Critical Thinking, Defined

I had a long — very, very long — talk with my brother recently.  It all started when my brother took issue with something that a public official said.  There was just one problem:  The public official in question hadn’t actually said anything like what my brother believed he had said.  So, I pointed this out, simply and briefly, in a couple of sentences.  And that led to several days of argument.

Two other problems drove the argument:

  1. The public official in question was President Obama.  Had it been anyone else, and were my brother not a banner-bearing member of the Tea Party, I’m sure that conversation would have ended much more easily than it did.
  2. Every time my brother admits to being wrong about something, he also removes a finger.  [Editor’s note: So far as I know, he’s still got all of his fingers.]

Toward the end of that discussion, it was clear we were at an impasse.  He wasn’t going to admit he was wrong, but we was clearly wrong.  He was reading the same words I was reading, and assigning them totally different meaning based solely on his own bias, based mostly on who said those words.  Recognizing my own bias could be affecting my reading, I proposed a technique for removing bias: Let a disinterested third party, who is an authority (say, an English teacher, or a professional writer) restate those words to expose their meaning.  

My brother’s reaction to this idea was, at best, dismissive.  At worst, he was violently offended.  He definitely seemed offended that I would question his mastery of the English language, which, of course, he’s used all of his life.  He also characterized relying on a disinterested third-party authority this way: “Do not listen to your own councils… ignore your own common sense and understanding…”

I was floored — absolutely floored.  How could an intelligent human being not recognize the need to eliminate his own bias when it so clearly dictates his thinking?  How could he not recognize that it was his bias I was questioning, not his mastery of his native language)?  How did he not understand these concepts?

At that point, I completely abandoned this discussion, and exhorted my brother to learn something, anything, about critical thinking.  

I went looking for a reasonable summary of Critical Thinking.  It’s a topic that is much talked about in business, taught in every technical and management discipline these days, and highly valued by employers.  One would think that the Internet would be a wellspring of valuable information on Critical Thinking.

I was fairly shocked to find that, no, the Internet has surprisingly little information on Critical Thinking that isn’t badly polluted or overblown.  The Wikipedia article on Critical Thinking is all over the place.  I read it — and having read it, I am now dumber for it.  I also went to and read their definition.  It’s a bit thin, but not bad.  Certainly not something that I could send to my brother, or anyone for that matter, and expect that they could come away with anything other than a surface idea of the broad concepts of critical thinking.  I also went to a Web site,, and read their definition.  It’s a set of overlapping definitions (which is perhaps necessary), and it’s a bit much to take on.  Most of the other references of the first couple of pages of Google results are people trying to sell you something (to be fair, so are two of these, but at least they present some useful information).

This, I found highly frustrating.  In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter that my brother will go on believing that he was right; but it does matter that he’ll never have any idea why it would have been a good idea to remove his own bias (and mine as well) from the conversation entirely.  That part disturbed me.  

Why did it disturb me?  Because, a critical thinker:

  1. Recognizes the value of imposing intellectual standards on his own thinking.
    In this example, recognizing that bias exists and clouds judgment is easy — anyone can do that.  Recognizing your own bias in your own thinking is much harder.  Not just anyone can do that.  But if you wouldn’t accept a biased judgment from someone else, and the reason you wouldn’t accept that judgment is because it is biased, then it stands to reason that you also should not accept a biased judgment from yourself.  By extension, then, everything we would value in a judgment or a thought coming from someone else, is something that we should also value in our own reasoning.
  2. Develops knowledge of the methods of logical reasoning and inquiry.
    So, what do we value?  Lots of stuff.  The list is long.  Thinking is inherently chaotic, and over the past several thousand years, people have come up with lots of different tools to make thinking of a higher quality possible.  The foundations of logic are found in philosophy and the history of rhetoric, and the same terms that were developed by philosophers in the ancient world still dominate the study of logic and reasoning.  So, there are two parts here:  Understanding those foundations (being able to define what a syllogism is, what makes an argument valid or invalid, and what modes of argument exist) is the first part.  The second part is building on those foundations to include knowledge of specific techniques and tools to address problems that arise in thinking about anything.  In this particular case, the problem that arose was one of bias (I would contend, my brother’s — but also, possibly, my own).  There’s a whole slew of biases that affect thinking.  If I was right, this one was called confirmation bias — which is actively seeking information that confirms a prejudice and actively disputing information that does not confirm a preconceived notion.

  3. Practices these methods in daily life.
    Our minds are like our muscles.  They atrophy when they’re not used.  Any study of critical thinking results in action within one’s own life.  Otherwise — the lessons are never learned.  You are actually not a critical thinker if you do not practice critical thinking.  In this case, the way to practice critical thinking would be to take some action to remove or counter the bias once its existence was recognized.  The method I proposed was, admittedly, flawed (It would have subjected the question to the same biases, just the bias of the third party — it’s hard to find anyone without strong feelings about certain political figures and certain questions).  However, it was better than simply continuing to argue.

I thought about what to do here.  I could have pointed my brother at the few half-decent references I found online, which were not books one had to purchase, and hoped for the best.  But, I have an interest in this topic, and I barely read them.  How could I expect that my brother, because I asked him to, would read them?  How could I expect him to get anything out of it, if he did?  Plan A was certainly flawed.  It would never hold my brother’s interest, long enough to get him to read anything, and he wouldn’t learn anything from it even if he did.

So, I went to plan B.

How did you like it?

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2 Responses to Critical Thinking, Defined

  1. Palmetto says:

    A quote to ponder on this topic:

    “The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge.” — Elbert Hubbard

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