It seems like a bit of a weird concept – teaching someone how to think – but it’s actually a valuable skill to learn. We all think, every day. One of the biggest problems with that is that a lot of these thoughts aren’t clear – they’re tainted by bias, lack of information, prejudice, or sometimes they’re just incomplete. So thinking, although we do it every day, isn’t actually all that simple. That’s where critical thinking comes in to it.
Critical thinking is a style of thought that hopes to overcome some of the problems with just thinking. With normal thinking it’s common to select information that confirms a prior belief, rather than looking at broader arguments that may contradict it. And, while that may make you feel good about your ‘knowledge’, it can also even further develop your own bias and prevent you from learning and developing.
Some of the things that seem to separate critical thinking from just thinking are based on emotion. Critical thinkers tend to look for reason and supporting evidence rather than emotion and are more concerned with finding the best explanation than being ‘right’. Similar to this, people who are thinking critically consider their own motives and bias and recognise where their own beliefs may skew any conclusions. There are a lot of other things that are a part of critical thinking – judgement, discipline, open-mindedness – but a lot of these are based off the idea of distancing yourself from your prior beliefs and preventing these from impacting on your conclusions.
Almost by definition, critical thinkers are sceptical. They want to see hard facts to support something, rather than an emotional argument. They will say why and want to know how you know something is true, rather than just accepting that it is. Most importantly, they keep their minds open to new ideas and consider something they encounter rationally rather than emotionally or with prejudice.
But why bother with all that?
Well, critical thinking can keep you from being sucked in by bad reasoning of others or your own prior beliefs. Consider: someone tells you that there’s just been a massive drop in the number of pigeons at the feeder in their backyard and therefore something must be done to save the birds from whatever cats/dogs/miscellaneous other predators in the area have to be hunting them. A non-critical thinker (who doesn’t want to see pigeons disappear) may think ‘oh that’s terrible, we should do something to stop them disappearing completely.’ The benefit of being a critical thinker is not doing that. A critical thinker would stop and, well, think. Instead of immediately following the conclusion given to them they would consider it for themselves. Did the decrease occur over time, or was it a single-day occurrence that could be due to other circumstances? Are there a lot of predators in the area that would be a threat to the birds? I know for certain that my pet cat wouldn’t dare try to take down a pigeon – she’s not big or strong enough. Sure, a critical thinker may reach the same conclusion (that something has to be done about the problem) but they could be a lot more sure of their reasoning than the non-critical thinker.
There are a lot of other situations where critical thinking is important – science, co-operative reasoning, even just reading the news. Life can be made a lot easier if you learn to think critically and follow the facts, rather than just what’s handed to you.