Critical Thinker
October 26, 2009 6:11 AM   Subscribe

What are some tools and techniques I can use to become a better critical thinker? I asked my friend the other day what he got out of his tier-1 education and he said it taught him how to 'think through problems'. What exactly did his professors teach him about critical thinking? If I memorize the logical fallacies or make a pro's and con's list will I be a better thinker? Is 'going with your gut' an approved tactic in this pursuit? What things do you do to think through a problem and come up with rock solid plans, decisions, and recommendations?
posted by jasondigitized to Education (16 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
When I'm reading something (like a Daily Mail article) I'm thinking in the back of my head...

Who wrote this? What are their biases? What are their sources? What is their evidence?

When I am trying to solve a problem, I first think "Am I solving the right problem? What is the real problem here? Does it really need solving? How much effort is it worth spending to solve it?"

Then having found a problem to solve I see whether I can break it down into small pieces and solve them one at a time.
posted by emilyw at 6:23 AM on October 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

It may sound scary, but the best thing I've ever done to improve my critical thinking skills was to crack a (formal) math book. It taught me what a logically infallible statement is, and how to make a formal argument.

The logic you use in math may be a hyper-idealized version of logic you use in real life (very rarely do you have absolute logical certainty as you do in math), but you'd be amazed at what it can do for your reasoning processes.

Math also made me a better writer, believe it or not.
posted by chicago2penn at 6:38 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Analytical to a fault. If I can't figure something out I'll go back to square one and work my way through each and every possibility till I get it right. If that still doesn't work I'll dig further for new possibilities, etc. My gut tells me what to look at first.

Also, 'sleeping on it' is an extremely valid method, but only after you've done the above. I regularly get Eureka moments during my morning shower or drive as a result.

Bedrock knowledge is good too. I understand most of the web and software because I learnt to code webpages in '94 and kept it up. ASP->CSS->XML. With electronics, I learnt how to solder things together from scratch. Baking, it was flour/water ratios. Car maintenance, I started with oil and went from there. With a solid bedrock you won't be afraid of new stuff. If you are, that's your cue to jump in and learn it! I don't bother with stuff that doesn't look like it'll be around for long though.

Learn how people's minds work. What might be going through their head that made them do X. This is a constant dialog in my mind. Then I apply to my own faults.

Writing - embargo things when done for at least a few days. Weeks or a month are better. I can't edit effectively when still invested in the topic. I've got to move beyond it and then will see the grammar errors. Makes sites like this a bear. :-)
posted by jwells at 6:44 AM on October 26, 2009

Entertain a position you disagree with. Savour it. Suppose that the people holding it are sincere, but haven't put the position well - or well for you. Look to construct an excellent version of their position from their premises as you uncover them. Test your position as you see it against this construction. Test your position as it might be seen by others against this construction.

Be discomforted by the degree to which your brain lulls you into accepting your current views and rejecting others. If the procedure doesn't yield much, be cautiously optimistic.

Do it again tomorrow.
posted by hawthorne at 6:56 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

What exactly did his professors teach him about critical thinking?

It depends on what you mean by a "tier-1 education," but I can tell you what I experienced as a student and later did as an educator. In that context, "critical thinking" is learned by being forced to read something that you don't fully understand, make an argument out loud in front of peers and professor, defend that argument, and then listen as others either address your argument or make their own. You then write, sometimes at great length, and using both primary and secondary sources, again making an argument that you know is going to be read closely by someone with a fair degree of authority; you may also have to explain or defend this writing in public. (I'm describing the social sciences and humanities; there's a parallel process in the sciences that has more lab time and problem sets, but similarly forces you to formulate, present, and defend your arguments.)

Every student starts this process believing that they are already a critical thinker, and most end it with a much-improved ability to actually do so. It's a practice-makes-perfect kind of thing -- you learn it by doing it, not by thinking about it. It's about learning to rapidly synthesize seemingly disconnected information and concepts into a coherent argument based on structures and theories.

But it's equally important what it is not -- it's not simple logic steps, memorization, or any other shortcut. And it's not some kind of panacea that improves your life; it's simply a learnable skill involving the processing and presentation of ideas and information.

I think that learning critical thinking is the real reason people are willing to pay such large sums to go to good schools, and the reason all the free information on the internet will never replace those schools. It's a lot trickier (though not impossible) to learn on your own, because you lack the immediate feedback from peers and professors who are both putting hours and hours into hearing and critiquing your arguments.
posted by Forktine at 7:08 AM on October 26, 2009 [12 favorites]

it's not simple logic steps, memorization, or any other shortcut. And it's not some kind of panacea that improves your life; it's simply a learnable skill involving the processing and presentation of ideas and information.

I agree with Forktine, and I'd add that participating in threads on MetaFilter is not a bad way to replicate, in a smaller and much more casual way, the process of researching a topic, developing a position, making an argument, listening to counterargument, responding to counterargument, and refining your position. You have a great opportunity right here to read and follow discussion threads that sometimes feature this same sort of give-and-take. An important difference is in the degree of authority - sometimes there is a true subject expert in a thread, but more often, we're fairly well-read, well-educated laypeople discussing topics from a lay perspective.

However, there's enough knowledge within the community, and enough facility with discussion and argumentation, that I believe one can improve critical thinking skills through active participation. It ain't Harvard, but hey, it's only $5. Comment more!
posted by Miko at 7:21 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

At the heart of critical thinking is the statement: "An unexamined life is not worth living." (Socrates). Critical thinkers ask questions of their beliefs and knowlegde and that of others (including "official" sources and authorities), they work hard at thinking about the nature of thought, and they resist cynicism and embrace skepticism. Memorizing is not critical thinking, though knowledge gained aids in thinking critically (so long as one thinks critical while gaining the knowledge).
posted by Pineapplicious at 7:27 AM on October 26, 2009

It's about learning to rapidly synthesize seemingly disconnected information and concepts into a coherent argument based on structures and theories.

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren's How to Read a Book goes into how to progress to this level in reading. I spent 4-years during undergrad "learning how to think" and what they capture in this book is a good summary of how to do that.

Plus, it is remarkably well written and fun to read.
posted by chiefthe at 7:29 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think there's a tendency for readers to mix up comprehending a writer's argument, and being persuaded by it. For that reason, emilyw's questions ("Who wrote this? What are their biases? What are their sources? What is their evidence?") are very good ones to keep front and centre.
posted by Beardman at 7:45 AM on October 26, 2009

A Rulebook for Arguments is a very, very skinny book which tells you how to present ideas better, such that they are not so vulnerable to logical fallacies and charges of insufficient evidence. It's clear and easy to read, and short, and gave me a great deal of hope that "critical thinking" could possibly be taught concisely. Please check it out.

I also found a reference to it on a web site called Fallacy Detective, which looks rather interesting.
posted by amtho at 8:08 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ask questions, and question answers. In particular, question assumptions - the things you are absolutely sure about are the most important to be skeptical about.

"Going with your gut" is kind of the opposite of critical thinking. It's not always the wrong thing to do, particularly as a shortcut if you are short on time and/or energy, but it's not critical thinking. Critical thinking is an attempt to move your decision making away from purely emotional or intuitive processes, and more towards examining costs, consequences, and benefits.
posted by contrarian at 8:31 AM on October 26, 2009

Learning to play chess helped me out a lot.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:06 AM on October 26, 2009

Best answer: jasondigitized: "What are some tools and techniques I can use to become a better critical thinker? "

jasondigitized: "What things do you do to think through a problem and come up with rock solid plans, decisions, and recommendations?"

Critical thinking, by definition, is criticizing someone's statements. Humanities curriculum claim to teach students to do this by reading books on philosophy and asking students to disagree and give reasons. However, you're not asked to criticize your own beliefs or arguments. For that you'd need to take a debate style course that forces you to pick a side without regard to your preexisting beliefs; part of that will include criticizing the side you happen to believe in. This kind of course isn't often required; and I think many non-law students shy away from them.

In contrast, mathematics courses, particularly logic, teach you a process of proving statements correct, to satisfy yourself and others that what seems to be true really is. It forces you to be specific about your assumptions and demonstrate that your conclusions are valid under those provisions. For example, I took a programming logic course that can be used to demonstrate a program meets safety criteria. Roughly, you assume the system is correct before an operation is run, and prove this remains the case on completion in all cases.

However, most human situations aren't mathematically provable. There's a sort of middleground called statistics that attempts to use the power of calculation to demonstrate a claim. It's alluring because it carries the authority of mathematics, but dangerous in application--there's a reason behind the phrase "lies, damn lies, and statistics". Probably the best education one can receive is in the application of statistics, and the debunking of misapplied statistics. Several curriculum require the former, but I'm unaware of any course anywhere on the latter.

Unfortunately, learning critical thinking isn't enough. We've all read about the need for more "critical thinking" skills in the workplace. From my observations, "critical thinking" is the office place nuclear waste material, with corresponding NIMBY: arguing against managerial decisions isn't welcome, and offering criticism is equated with not being a "team player". A few examples are in order. It seems a number of people advised AIG's Financial Products group they were too risky but were marginalized. The Challenger O-ring was reported to be faulty by engineers but management overrode it. And while you can apply formal logic methods to software to prove correctness, a minuscule amount of software is actually subjected to it, usually citing costs. I can't find a citation right now, but a few people have theorized the main benefit of an ivy league education is a sense of accomplishment and entitlement to leadership; perhaps this is a major contributor to management "gut-checks".

To put the above wall of text more palatability, critical thinking can be applied to your gut instincts, but having the willpower to do so and abide by the results is unappealing to many. The best advice I can give you is to constantly consult the advice of people different from yourself and consider their words carefully.
posted by pwnguin at 1:58 PM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

pwnguin is right, but "critical thinking" is useful for many situations other than determining when people with power over you are wrong. Sometimes (maybe not in the workplace, but in life) people do want your real opinion. My real opinion:

I have a supposedly "tier-1" education, and I know other people with similar educations at different schools and in different fields. It's extremely overrated. Education in general is not about building "critical thinking" skills; people only say that because they're not sure what it's actually for, and the real answer is too complicated. And a more prestigious education doesn't necessarily promote critical thinking better than a less prestigious one. (Many of the people who say education is for critical thinking have prestigious educations themselves, but I wonder if they reach for this facile explanation because they lack critical thinking skills.)

But studying certain topics (at any school, or none at all) might have an effect on your "critical thinking." I do find myself falling into habits of thinking I picked up in part through things I studied in school. I think people are right to suggest studying law, philosophy, or math—not because the subjects matter at all, but because you can apply the skills you get from them to other subjects. (For actual content, statistics and economics are important, since you need them to understand many controversial issues.)

Careful thinking is a slightly different skill for different topics, so you might be better off studying whatever it is you want to think about, which is probably also something you'll find interesting. But the most general choice is logic—not so much the abstract stuff that you'd learn in a math/philosophy class, but a little bit of formal logic applied to lots of examples in real life. A book that does this, which I haven't read but really want to read, is The Logic of Real Arguments.
posted by k. at 10:54 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, since your question is about "tools and techniques", I want to point out that being a good "critical thinker" is not just about making correct inferences and avoiding wrong ones, but having the right attitude. Some people are very smart and very logical, but terrible at real-life problem-solving because they have the wrong attitude: they're impatient, or they're analytical when analysis isn't called for, or they're more concerned with outsmarting other people than with understanding the problem, or they're too sloppy, or too precise, etc. (I'm really bad at some of these attitude things, but I think that just noticing them is helping me get better.)

As dumb as it sounds, I think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance does a great job of describing the ideal "critical thinking" attitude: relaxed, open-minded, attentive. Pirsig was a terrible novelist (the fiction parts of the book alternate between boring and cringe-worthy; the "philosophy" parts are even worse) but I bet he was a fantastic motorcycle mechanic.
posted by k. at 11:24 PM on October 26, 2009

Would try reading a handful of the most well-known dialogues of Plato, and maybe some basic study of Aristotelian logic.

Surprisingly, regular exposure to a bit of nonsense also helps with critical thinking.

Keeping a regular journal in which one writes regular critiques of various things one's interested in-- films, books, essays, video games, technology, etc-- is also helpful.

And I agree with the above posts that see a correlation between exposure to the arts and critical/logical thinking. Exposure to good philosophy, literature, poetry, film, visual art, music, etc. definitely helps.
posted by cotesdurhone at 1:56 PM on October 27, 2009

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