What is Critical Thinking?
What is Critical Thinking? It’s a question that gets asked and answered many different ways by many different people. So we’ll start with the most basic definition: critical thinking is simply when you think about your own thinking, and try to form reasonable beliefs and make reasonable decisions based on the evidence you have available.
This might seem like an easy thing to do, but in fact most of us don’t do it. Even when we think we’re doing it, often times our brains twist the evidence and make up false reasons for why we believe what we believe. We tend to seek out information that supports our own beliefs while disregarding the information that contradicts them (confirmation bias). Then we end up acting on emotions, or what we want to be true (motivated reasoning).
We’re really good at this: it makes us feel like we know how things work and that we can predict the future. But in reality, our brains are easily tricked by misleading information and false patterns. We see faces in clouds and causes in coincidence, and we don’t always evaluate the quality of evidence that’s available to us. This is why scientists try so hard to get good evidence for their theories – because it’s difficult to do otherwise!
Critical thinking helps you break out of this pattern. It encourages you to check your own beliefs, question the world around you, and avoid being tricked by misdirection. It’s especially important in science to keep an open mind and consider new evidence, because we very often find that our old ideas were wrong!
So what can you do? Well, challenging your own beliefs is hard; it makes us feel like we’re losing the ground beneath our feet, like something important is being chipped away. Sometimes we cling to false beliefs in order to maintain a sense of identity or belonging, and sometimes we think our identities are based on the things we believe (e.g., “I’m a Republican,” or “I’m a Christian”). But when you realize that it’s possible to be wrong, and when you realize that good evidence is out there, waiting to be found… you might start to make better decisions.
Look for good evidence. Keep an open mind about who could be right , instead of focusing on who’s wrong . Be willing to admit it when you’re wrong – the first step is recognizing that you are! And if somebody tries to trick you with misdirection, consider that they might be wrong too.
Critical thinking is a lifelong journey, full of both challenges and rewards. But we hope you’ll join us for this quest!
10 Ways to Improve Critical Thinking Skills?
1) Read, read, read!
Not only does reading make you a better writer, it also makes you a better thinker. Fiction books are great for this because they often deal with complex issues in nuanced ways. The more you read, the more rich ideas and perspectives enter your brain, which can help improve your critical thinking skills. Instead of just accepting an author’s ideas at face value, try to identify their assumptions and think about whether or not they’re reasonable.
2) Keep an open mind!
If you’ve already decided that most authors are hopelessly naive, closed-minded, and blinded by their privilege… good luck reading anything critically! 🙈 But if you want to actually think about what you read, try to keep an open mind and don’t dismiss ideas until you’ve given them a fair hearing. This is sometimes easier said than done (we’ll talk more about why in the next section), but it’s an important place to start.
3) Be willing to change your mind!
It’s easy to fall into the trap of rejecting all new information, especially if you already have strong beliefs. But critical thinking isn’t about blindly accepting or rejecting anything – it’s about considering ideas and evidence carefully and thoughtfully. If you’re willing to actually think about what an author has written, there’s a good chance that you’ll change your mind about something. And even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll at least understand where they’re coming from a little better.
4) Have fun!
Critical thinking is an adventure! It’s a journey into the minds of others, and sometimes it’s a wild ride full of thrills and surprises. Being open to new ideas – and to the possibility that we might be wrong – is a HUGE part of critical thinking. We’re all influenced by our backgrounds and experiences, and it’s valuable to see the world through other people’s eyes.
5) Don’t just believe something because you want to!
If someone tells you that they have a solution to all your problems, it can be tempting to just accept what they’re saying without thinking too hard about it. This is especially true if you’re looking for a quick fix – say, after being disappointed by countless self-help books. Being more skeptical isn’t necessarily fun or easy, but the reality is that there are no miracle cures out there waiting to be discovered. If a solution sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if somebody tells you that the only reason you’re not succeeding is because of your race/gender/religion… run!
6) Read more non-fiction!
While fiction books are great for expanding our imagination and building empathy, they can also mislead us by presenting characters who make bad decisions or act in unreasonable ways. Non-fiction books are much more careful to present reasonable arguments and support them with good evidence, which makes them great sources of information even if they’re not perfect.
7) Challenge yourself!
The best way to improve your critical thinking skills is by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Read books that you wouldn’t normally read, talk to people who don’t share your opinions, and listen to opposing viewpoints at least as much as you’re listening to your own.
8) Think about why you think things!
This is a great way of practicing meta-cognition (i.e., thinking about how we think). We all have beliefs that we don’t question, and sometimes these beliefs can lead to problems. For example: if you’re white and you think the police treat black people fairly, you might be more likely to rationalize racist activities by police officers when they’re caught on tape.
9) Try not to jump to conclusions!
This is especially relevant in today’s 24-hour news cycle, where we’re constantly bombarded with information and encouraged to form opinions about it before we’ve had a chance to consider it fully. Jumping to conclusions can lead us to make false assumptions that aren’t true, especially because the stories that appear in the media are carefully selected by editors who think about how they’ll be perceived. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore our gut feelings – they’re very valuable – but it’s important to think things through before reaching any conclusions.
10) Don’t confuse opinion with fact!
Even if you don’t trust everything you read, it doesn’t make sense to completely dismiss something just because you disagree with it! Remember, there’s a very big difference between opinions and facts. Don’t let others tell you what to think – figure things out for yourself!
11) Seek out opposing viewpoints!
It’s important to read books and watch films from both sides of the political spectrum if we want to get a balanced picture of current events. We can’t understand the world we live in if we’re only getting one side of the story.
12) Don’t assume that something is bad just because you don’t like it!
It’s OK to have opinions, but let’s not assume that everything we don’t like is bad – especially if our reasons for thinking this are mostly emotional rather than logical.
13) Look for the evidence!
We need to do our research if we want to understand things fully – especially when it’s not possible to experience them directly. Some people are tempted to accept information provided by authorities, but this can sometimes lead us into trouble. Even if that politician or celebrity looks trustworthy, remember that just because someone looks like a good person doesn’t make them one.
14) If it sounds too simple, it probably is!
No problem has an easy solution and there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It might be tempting to buy into something that promises to solve all of our problems simply and quickly, but we should always ask ourselves whether the conditions are really that simple.
15) Don’t forget the importance of fun!
No one wants to spend all day thinking about serious things, so it’s important not to let our critical thinking skills take over our lives completely. Make time for having fun and exploring your interests – chances are, you’ll be more creative and productive if you do!
16) Stop worrying about what other people think!
If you’re never satisfied with your own thoughts and opinions, it’s hard to think critically, because you’re constantly judging yourself. It’s important not to judge too harshly – instead, try to be gentle and kind towards yourself when you notice this happening.
17) Think for yourself!
This is the most important rule of all. Don’t let other people do your thinking for you! Only you can decide what’s best for you, because no one else has access to your complete set of experiences and knowledge. If you don’t want to be manipulated by others or treat others in a manipulative way, don’t allow it to happen.
18) Remember that there are always exceptions!
This is perhaps the hardest rule to put into practice, because it’s important not to generalize too much when we’re thinking critically – but it can be helpful to remind ourselves of this once in a while. Even if something seems to apply in most cases, remember that there are probably exceptions that don’t fit the common pattern.
19) Don’t ignore your gut instincts!
Gut feelings are worth listening to, but only if we examine them carefully and try to figure out why they exist. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether something is coming from our “higher mind” or our basic survival instincts, so don’t be afraid to consult others or do some extra research.
20) If it doesn’t feel right, something probably isn’t!
The final rule of critical thinking is that if something doesn’t seem to fit together properly, it’s likely due to a mistake in our own thinking, so let’s have another look at the information we’ve been given. It’s possible that we’ve overlooked something important, so let’s check again before we write it off completely!