It’s Critical

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand what critical thinking is and why it’s important.
  • Discover assumptions and biases.
  • Practice problem solving and decision making.
  • Know the power of questions.
  • Evaluate information.

Americans Have Access to:

  • 1 million new books each year
  • 5,500 magazines
  • 10,500 radio stations
  • 65,000 iPhone apps
  • 1,000,000,000,000 Web pages

Silhouette of man being overtaken by wave made out of 1's and 0'sThe abundance of information we now can access is a great challenge. How we filter and use all that data is the reason critical thinking has become so important today.

Critical thinking is the ability to discover the value of an idea, a set of beliefs, a claim, or an argument. It requires us to use logic and reasoning to evaluate evidence or information to make a decision or reach a conclusion.

Critical thinking is:

  • a foundation for effective communication
  • the principal skill used in effective decision making
  • at the core of creating new knowledge
  • a way to uncover bias and prejudices

The Critical Thinking Process

The critical thinking process is about asking the right questions to understand a problem or issue and then gathering the data needed to complete the decision or take sides on an issue.

What is the problem or issue really about? What is the objective? Are you looking to make a decision or take a position? Are you deciding which candidate in an election will do a better overall job, or are you looking to strengthen the political support for a particular cause?

Do you understand the terms related to the issue? Are you in agreement with the proponent’s definitions? For example, if you are evaluating a quotation for use in a paper, your objective might be to decide to use the quotation or not, but before you can make that decision you need to understand what the writer is really saying. If a term like “family” is used, for example, does it mean direct relations or extended family?

What are my options? What are the choices available to you (if you are making a decision), or what are the “sides” (in the case of a position) you might choose between? What are their differences? What are the likely consequences of each option? In making a decision, it might be helpful to ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that might happen in each scenario?” Examining different points of view is important; there may be dozens of alternative viewpoints to a particular issue, and the validity of each can change depending on circumstances. A position that is popular today may not have been a year ago, and there is no guarantee it will be popular in the future. Likewise, a solution to a personal problem that was successful for your roommate may not apply to you. Remember that sometimes the best option might be a combination of options.

What do I know about each option? First, make sure you have all the information about each option. Do you have all the information to support each of your likely options? What is still missing? Where can you get the information you need? Keep an open mind and don’t dismiss supporting information on any position before you evaluate it carefully.

How good is my information? Now it’s time to evaluate the quality of the support of each option or point of view. Evaluate the strengths and the weaknesses of each piece of supporting evidence. Are all the relevant facts presented? Are some facts presented in misleading ways? Are enough examples presented to support the premise? Consider the source of the supporting information. Who is the expert presenting the facts? Keep in mind that the expert may have a vested interest in the position. Consider that bias, more for understanding the point of view than for rejecting it. Consider your own opinions (especially when working with emotional issues); are your emotional ties to a point of view getting in your way of clear thinking (your own biases)? If you really like a particular car model, are you giving the financial implications of buying that car a fair consideration?

Here are some common critical thinking situations and the kinds of questions you should ask to apply critical thinking.

  • Personal choices. Examples include “What should I major in?” and “Should I buy a new car?” What do you know about each of your options? What is the quality of that information? Where can you get more (reliable) information? How do those options relate to your financial and emotional needs? What are the pros and cons of each option? Are you open to the points of view of others who may be involved?
  • Reading, listening, note taking, and studying. What are the core messages of the instructor or author? Why are they important? How do these messages relate to one another or differ?
  • Research papers. What evidence do you need to support your thesis? What sources are available for that evidence? Are they reliable sources?
  • Essay questions on exams. What is the professor really asking you to do? What do you know about the question? What is your personal belief about the question? What are the beliefs or biases of the professor or quoted authors? What are the arguments against your point of view? What are the most important pieces of evidence you should offer to support your answer?

Tips for Critical Thinking

  • Consider all points of view (look for gray areas).
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Answer three questions about your supporting data:
    • Is it enough support?
    • Is it the right support?
    • Is it credible?
  • Look for evidence that contradicts your point of view. Pretend to disagree with the position you are supporting. What parts of your argument are weak? Do you have the supporting facts to overcome that evidence?
  • Create a set of criteria you will use to evaluate the strength of information you want to use to support your argument. Ask questions like these:
    • What is the source of this information?
    • Is the author well respected in the field?
    • When was this information developed? Is that important? Why?
    • Does the author or publisher have an agenda for publishing the information? How does that agenda affect the credibility of the information?
  • Create a table on which you list your main points, then for each one, list the evidence you have to support it. This method will help you visually identify where you have weak evidence and what points actually lack evidence.
  • Be willing to admit that you lack information to support a point of view or make a decision. Ask questions or do some focused research to get what you still need.
  • Make sure that your assumptions and points of view are supported by facts, not opinions.
  • Question your characterizations of others. Are those authorities truly competent in the area you are considering? Are you attacking the opponents of your point of view rather than attacking their arguments?
  • Be careful of broad generalizations. Claims that use absolute words like “all,” “none,” “always,” “never,” “no one,” and “everyone” require much more proof than claims that use words like “most,” “some,” “often,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” and so on.

Where Did That Come From?

One of the most consistent uses for critical thinking in your college work is in considering the value of research material and deciding how to use it. The Internet gives you access to an almost unlimited amount of data, and you must choose what to use carefully. The following are some guidelines:

  1. Look at the URL.  The web address can give you important information about the reliability and intentions of the site. Start with the page publisher. Have you heard of this source before? If so, would you consider it a reliable source for the kind of material you are about to read? Now consider the domain type in the URL, which follows the period: “.com” and “.biz” are used by commercial enterprises, “.org” is normally used by nonprofit organizations, and “.edu” is reserved for educational institutions. None of these is necessarily bad or good, but they may give you a sense behind the motivation for publishing this material. Are you dealing with a company or the website of an individual, and how might that affect the quality of the information on that site?
  2. What can you learn from poking around with navigation tabs or buttons, and what do they tell you about the objective of the Web site? Look for a tab labeled “About Us” or “Biography.”
  3. Consider what others are saying about the site. Does the author offer references, reviews, or quotations about the material? What do they say?
  4. Trust your own impressions about the material. Is the information consistent with what you already know?
  5. Ask yourself why the website was written. (To inform? To provide data or facts? To sell something? To promote a cause? To parody?)