not depend on what is going on in the world. Any argument that has the form "if X, then Y; not-X; therefore, not-Y" is INVALID. This means that it is possible for some argument of this form to have all true premises and yet also have a false conclusion. Such an example is called counterexample to the given form. It doesn't matter if you have an argument with this form, which actually has a true conclusion: the argument is still flawed, incorrect (a formal fallacy, we say); it is coincidental that your conclusion is true; this conclusion is not supported deductively by the premises (because, as we just said, it is possible that an argment of this type can have all true premises and a false conclusion.) The game in deductive reasoning is that the conclusion MUST be supported necessarily by true premises - no degree or likelihood of support but absolute support so that it is not logically possible to have all true premises and a false conclusion. So, take the argument in English: "if you are dressed shabbily, you will be fired; you are not dressed shabbily; therefore, you won't be fired." You are tempted psychologically to take this as a "good" or correct argument - true premises would surely support a true conclusion. And yet, it is not! Look at its form: it is the invalid logical form we introduced above. You might be able to produce a counterexample by thinking about this but don't count on being able to do so! Let us think about the argument we just produced. Take the premises to be all (both of them) true. Yet, you could still be fired for some other reason besides your dress code! In this case, it is possible to concentrate and get a counterexample going but, more often than not, we cannot count on our abilities to do this. We should really know valid and invalid forms and recognize them on the spot. This clearly requires study - it is not something that comes to us automatically or even something we can acquire by prolonged study of other subjects.

A deductive argument can be valid and have premises that are not to be accepted as true. IF the premises were true, the conclusion would be guaranteed to be true, but the premises are not true. The argument is still valid - it does have a valid form -- but we say that it is not sound (it doesn't have all true premises.) We don't accept unsound arguments. Notice, though, that the flaw in an unsound argument is not logical: the logical form is valid; IF the premises WERE true, there would be no possible situation in which the conclusion can be false. The problem with unsound arguments lies in how the world works - and we said that deductive reasoning is not a matter of discovery about facts in the world. The unsound argument is not good but its "badness" is not deductive-logical; it is a matter of its premises just happening not to be true as things are.

Venn-diagrammatic representation of "if X, then Y." Notice that this means the same as "not(X-and-not-Y.)
Venn-diagrammatic representation of "if X, then Y." Notice that this means the same as "not(X-and-not-Y.)
Venn-diagrammatic proof of Aristotle's Axiom (known as the AAA1 syllogism in the literature since Medieval times.)
Venn-diagrammatic proof of Aristotle's Axiom (known as the AAA1 syllogism in the literature since Medieval times.)

Deductive - Inductive Reasoning: Examples

Here are some examples:

  1. "Since Aristotle said so, you can count on it that Aquinas also accepts this principle." (Premise: Aristotle has said so-and-so. Hidden Premise: If Aristotle says something, Aquinas most often accepts what Aristotle had said. Conclusion: Aquinas, most most likely, accepts so-and-so.) As constructed, you can see that this is an Inductive Argument. It is rather strong based on the frequency with which Aquinas accepts the "philosopher's" authority. We could have constructed this to be a Deductive Argument: "Everything Aristotle says, Aquinas accepts. Aristotle said so-and-so. Therefore, Aquinas accepts so-and-so." This is a valid deductive argument - it has the valid Predicate-Logic form: "All X are Y; a is an X; therefore, a is a Y. " But this argument is unsound. The first premise is not true: it is not absolutely true that Aquinas accepts everything Aristotle had said (rarely Aquinas does part ways from the master.) Logical charity dictates that we take the given argument to be a strong inductive argument rather than an unsound deductive argument.
  2. "All rowers are straight-A students, in our database. Our database also shows that all Physics majors are straight-A students. Therefore, it must be the case that all rowers are Physics majors." The argument is deductive as given. It has a logical form we can discern: "All X are Y. All X are Z. Therefore, all Y are Z." It is INVALID. We don't even have to check for soundness since the logical test - the validity test - is flunked.
  3. "Rowers are good students because discipline and hard work are absolutely enforced in rowing practice." Depending on the context - what is being discussed and how - this might not be an argument at all. It could be an explanation. If it is not disputed at all that "rowers are good students" then this sentence ("rowers are good students") is not a conclusion: the conclusion of an argument is the "hot spot" - what is disputable, what must be proven. If we don't have a conclusion, we cannot possibly have an argument. So, the above example would be an explanation, not an argument. Not to be disputed that rowers are good students, an explanation is ventured as to why this is so. Of course, you could have a different context, in which there is a dispute or controversy as to whether rowers are good students -- in that case, the above example would constitute an argument, not an explanation.
  4. "If synchronized clocks are placed in supersonic planes, they are found to have slowed down when the plane comes back." This is not an argument; it is just an "if--then" statement. Often, "if---then" statements may be arguments indeed- once again, context is important. Keep in mind the following conversion between "if--then" statements and arguments. If we have "if x and y, then z" this is the same as having "x; y; therefore, z" or "x and y, therefore z."

Why Isn't It All A Matter of Opinion?

Whether an argument works or not is not a matter of opinion. Whether a statement expresses a logically necessary truth is not a matter of opinion.

I might think that the following argument works - that the premises support the conclusion, so that if the premises are true the conclusion has to be true. "Anyone who fails the exam, fails the class. I did not fail the exam. Therefore, I cannot possibly fail the class." Then I am shocked to find out thatstill I failed the class. "This is impossible," I protest. "What do you mean 'impossible?'" I am asked. "Like "it is impossible thst Superman flies?" "Stronger than that," I say; "logically impossible." But I am wrong. Look at the argument above. Let's extract its logical form. "If X, then Y. Not-X. Therefore, not-Y." This is an invalid argument form. We can have all true premises in an argument that has this form and still have a false conclusion. This logical form is logically flawed: it does not guarantee that if we put true premises in, the conclusion is to be true too. Even if the judges of my complaint about failing the class agree with me, they are wrong and embarrassingly so. It is like an absurd situation in which I insist that "a triangle has four angles" and a majority supports my notion. We are all wrong. Why? The set meanings of the words "triangle", "three," and "angles" make my statement false - and that's it. In the case of the incorrect argument form we saw above, the key words are "if-then" and "not." It is the way these words are defined in the language that makes this argument form invalid.

What happens when we cross from one culture to another? (Properly speaking, what happens when we cross from one linguistic community into another?) Any language has normative force: it orders how words are to be used. Even if we assumed that a different linguistic community has a language with a different Logic from ours, we would still have to study their logic! We would be lost, confused, in their community otherwise. Relax, though, because there is no evidence that we run into this predicament when crossing linguistic boundaries.

Notice that in everything we have said about Logic, psychology plays no role. Subjectively, psychologically, I was convinced that my argument worked: how could I possibly fail the class since I did not fail the exam and the rule was that you fail the class if you fail the exam? (If you are logically trained, you notice that the rule doesn't say "only if you fail the exam.") Psychologically speaking, I was indignant: I thought an injustice has been perpetrated (well, being confused here too, by the way, because my protest was on logical grounds.) But my odychology was misleading. Logic works in such a way that the argument I had propounded is and always will be invalid.

The test for Law School admission, LSAT, is a logic test. Suppose I sue the company that produces the test on the grounds that I received low scores even though I answered all the questions accurately. The company had the wrong answers, I insist. This is an objective matter to adjudicate. You can bet that I am wrong. (Very rarely, it cannot be ruled out that they have made a mistake - which, of course, is also an objective matter to show if you know Logic.) The logician is the expert in this like the grammarian is the expert when it comes to proper use of language grammatically speaking. But don't think of this as having to do with some guild who have a business of their own and sell to the rest of us: this is OUR language, (an older version would say, "this is our human reason or mind"); except that we do not know it - and this is not the only example of such a defect.

It is possible to persuade people to accept nonsense. They tell their friends about it proudly, they remain psychologically committed to it and keep repeating it. Imagine if you also had some celebrity spew out the nonsense. Even more people fall for it. They are all convinced that they are right. Then, you show them that what they have believed all along is nonsense. This experiment has been done and it can be repeated as often as one likes.

But what is logical nonsense? See that it is difficult to answer even this question. To be fair, it might be very difficult to detect logical absurdity and brilliant minds have succumbed to it. We get logical nonsense when what cannot be true is asserted as true. That's why contradictions come to mind readily when logical absurdity is mentioned. If we put down any statement X as true and we also out down not-X as true, we have a contradiction. This is one instance of logical absurdity. Why? The words "not" and "and" work in such ways (have such meanings) that "X and not-X" is always false. When I out down both X and not-X, I am licensing assertion of "X and not-X" but this absurd because this can never be true, so it can never be rightly asserted.

It is logical nonsense also to assert "a triangle has four angles" for instance. Here it is the meanings if "triangle," "three," and "angles" that is preventing this sentence from ever being true. (If "triangle" meant "having four angles", then "a triangle has three angles" would be nonsense - in that language! ) If some bright scifi writer writes, "on that incomprehensible planet, triangles had four angles" it is he, the author, who is confused. It is embarrassing but see if you can analyze the logical error.

Inconsistency is a related notion. We say that a collection of sentences is inconsistent (so, we say that a theory,a view, a story, movie plot etc, is inconsistent) if it is not logicaly possible for all the sentences in the collection to be ever true together. A contradiction, of course, makes a set of sentences inconsistent. We might also have sentences, for instance in a theory, that seem consistent: for instance,

X, Y, Z.

But, what if it is the case that "if X then not-Z"? This means that, whether we realize this or not, we have not-Z in our set of sentences. So, we have both Z and not-Z. They canot both be true, of course. So, we have an inconsistent set.

Under what conditions are "not" and "and" true?  What is a contradiction?
Under what conditions are "not" and "and" true? What is a contradiction?
Not only in our actual world Wa, but in every logically possible world we can think of, a contradiction is false! Our meanings for "not" and "and" don't change as we talk about other worlds.
Not only in our actual world Wa, but in every logically possible world we can think of, a contradiction is false! Our meanings for "not" and "and" don't change as we talk about other worlds.

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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