Critical Thinking 101

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.

Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.

Another Brief Conceptualization of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.   They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking.   They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.   They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.   They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society.    At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so.   They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others.   They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement.   They embody the Socratic principle:   The unexamined life is not worth living , because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.               ~ Linda Elder, September, 2007

Why Critical Thinking?

The Problem
Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and
imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result
A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.  

(Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008)

Critical Thinking Defined by Edward Glaser

In a seminal study on critical thinking and education in 1941, Edward Glaser defines critical thinking as follows “The ability to think critically, as conceived in this volume, involves three things: ( 1 ) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments, to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life. 

(Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941)

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Seeking truth in a post-truth world.

Credit: By NewtonCourt, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Post-truth. According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word of 2016. The year of rising populism, Brexit, terrorist threats in Europe, Donald Trump, and the U.S. election.

Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objectives facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion,” post-truth has been shaping our societies, debates on global events, and our online interaction significantly over the past year.

With the current debate about “fake news” and Facebook algorithms, we have become aware that the information we see on the internet—but also on television—is highly selective. Words like “filter-bubbles” and “echo-chambers” have entered the mainstream discourse.

Our exposure to one-sided narratives and selective ideas impacts our societies. Neither terrorism, nor Brexit, nor the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populism are isolated events. These are symptoms of a global social phenomenon of exclusive thinking and fear. Let’s take an example observed in North America and Europe. We are sometimes told, or we believe, that Islam and Western values are incompatible (here are examples in the UK and France), or that the influx of migrants from the Middle East will increase risks of terrorism. We hear it from the news and sometimes from politicians, it shows up in our online newsfeed and we pick it up from colleagues, family members and friends. These voices are everywhere. And the impact is divisive.

As a Pew Research report shows, negative ratings for Muslims have increased in the UK, France, Spain, and Italy as well as many eastern European nations such as Hungary. In the US, the FBI has shown an increase in hate crimes against American Muslims during the Presidential elections and following terrorist attacks in the US and Europe. Meanwhile, extremist groups and individuals use these beliefs and incidents to argue that “the West is trying to destroy Islam.”

While one-sided narratives are often the loudest, they are not accurate—they drown out the facts and obscure nuanced opinions. The consequences are serious. It hurts our understanding of the world and our compassion towards others, it creates hostilities and rifts in our societies, a leads to a “Disunited States of America.”

While social media networks are certainly not the cause of the current rise in populism and xenophobia, they do serve as amplifiers and a platform for hateful narratives and propaganda. To take extreme examples, radical and terrorist groups such as ISIS have been recruiting via Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, and the German far-right movement Pegida has been able to organize its movement on Facebook.

So, who should be held responsible for the destructive tendencies we observe on social media? We blame Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg for fake news. We blame Twitter and Telegram for letting terrorists spread their propaganda online. But in doing so, we ignore a basic problem: the audience also has a responsibility. We are losing our ability to think critically, and instead we accept simplistic narratives. Whether a “digital immigrant” or a “digital native,” it is important to understand that we are all as much part of the problem as we are part of the solution.

If we want to re-establish a productive and peaceful social dialogue, we have to start thinking critically. That means checking the facts instead of copy-pasting. It means confronting inconvenient truth(s) and listening to the opposing side instead of staying in our comfortable bubble. This is particularly urgent for digital natives, young people born with a phone or tablet in their hand who don’t hesitate to post content online without questioning it.

So how do we help our youth become responsible digital citizens in “post-truth” world? First and foremost, teaching them to think twice about what they hear and read both on and offline.

I am part of a group of young activists in Montreal that founded the CONTRA project, an initiative to combat extremism and radicalization by teaching critical thinking and information-checking to young people. Our bottom-up approach takes place both online and offline in the classroom. CONTRA seeks to decode the truth by sharing infographics and videos online, and by creating interactive toolkits. Students are also encouraged to develop their content. By getting them creatively engaged, we hope to raise awareness about the existence of fake news, hate speech and propaganda on and offline. We hope to open their minds to other ideas and to accept the fact that there is no single truth. The amount of sources and data available today makes the task of verifying content more arduous than ever, but knowing the impact of extreme narrative and conspiracy theories, this work must be done.

New technologies have great potential. The internet and social media have dramatically changed the way we inform ourselves and communicate with each other. But with this comes new responsibilities. The fact that “post-truth” was chosen as the word of the year should be a sound of alarm that we must act now to put an end to our fading critical thinking.

Post-truth should not come to define our reality.

Isabel Tamoj is a Master's student at Sciences Po in Paris where she studies Human Rights and Humanitarian Action. Originally from Germany, she holds a Bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Free University Berlin, focusing on the study of genocides and cultures of remembrance. She has previously worked with the United States Holocaust Museum, and as a research assistant at the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Since 2015, Isabel has been actively supporting the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement, a network of European antiracist NGOs.

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