Critical Need
July 31, 2012 4:27 AM   Subscribe

My critical reasoning skills are inadequate. Two examples within, as well as a request for books, websites, activities, or routine patterns of thought to help me develop these reasoning abilities.

Two examples that I think are related:

1. I don't evaluate information before completely trusting it.

I read this post a few weeks ago about Malcolm Gladwell. Upon skimming the article, I thought, "Oh my god, he's working for tobacco and pharmaceutical companies! His motives are impure!" and promptly removed him, I kid you not, from my Favorite Authors section on Facebook.

And then I skimmed the comments on the post and saw "I'm not a big Gladwell fan, but this is a repulsive smear job." and thought, "Oh my god, the writers of that article just had a grudge or something! Well, I guess the article was completely wrong then."

So I went from completely trusting Gladwell, to completely trusting the author of that article, to completely trusting that Mefite, within the span of minutes. This makes me very uncomfortable. I also tend, when pressed for time, to skim Mefi threads by number of favorites. I'm sure I'm not the only one, but this can't be good for my developing nuanced impressions of a topic.

2. I'm not good at fitting new things into my schema of preexisting knowledge.

I saw a fish with huge eyes at the zoo and was ranting about it to one of my friends. "You shoulda seen that fish's eyes! I can't believe anything evolved like that!"

He coolly replied, "It's probably either a mutation, or, less likely, a trait favored by sexual selection."

I have no idea whether that's right or not, but dang, I didn't even think of those possibilities, despite totally understanding those concepts after three years of biology classes! Those were things in a book I learned for a test, right, and this is something I saw in my actual life! I'd like to stop maintaining that artificial division.

I'm a sophomore right now, and presumably, receiving a liberal arts education will help to some degree. But what else can I do?

I have a theory that thinking more scientifically might help? I never was bad at math when I was younger, but liked reading a lot and so always gravitated towards English classes. Now I feel like I have huge deficiencies in anything quantitative. Would taking more science/lab classes or math classes (specifically proof-based ones?) help? I'm eyeing my college's introductory computer science class, how about that?

Can you suggest any books, websites, activities, or routine patterns of thought I should engage in to help me develop these reasoning abilities?
posted by estlin to Education (30 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Ok, your friend was only able to reply cooly because he didn't see that fish. Because that fish is CRAZY.

However I do find myself thinking along similar "golly gee I feel so naive!" lines sometimes.

That said, I have a bit of a hard time with the idea of critical reasoning (and especially the teaching of it) because I find it to a large degree to be a product of 1. having being exposed to similar ideas before and 2. arrogance.

That initial arrogance can be useful in helping you think, though. One thing I might suggest is to read some psych lit examining the role of emotion in reasoning. Jonathan Haidt has some interesting stuff in this vein--basically his claim is that people do most of their reasoning AFTER they have figured out what conclusion they want to arrive at. In that sense I think the ability to really grok new ideas can be helped by withholding judgement, at least initially. Plus there is just something important in being able to say "holy shit that fish is ridiculous!"

Something you can practice: when you're reading metafilter, read the articles first and don't let yourself read the comments until you've thought out 3-5 critical things about the article. Maybe link it to stuff you've learned in class. I find myself using mefi comments as a crutch when I don't want to do my own thinking.

And also, join your school's debate team! Having graduated a while ago, I often wish I'd done this.
posted by ropeladder at 5:09 AM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Based on the examples you've given, it sounds as though your mode of belief centers around fitting data into one of a stock of pre-conceived "plausible" narratives. So when you got data that suddenly fit Malcolm Gladwell into a corrupt-author-shills-for-Big-Industry narrative-- well, you went with that. But then the biased-journalists-smear-virtuous-author story is pretty compelling, too.... so... sure, Gladwell's a saint. Likewise, the fish-eyes thing didn't make sense because it didn't fit your stock narrative (of evolution producing sensible-seeming and wisely-conceived anatomical traits, I'm guessing?), but when your friend expanded that stock narrative... mind-blowing.

(For what it's worth, as far as I can see, pretty much every single piece of reasoning here is wrong. Malcolm Gladwell's personal ties to Big Pharma would not in themselves be a reason why his conclusions are wrong (look up ad hominem fallacy). Likewise, the personal grudges of the journalists would not in themselves be a reason why their conclusions on Malcolm Gladwell are wrong. (Also, as a side note, the flashiness and superficial plausibility of Malcolm Gladwell's arguments are not a reason why his conclusions are right.) Natural selection is perfectly capable of producing outsize and crazy-looking traits, or sometimes it's natural selection for some characteristic that's mechanistically or genetically linked to the outsize trait you're observing. But while a single mutation could produce crazy big eyes, I guess, it seems likelier that an unplanned defect like that would quickly be fatal to the fish, and in any case the zoo would be unlikely to feature a defective specimen as a representative of a species. And sexual selection (while also possible) would be likelier to work on nonessential cosmetic features (coloration/feathers/etcl) or features that inherently correlate with genetic fitness (size/strength/fertility-signalling proportions) than it would be to randomly expand the size of a set of organs whose correct operation ins essential for non-sexual activities.

Beefing up quantitative skills is always a great idea, but I don't know that practicing geometric proofs is necessarily going to be a lot of help with the tendency to fall in love with flashy narratives. Critical thinking is really, at its heart, a discipline of asking questions-- so in general, you might practice getting in the habit of asking a lot more questions about your own judgements and others', before you make a definitive conclusion. Getting in the knee-jerk habit of thinking, "How do I know this? Could there be another explanation?" will help a lot.

Also, if even coming up with questions is hard for you right now, then the single best way I know of getting in the question-asking habit is to do a lot of debating (so that you've got built-in opponents to ask the tough questions for you!). If your school has a debating society, then stopping by a meeting (or even sitting in on a few rounds in the next tournament) might be a great place to start.
posted by Bardolph at 5:15 AM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

What is your liberal arts education in specifically? if you can, try taking a course in philosophy maybe? especially something about early philosophers and possibly about rhetoric, I think that kind of thing can help in getting more aware of the potential biases you could find in any argument or stated position, and make you a bit more careful before jumping in agreement or disagreement to something.

You could also look up 'logical fallacies' and read the lists carefully and then make it an exercise to spot examples of those in actual texts you read, articles or discussions etc.. Pick an online discussion on any hot topic, and read through by temporarily suspending all your own beliefs and typical judgements, just trying to see where everyone is coming from, like, making it an exercise to understand what kind of position they hold and why, forgetting your own or even that you 'need' to have an opinion at all. That's a very typical impulse anyone has, to immediately 'side' with someone in an argument, but try and play an impartial role and just observe first.

That's just the first thing off the top of my head...

But I also want to say that what you're experiencing is not that weird or bad in itself. And your examples don't sound to me like you should consider your critical thinking that 'inadequate'. Something like your example number 1 happens to the most critical people really, you really like an author and you read something bad about them you go 'nooooo' because it's an emotional reaction, you are personally attached to what that author wrote and you are disappointed. It's perfectly normal. And the fish, well! What's wrong with being amazed by something weird? That's your sense of wonder, it kicks in of its own. You can look up the science behind it afterwards. The two things can to together. You sound like you're enthusiastic and passionate about things. That's not necessarily a negative if you balance it with a bit more suspicion. But don't worry you'll have all the time in the world to become more cynical and suspicious than you'd ever wished, eh.
posted by bitteschoen at 5:16 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

I suffer from much the same gullibility you're describing and admire MeFites who are able to recognise fallacies of logic in complex arguments where I'm readily swayed by emotionally compelling arguments. In procedural courtroom dramas, I flip-flop between prosecution ("yes, of course that's right") and defence ("wow, yes... good point!") as often as the - shitty - script changes.

Fallacies of Logic.
[Still working at applying these in real life context, but I've found it a good start]
posted by kreestar at 5:17 AM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

How about an introductory philosophy class? Philosophy is all about critically examining arguments and thought patterns. Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is also excellent if you want something more directly targeted to logical fallacies and the scientific method.

I wouldn't beat yourself up over this, though. Critical thinking is a skill we learn, not one we're born with. Our brains take all kinds of cognitive short-cuts and critical thinking is more about identifying and countering those than it is about the impossible task of eliminating them altogether. If you constantly spot these deficiencies in critical thinking in yourself, but others don't see them in themselves, that doesn't necessarily mean they're better at it than you - that might well mean you're the one that's ahead of the game.

(Incidentally, part of the reason bubble-eyed goldfish look like that is artificial selection, which your friend didn't identify either...)
posted by Catseye at 5:18 AM on July 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

You think it's about logic but it's actually about confidence. You are easily swayed to the confidently expressed opinions of others because of the same self-doubt that has you asking this question. Your logic will probably be just fine if you can withstand the conflict of disagreeing with strongly expressed opinions of people you respect.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:21 AM on July 31, 2012 [16 favorites]

There is a world of crazy goldfish varieties like the telescope, the "celestial," and the "bubble-eye." They're not, as your friend seemed to think, the result of one-off mutation or the product of sexual selection. They're a result of a long period of selective breeding for goldfish ponds and they do look pretty freakish. No reason to beat yourself up for getting excited about something that looks interesting and unusual.
posted by Nomyte at 6:03 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Start with something you know well and are able to approach with an open mind. Religion might be a good example. you could also use something where there are already a lot of preconceived notions that are often repeated, like nutrition.

Then, read books on the subject that will challenge your current way of thinking. Once you are used to doing this with things you are familiar with, you will most likely apply this thought approach to other subject areas. It's really just a matter of learning how to think this way.
posted by smalls at 6:04 AM on July 31, 2012

While you are still a sophomore and wouldn't be considering giving the GMAT unless you were looking at specific grad school programs, the basic review books (Kaplan's for eg) offer an excellent section on critical reasoning. You can pick these up cheap in used bookstores, as it will not matter for your purpose how out of date the book is because the principles will remain.
posted by infini at 6:11 AM on July 31, 2012

LessWrong is a community dedicated to precisely this.
posted by Algebra at 6:27 AM on July 31, 2012

Read the Sequences over at Less Wrong, which is a group rationality blog. (Or at least the Core Sequences, if you're short on time!)

Read the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. And to help with critical thinking about studies and numbers, read How to Lie With Statistics by Darrel Huff. You might get a lot out of reading some stuff on framing arguments, like many of George Lakoff's books or The Art of Cross-Examination by Francis Wellman (very readable, even for a layman!).

Studying cognitive biases and philosophy is great, but you need to practice in order to make a habit of it, so try this - every time you read something, write a list of reasons why it might be wrong. Ideally, get a friend to do the same thing, and then discuss!
posted by 168 at 6:29 AM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

posted by 168 at 6:30 AM on July 31, 2012

estlin: "But what else can I do?"

I wanted to just write "Wait. Grow older, because time will take care of crushing that naivete for you!", but that isn't really right. I know plenty of older people who think narrowly and believe anything because they haven't developed the ability to think critically.

So, instead, I will say: continue to let new things in. The more knowledge you add to your schema, the wider the variety of (and more subtle the differences between) the "buckets" that will be available to you in which to fit each new thing you come across. You have a wonderful opportunity in a college environment to encounter things that will be MUCH harder to do afterwards. Go to lectures by visiting professors. Sit in on a class way outside of your area of expertise (or interest). Listen to the folks on the quad who preach or orate or hand out flyers about a cause, who you would normally pass by. Try and figure out their "angle" - why does this cause mean so much to them? Investigate their claims on your own.

In your own classes, try to find a balance between asking pertinent questions and being "that student" who debates every single thing with the instructor. (Nobody likes that guy.) Questioning what you are told in class is pretty much expected in college!

Also, I wouldn't take a computer science class yet. I agree with the others above who suggested an introductory logic course through the philosophy department. If logic turns your crank, then go for the CS course. But the CS course will bog you down in a lot of detail that I don't think you need right now.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:40 AM on July 31, 2012

You could try taking a class with the most notoriously hard-assed professor at your school. It helps to have someone constantly attacking everything out of your mouth--soon it will be a built-in response to all of your thoughts.

Yes, that is bitterness. Thanks, dad!
posted by thebazilist at 6:47 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

thebazilist - Your dad sounds a lot like my dad! I think it helps a lot to have been raised to challenge arguments and ideas, including my own.

Also, you just reminded me of one of my undergrad philosophy professors, who told us (while handing back our first round of graded papers in that class) that "an A paper is just like a B paper, but with that special something that none of you have."

OP can extrapolate from this, though. Even without a parent or professor to challenge you, it helps to surround yourself with the kind of friends who challenge you and themselves. I love having the kind of friends who respond to my claims with stuff like "Why do you think that? Do you have a link? Citation needed!" and ask good questions.
posted by 168 at 7:09 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Someone above said "rhetoric." I had a English professor who decided to teach rhetoric instead of his assigned English topic, so I got a rhetoric course for "free," and it's been a great thing for my mind (if not so good for my English). Oddly enough, in this day and time, a class in advertising would also help. In taking my marketing degree, I learned about the tools of persuasion and downright propaganda that are used, and in addition to turning me right off a career in advertising, it helped me learn to evaluate claims. Also nthing - learning the fundamental logical fallacies, because once your eyes are opened to them, you'll see them EVERYWHERE, across the conservative and liberal spectrum (you'll also see each side accusing the other of them, which is kinda funny).

Another good thing would be to learn about the process of journalism. If it doesn't fit in your degree, taking a course might be overkill, but everyone should have some idea of how journalists work to write a story. There too, you will see the "rules" violated over and over again once you're aware of them. Something your anecdote about Gladstone points up - everyone has a point of view, and while journalistic ethics require that the reporter reveals them - surprise! They often don't. So in reading articles or watching videos, consider the POV of the media outlet presenting it, the reporter putting it together, and the sources he or she interviews. The sources are rarely some random person - they're a member of the reporter's "rolodex." For example, it recently came to light via On the Media (which is an excellent podcast to follow for this very thing) that this "random guy with a print shop" who has been interviewed by everyone from NPR to Fox about Obamacare is - surprise! heavily involved with the NFIB, which lobbies against business regulation.

If your eyes are opening to this, I sure don't want you to close them again, but by way of saying "you're not alone" - this is both a typical human trait from time immemorial (we have to have bias and attend to input selectively in order to make decisions fast enough to operate) and a growing problem. For reasons probably related to a local election, I was musing just this morning about the tendency for everything to turn into an ad hominem debate that centers around what an issue means "to me" and an attack on the other guy, to the extent that I hate to express my opinion, not because I'm afraid to defend my beliefs intellectually, but because I know it will get into a pissing contest. Frankly, I'm beginning to think that "Global Stupider" will finish us off long before Global Warming ever could.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:12 AM on July 31, 2012 [5 favorites]

Read the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I second this motion. I found the author's tone a bit irritating but it does do a good job of demonstrating why and how people jump to conclusions, with pointers on processes for developing a more considered approach.
posted by freya_lamb at 7:14 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

pretty much every single piece of reasoning here is wrong. Malcolm Gladwell's personal ties to Big Pharma would not in themselves be a reason why his conclusions are wrong (look up ad hominem fallacy). Likewise, the personal grudges of the journalists would not in themselves be a reason why their conclusions on Malcolm Gladwell are wrong.

Well, I'm the person who wrote the comment "I'm not a big Gladwell fan, but this is a repulsive smear job," and I hope the OP is exercising enough critical thinking to notice how the above comment distorts what I really said. Part of critical thinking is asking what someone really said, or really meant. You might think that's a fairly elementary task, but it's surprisingly hard to do. It's so easy to misinterpret someone in a way that fits the frame you want to put things into. I didn't say that anything in the article was inaccurate. I said its "repulsive." That's my subjective, emotional reaction, but you read it as if it were a definitive statement. However, you're allowed to have your own reaction.

Similarly, much of what was in that article was not actual information about Gladwell; the article primed you to have a distaste for him by plastering the word "SHAME" and unappealing freeze frames of Gladwell on the page. The more clear it is to me that someone wants me to have a certain reaction, the more strongly I react against that by questioning whether it's the right reaction. As I said in my follow-up comment:
To elaborate, the problem is that they clearly set out to make the case that Gladwell is horrendous. I don't know why they hate him so much, but I doubt it's because they disagree with him about the fiscal consequences of decreasing rates of smoking. So they make all their facts conform to their contemptuous thesis. Who knows if their research turned up facts that complicated the picture? Those were clearly not going to make it into the article.
You seem to instinctively want to have a very strong opinion about things. Remember, you don't need to have a strong opinion at all. It might be better to have no opinion than to borrow someone else's.

Since your two Gladwell examples are both about the internet, consider whether that's part of the problem. I love the internet, but ideologically skewed websites are often not conducive to critical thinking. Even if a website appears to be full of intelligent commentary, it's often an echo chamber, frequented by people who cherish certain views and abhor other views. While there's nothing inherently wrong with people expressing strong opinions, there's a fine line between ideology and faith. Often, when people appear to be using facts and reasoning, they're really doing something else: they're signaling "I am this type of person," or "I belong with this group." If you question their reasoning, they see this not as an opportunity to engage in critical thinking, but as a test of their faith; they need to reinforce their group belonging by reiterating their views even more loudly.

Remember, when you read an internet comment or article, it's just the result of someone tapping on a keyboard. They might be tapping very vigorously to try to convince you that they're so, so right, but it's ultimately a bunch of tapping. The fact that someone's willing to announce their views on the internet with an air of confident authority is essentially meaningless. They might be right or wrong, but that's for you to decide. And you don't even need to decide at all.
posted by John Cohen at 7:20 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not advocating that you go to law school, but this is precisely the kind of thinking that I learned there. It has been super helpful both in the profession and in life. I would distill it, though into this basic formula.

1) STOP. Stop jumping to conclusions about what might be going on.

2) THINK. Think about the possibilities that could explain this phenomenon, including those that are beyond your wildest imagination.

3) SEEK. Seek out primary sources of information - i.e. not commentary or articles about something. Go to the original text (Constitution vs. someone's interpretation of it) to see if you can find an answer or at least something upon which you can base your opinion.

4) FORM. The answer or your opinion as to what happened/is going on or decide to leave it until you get more information.

It gets easier as you get older, especially as you encounter a variety of more and different experiences.
posted by Leezie at 7:30 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

Question everything. What you actually lack is critical thinking skills.

1/ Analyze: What is being said? "Malcom Gladwell is a big pharma sellout"

2/ Evaluate: The sniff test, aka filtering for bias. Look at who is saying it and where, and see if that leads you to a why they might be saying that.

3/ Explain: Avoid reactionary knee-jerk reactions. Do your own research.

As an exercise, you could look at two different news outlets and how they report the same stories each day for a week. The US has extremely biased journalism (and no requirement for it not to be, which you should know), so this exercise should not be hard to undertake.

See also: Socratic Questioning.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:48 AM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

"I can't believe anything evolved like that!"

He coolly replied, "It's probably either a mutation, or, less likely, a trait favored by sexual selection."

Evolution is mutations favored by survivability and sexual selection. That is literally and exactly what causes evolution. (Your friend was also wrong, of course, in that these particular fish are a result of deliberate breeding programs rather than natural evolution, but that's at least an understandable error of ignorance; saying "it's not evolution, it's mutations and sexual selection" is just a self-contradictory statement.)

It sounds like your main problem is simply accepting as true anything someone says to you, or judging its validity based on the confidence with which it's stated, instead of taking the time to think about what's being said. You took three years of biology, you say you understand evolution, but you didn't stop to think about your friend's response long enough to twig to the fact that hey, wait a minute, he's literally not making any sense at all... you're accepting the conclusions without paying any attention to the steps that lead to that conclusion. Your whole Gladwell example shows a similar "skip to the end" kind of thinking. It's not that you're unable to reason out the conclusions for yourself, it's that you're not bothering to try.

Strong math or formal logic classes are a tempting suggestion -- learning how to hammer out a formal proof is a good way to force yourself to examine every step in an argument rather than just skipping to the end -- except that I wonder if that would just fall into the same "oh, that's just math, it's just for classwork" mindset and not really touch how you think in "real" life. I probably wouldn't bother with comp sci; in intro classes you'd be spending more time on syntax and jargon and computer concepts than on the type of critical thinking skills you're looking for.

If you're inclined more in the verbal direction anyway, does your school maybe have a debate team? Advanced classes that do close readings of difficult works? The course that most kicked my ass in this direction (in the best possible way) turned out to be a political science course on totalitarianism -- the particular subject was less relevant than the instructor. There's probably a similar instructor at your school. Find that instructor. Ask your advisor, ask other students, sit in on lectures until you find someone suitably rigorous.
posted by ook at 8:24 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm going to recommend rhetoric as well because from your description, it sounds like an issue you might have is being swayed by messages due to their presentation rather than content. Once you learn how to separate the method of communication from the message, it becomes much easier to examine things with that critical distance. Math isn't going to teach you the type of reasoning that allows you to parse language more critically. If I could, I'd take an advance rhetoric class just to sharpen up. There's lots to learn in the world of logical fallacies alone.

I actually found literary criticism of great value in building critical thinking because it depends upon considering possible alternative explanations and supporting your conclusion with evidence from the text. I read lots of lit crit because I really enjoy the construction of a good argument.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:33 AM on July 31, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell's personal ties to Big Pharma would not in themselves be a reason why his conclusions are wrong (look up ad hominem fallacy)
This isn't an example of argumentum ad hominem.

Gladwell took money from Big Pharma, and then published work which attempted to influence public opinion about Big Pharma's products. That's a conflict of interest.

It's always appropriate to identify instances of this conflict. They severely detract from the strength of the argument. It's always bad for an arguer to hide a conflict of interest.

Had the eXiled writer declaimed against Gladwell's opinions about Big Pharma because of his Sideshow Bob hair, or his god-awful Canadianity, then we'd have an example of ad hominem reasoning.
posted by dott8080 at 10:47 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Change the way you react when you see or hear something surprising, or apparently miraculous, or not readily explainable.

Those are the things that trap the credulous, and those are the things that cause the skeptical thinker to demand more information.

Demand more information. Do not simply leap to an immediate conclusion in these instances. It is these instances which, because of their very peculiarity, demand we withhold immediate judgement. The more miraculous or unusual something seems, the more suspicion is warranted. History backs this up. We need to learn from history.
posted by Decani at 11:12 AM on July 31, 2012

So I once aspired to law school, and while I didn't end up applying in the end, studying for the logical reasoning part of the LSAT really helped me become a more balanced and critical thinker. Here is a bunch of logical reasoning books you can purchase or check out from your library (ignore the LSAT prep books, though the test is actually quite fun to take at your leisure). Even better, if you're still in school, see if your college offers a course in Logic and take it. I really regret not taking the Intro to Logic class offered by the Philosophy department when I was in college. All the best!
posted by peripathetic at 11:26 AM on July 31, 2012

It sounds like you're looking for different habits of mind.

If someone gave you the task of looking at the Gladwell article and told you that it might be false and you should try to figure out what's really true about Gladwell, you would probably be able to come to some sort of conclusion. It might be tentative, or you might say that you need more data, but you would automatically be skeptical going in. You would be looking for reasons to disbelieve.

Knowing the reasons that you and others make mistakes (and the sorts of mistakes that are commonly made) would help with this process. This is one of the things that the Kahneman book that everyone is recommending discusses. Also the Less Wrong Sequences mentioned above. That's why people are recommending these things. I learned a lot of them from an intro to cognitive psychology course, as it happens (in retrospect, one of the best classes I ever took). Bruce Schneier discusses them in the context of computer security (and airport security).

But you can know about something without automatically applying it everywhere. A classic example, from Feynman, is the question of where trees get their mass. You have the information to answer it (you probably learned it in elementary school), but almost everyone has a hard time realizing that this particular thing that they know about trees is relevant.

Developing those habits of mind is much harder. A number of people have suggested debate-like settings (hard-ass professors, philosophy classes, rhetoric). I don't think a class is a good way to develop your skills, but it's a good way to see what it is that you're shooting for. What are the instinctive questions that get asked? Then try applying these techniques to political articles across the spectrum. I recommend politics in particular because it's a target-rich environment (that is, politics is full of nonsense). Do not focus on the other side's arguments only -- spend as much or more time on your side's (that is, if you're a conservative, read National Review with a skeptical eye; if a liberal, try Mother Jones or the New Republic). Remember that you're not trying to find the best argument for your position but to find the position with the best argument. If you don't change your mind on a single political issue during this process, you're doing it wrong -- it would be an unbelievable amount of luck for your pre-rational political beliefs to be the correct one.
posted by novalis_dt at 11:32 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Haha, I came here to say the same thing that ook said: I'm not sure what your friend was getting at, but his response to you doesn't really make sense and suggests that he (and/or you--because he wasn't actually undercutting what you said) might be confused about the specifics of how evolution works. I am of the personal belief that everyone should read On the Origin of Species from cover to cover--I highly recommend the Broadview edition--because it's a fascinating and informative text, and the popular conception of evolution, like all popular conceptions, is pretty skewed and oversimplified. It's a very dense and well-written book, too, and just the act of reading it (and other such books--e.g. Marx's Capital Vol. 1 in translation) would be a fantastic way to improve your critical thinking skills. Science types might laugh at me because I'm sure Darwin is hardly the most up-to-date authority on evolution, but I stand by my claim that it's a foundational, and also delightful, text.
posted by désoeuvrée at 2:44 PM on July 31, 2012

Listen to the Skeptoid podcast. I don't always agree with his conclusions (though he does do occasional podcasts where he corrects his mistakes), but he covers interesting topics and describes logical fallacies and pitfalls in critical thinking in an accessible way. All in 10-15 minute bite-sized chunks.
posted by xyzzy at 2:45 PM on July 31, 2012

I have, and love, both A Rulebook for Arguments and How to Win Every Argument (previously recommended in the list that peripathetic posted.

I would also recommending random reading of articles on, just to keep your scepticism muscle working.

But also, not for nothing, don't worry about it too much: my personal experience is that the more relaxed I am, and the less the pressure, the more my brain is able to work in a cross-functional-inter-category sort of way. Which aids in critical thinking and reasoning but more importantly, also helps with creativity: and critical reasoning is also about creative thinking.

Also, How to Read a Book is great for this stuff too.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 3:36 PM on July 31, 2012

Okay. A number of people have talked about debate. I was heavily involved in my school's debate team (like, to the extent that I was driving the van and running practice sometimes when the coach was sick.) I'm going to explain how it's helped my ability to 'think critically' and what it's done for my life. I'm going to talk about what it will do for you and what it won't.

In order to be any good at Debate, you have to know stuff. Usually, a fair bit of stuff. This challenge will keep you educated enough to have the capacity to think critically in many subjects. If you know jack shit about Palestine, how can you think critically about Palestine? Maybe just admitting that you don't know anything is sometimes the best option. You don't have to think about everything. I encourage it actually. Might make your brain hurt.

Debate forces you think in the opposite perspective. As a bit of a hippy dippy, I have had to argue for Bush Tax cuts, assassination, lower capital gains tax and the like. You will have to argue for thinks you don't like and maybe more importantly, things you never thought of.

The time limit and competitive environment around you allows you to take your mission and fully embrace it. You have to, otherwise you'll stammer and be embarassed and say something dumb and lose. Really, as long as you don't violate any equity rules (and pay attention in Canada. They're sensitive about that shit. You can't say anything fun.) you can defend damn near any opinion you want.

The importance of Freedom of expression, the ability to conflict through words, and the power and unity of speech was made clear to me when we had debate inside a state prison. 12 university teams, 4 inmate teams. Debate had changed the way the prisoners dealt with reality - they were no longer physically violent, and were able to use reason to control their world. So far, every member of that debate team has had a 0% recidivism rate.

In practice, you throw away your attachment to your ideals, and embrace the strongest, most vicious, most devastating thunder bolt of an argument to throw at your opponents. You are looking for weaknesses as a hawk upon the wind. You repel their attempts to destroy you, and dismiss the very ground their attacks rest on. If this is not the purest* form of critical thinking, I ask for someone to show me what is.

For that reason, and also for the fact that you're in college: who your friends are will influence you, and you are in a remarkable position to make new friends. In general, Debaters are lovely, dear people, who are CRITICAL FUCKING ASSHOLES, in the best of ways. If you're serious, you'll want a friend who'll will rip apart all the holes in your arguments. So you can make better ones!

Also: you will likely have new drinking buddies. (Also: debate might let you travel for free! I did! If you can, go to Worlds (or Oxford) to see some of the sharpest critical thinkers in the world pass out in the garden.

But while someone could describe it as the 'purest' form of critical thinking, it is certainly not the best. Here's what it won't do: It won't make you know everything. It won't let you find truth. You can think critically as long as you want, but that stops meaning something at a certain point in your life. I've seen debaters very obsessed with learning ideas and facts, without a lot of critical thinking about enlightenment or happiness.

Debate is an inherently limited activity: it's sophism. All care and emotion, while frequently real, is the product of a fake system. By its very nature, all words utterered are not necessarily the true thoughts of the speaker. True dialogue and human connection take on much different, perhaps more important, forms.

I gained many things from debate. I recommend it heartily.

*And if you're going to do debate, look for BP debate or World style debate. Every other style is homegrown american pigshit. Also: ignore all the people who have clearly benefited from other styles of debate. If there's no BP debate at your school, me-mail me and I'll get you set up with the nearest school that does.

...oh wow this got long. gonna blame it on the porto.
posted by justalisteningman at 12:49 AM on August 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

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