Critical thinking, the very phrase evokes emotions and impressions of tedious and not so pleasant application of the mind to topics, issues and ideas. We are a culture that is more accustomed to sensationalism, emotional and lassie-faire thinking than consistent and focused thinking. In fact, we do not like to think, we like to be entertained. We demand distraction. We would rather be told what to believe, than to actively ponder, investigate and arrive at our own conclusions. Why?
Humans from birth are conditioned to follow authority figures and not question their pronouncements. This conditioning is carried out unwittingly by parents, teachers, clergy, and so on through various positive and negative reinforcement techniques. Most reach adult stage in this conditioned form, having been so moulded into a set of assumptions and beliefs that the idea of critical inquiry has no appeal for them.
It may be that a workable society or culture can tolerate only a small number of critical thinkers, that learning, internalizing, and practicing scientific and critical thinking is discouraged. Most people are followers of authority: most do not question, are not curious, and do not challenge authority figures who claim special knowledge or insight. Most people, therefore, do not think for themselves, but rely on others to think for them. Most people indulge in wishful, hopeful, and emotional thinking, believing that what they believe is true because they wish it, hope it, or feel it to be true. Most people, therefore, do not think critically.
– AN INTRODUCTION TO CRITICAL THINKING by Steven D. Schafersman (January, 1991)
Then again…that is most people. I believe that our problems global, national and local could be easily tackled and alleviated if people as a whole thought critically and acted rationally. Then again…this is not human nature. Maybe we don’t need everyone to think critically, perhaps if we just have the right people in the right places, we can create sufficient leverage for recognisable change.
Maybe, a world of (self-aware) and critically thinking individuals is something of utopian fantasy, maybe it is possible. Time will tell, or maybe it already has…
What is critical thinking anyway?
Critical thinking is the pursuit of accurate and reliable knowledge about the world. It is reasonable, reflective, responsible and skilful thinking focused on deciding what to believe or what to do. Critical thinking suspends held beliefs, ideas, ideologies, wishful thinking and with the application of a scientific process asks questions, gathers information, and extrapolates from this information logical, reliable and trustworthy conclusions that enable one to live and act successfully in it. Critical thinking is also critical inquiry, so such critical thinkers investigate problems, ask questions, pose new answers that challenge the status quo, discover new information that can be used for good or ill, question authorities and traditional beliefs, and challenge received dogmas and doctrines. They often end up possessing power in society greater than their numbers.
It is just as important for the individual as it is for the group to think critically. It would help you cut right through the bullshit to the truth, to the core, to the essential, the relevant, and the powerful. Steven D. Schafersman, whose article I quoted earlier holds the opinion that children are not born with the power to think critically. I disagree, I think the mere fact that children have a high propensity to ask the question ‘why?’ shows an immerse curiosity, and ability to question the status quo. This natural inclination can either be nurtured or stifled. Unfortunately, weary parents and teachers and society have a whole stifle this curiosity more often than not.
The educational system is supposed to create individuals that think critically and creatively. More often than not, it produces memorisers of disconnected and isolated facts rather than proficient users of methods of enquiry and discovery. Some schools are guilty of teaching its students ‘what’ to think rather than ‘how’ to think. Hence it is your best interest to take your critical thinking education (or any aspect of your education for that matter) into your own hands. Explore books on the subject, practice asking questions, researching and reaching logical conclusions.
Characteristics of Critical thinkers
Raymond S. Nickerson (1987), an authority on critical thinking provides some characteristics of the critical thinker
- uses evidence skillfully and impartially
- organizes thoughts and articulates them concisely and coherently
- distinguishers between logically valid and invalid inferences
- suspends judgment in the absence of sufficient evidence to support a decision
- understands the difference between reasoning and rationalizing
- attempts to anticipate the probable consequences of alternative actions
- understands the idea of degrees of belief
- sees similarities and analogies that are not superficially apparent
- can learn independently and has an abiding interest in doing so
- applies problem-solving techniques in domains other than those in which learned
- habitually questions one’s own views and attempts to understand both the assumptions that are critical to those views and the implications of the views
- is sensitive to the difference between the validity of a belief and the intensity with which it is held
- is aware of the fact that one’s understanding is always limited, often much more so than would be apparent to one with a non-inquiring attitude
- recognizes the fallibility of one’s own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of weighting evidence according to personal preferences
Critical thinking is one of the most important tools in the quest for truth, self awareness and the best way to live life. It will free you from erroneous beliefs, limiting ideas and help you tap into a clearer, more congruent and powerful way of living.
But reaching clear, accurate conclusions is not enough, do you have the balls to act on it?