Thinking critically about something is not the same as criticising it – just like making an argument is very different from having an argument.
In day-to-day usage it appears negative or destructive – but from an academic point it’s simply a common sense approach.
How can we approach a new situation, idea or information with our eyes open and do something meaningful as a result?
This starts with being able to consider the situation critically – questioning rather than blindly accepting the things that are put in front of us.
This is especially important in a world where we face complex choices – from whether we should act quickly or slowly on our own contribution to climate change to enthusiastically adopt the latest technology fad.
Quite often we default to doing nothing – and that may be the worst of all outcomes. That leads to atrophy and failure.
John Mingers identified four aspects of critical thinking that act as a useful checklist for us.
The first is to be wary of rhetoric.
Is the argument fair, balanced and logical or is the speaker using language in a way that could appeal to emotions or mislead us?
Is it a sales pitch rather than an insight?
It’s not always easy to tell, because we can be swayed by passionate people who believe in what they are saying – but we need to try.
The second aspect is to question tradition.
Tradition can involve unquestioned assumptions that are made by people or the culture and practices that have sprung up around an idea.
This can be a difficult thing to approach as the existing position, or status quo, is something people will cling strongly to and resist changing.
It’s easier to go along with them – but that might not be the right thing to do.
The third aspect is not to accept authority unthinkingly.
Arthur C. Clarke wrote – If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
Things change – and sometimes people that have built their reputation on a particular set of ideas find it difficult or impossible to accept that their contributions could now be overturned.
If they have power, they can direct resources and attention to other areas instead.
We see examples of this everywhere – most notably in politics across the world.
The final aspect is to question the objectivity of the people involved.
Robert Pirsig in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance writes about how scientific work can be like sorting grains of sand on the beach into piles.
The piles represent related ideas, concepts, theories. It’s the way that we approach and classify the world.
The thing we cannot forget is that the piles do not exist on their own.
There is a person kneeling there on the beach making them.
And we need to consider how value-free and objective that person is about the issue.
For example, we would not give a news report from a state that routinely censors information the same weight as a report from a respected investigative reporter.
So, in summary, critical thinking is not about criticising.
It’s about not blindly following persuasive, traditional, authoritarian or seemingly objective points of view.