Critical thinkers tend to exhibit certain traits that are common to them. These traits are summarized in Table 1:
|Table 1: Traits of Critical Thinkers|
|Open-mindedness||Critical thinkers are open and receptive to all ideas and arguments, even those with which they may disagree. Critical thinkers reserve judgment on a message until they have examined the claims, logic, reasoning, and evidence used. Critical thinkers are fair-minded and understand that a message is not inherently wrong or flawed if it differs from their own thoughts. Critical thinkers remain open to the possibility of changing their view on an issue when logic and evidence supports doing so.|
|Analytic Nature||Critical thinkers are interested in understanding what is happening in a message. Critical thinkers ask questions of the message, breaking it into its individual components and examining each in turn. Critical thinkers dissect these components looking for sound logic and reasoning.|
|Systematic by Method||Critical thinkers avoid jumping to conclusions. Critical thinkers take the time to systematically examine a message. Critical thinkers apply accepted criteria or conditions to their analyses.|
|Inquisitive||Critical thinkers are curious by nature. Critical thinkers ask questions of what is going on around them and in a message. Critical thinkers want to know more and take action to learn more.|
|Judicious||Critical thinkers are prudent in acting and making judgments. Critical thinkers are sensible in their actions. That is, they don’t just jump on the bandwagon of common thought because it looks good or everyone else is doing it.|
|Truth-Seeking Ethos||Critical thinkers exercise an ethical foundation based in searching for the truth. Critical thinkers understand that even the wisest people may be wrong at times.|
|Confident in Reasoning||Critical thinkers have faith in the power of logic and sound reasoning. Critical thinkers understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to encourage and develop sound logic. More importantly, critical thinkers value the power of letting others draw their own conclusions.|
Recall that critical thinking is an active mode of thinking. Instead of just receiving messages and accepting them as is, we consider what they are saying. We ask if messages are well-supported. We determine if their logic is sound or slightly flawed. In other words, we act on the messages before we take action based on them. When we enact critical thinking on a message, we engage a variety of skills including: listening, analysis, evaluation, inference and interpretation or explanation, and self-regulation
Next, we will examine each of these skills and their role in critical thinking in greater detail. As you read through the explanation of and examples for each skill, think about how it works in conjunction with the others. It’s important to note that while our discussion of the skills is presented in a linear manner, in practice our use of each skill is not so straightforward. We may exercise different skills simultaneously or jump forward and backward.
Without an open-minded mind, you can never be a great success. ~ Martha Stewart
In order to understand listening, we must first understand the difference between listening and hearing. At its most basic, hearing refers to the physiological process of receiving sounds, while listening refers to the psychological process of interpreting or making sense of those sounds.
Every minute of every day we are surrounded by hundreds of different noises and sounds. If we were to try to make sense of each different sound we would probably spend our day just doing this. While we may hear all of the noises, we filter out many of them. They pass through our lives without further notice. Certain noises, however, jump to the forefront of our consciousness. As we listen to them, we make sense of these sounds. We do this every day without necessarily thinking about the process. Like many other bodily functions, it happens without our willing it to happen.
Critical thinking requires that we consciously listen to messages. We must focus on what is being said – and not said. We must strive not to be distracted by other outside noises or the internal noise of our own preconceived ideas. For the moment we only need to take in the message.
Listening becomes especially difficult when the message contains highly charged information. Think about what happens when you try to discuss a controversial issue such as abortion. As the other person speaks, you may have every good intention of listening to the entire argument.
However, when the person says something you feel strongly about you start formulating a counter-argument in your head. The end result is that both sides end up talking past each other without ever really listening to what the other says.
Once we have listened to a message, we can begin to analyze it. In practice we often begin analyzing messages while still listening to them. When we analyze something, we consider it in greater detail, separating out the main components of the message. In a sense, we are acting like a surgeon on the message, carving out all of the different elements and laying them out for further consideration and possible action.
Let’s return to Shonda’s persuasive speech to see analysis in action. As part of the needs section of her speech, Shonda makes the following remarks:
Americans today are some of the unhealthiest people on Earth. It seems like not a week goes by without some news story relating how we are the fattest country in the world. In addition to being overweight, we suffer from a number of other health problems. When I was conducting research for my speech, I read somewhere that heart attacks are the number one killer of men and the number two killer of women. Think about that. My uncle had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital. They hooked him up to a bunch of different machines to keep him alive. We all thought he was going to die. He’s ok now, but he has to take a bunch of pills every day and eat a special diet. Plus he had to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills. Wouldn’t you like to know how to prevent this from happening to you?
If we were to analyze this part of Shonda’s speech (see Table 2), we could begin by looking at the claims she makes. We could then look at the evidence she presents in support of these claims. Having parsed out the various elements, we are then ready to evaluate them and by extension the message as a whole.
When we evaluate something we continue the process of analysis by assessing the various claims and arguments for validity. One way we evaluate a message is to ask questions about what is being said and who is saying it. The following is a list of typical questions we may ask, along with an evaluation of the ideas in Shonda’s speech.
Is the speaker credible?
Yes. While Shonda may not be an expert per se on the issue of health benefits related to wine, she has made herself a mini-expert through conducting research.
Does the statement ring true or false based on common sense?
It sounds kind of fishy. Four or more glasses of wine in one sitting doesn’t seem right. In fact, it seems like it might be bordering on binge drinking.
Does the logic employed hold up to scrutiny?
Based on the little bit of Shonda’s speech we see here, her logic does seem to be sound. As we will see later on, she actually commits a few fallacies.
What questions or objections are raised by the message?
In addition to the possibility of Shonda’s proposal being binge drinking, it also raises the possibility of creating alcoholism or causing other long term health problems.
How will further information affect the message?
More information will probably contradict her claims. In fact, most medical research in this area contradicts the claim that drinking 4 or more glasses of wine a day is a good thing.
Will further information strengthen or weaken the claims?
Most likely Shonda’s claims will be weakened.
What questions or objections are raised by the claims?
In addition to the objections we’ve already discussed, there is also the problem of the credibility of Shonda’s expert “doctor.”
Inference and Interpretation or Explanation
“Imply” or “Infer”?
For two relatively small words, imply and infer seem to generate an inordinately large amount of confusion. Understanding the difference between the two and knowing when to use the right one is not only a useful skill, but it also makes you sound a lot smarter!
Let’s begin with imply. Imply means to suggest or convey an idea. A speaker or a piece of writing implies things. For example, in Shonda’s speech, she implies it is better to drink more red wine. In other words, she never directly says that we need to drink more red wine, but she clearly hints at it when she suggests that drinking four or more glasses a day will provide us with health benefits.
Now let’s consider infer. Infer means that something in a speaker’s words or a piece of writing helps us to draw a conclusion outside of his/her words. We infer a conclusion. Returning to Shonda’s speech, we can infer she would want us to drink more red wine rather than less. She never comes right out and says this. However, by considering her overall message, we can draw this conclusion.
Another way to think of the difference between imply and infer is: A speaker (or writer for that matter) implies.
The audience infers.
Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that Shonda infers we should drink more rather than less wine. She implies this. To help you differentiate between the two, remember that an inference is something that comes from outside the spoken or written text.
The next step in critically examining a message is to interpret or explain the conclusions that we draw from it. At this phase we consider the evidence and the claims together. In effect we are reassembling the components that we parsed out during analysis. We are continuing our evaluation by looking at the evidence, alternatives, and possible conclusions.
Before we draw any inferences or attempt any explanations, we should look at the evidence provided. When we consider evidence we must first determine what, if any, kind of support is provided. Of the evidence we then ask:
- Is the evidence sound?
- Does the evidence say what thespeaker says it does?
- Does contradictory evidenceexist?
- Is the evidence from a validcredible source?
Even though these are set up as yes or no questions, you’ll probably find in practice that your answers are a bit more complex. For example, let’s say you’re writing a speech on why we should wear our seatbelts at all times while driving. You’ve researched the topic and found solid, credible information setting forth the numerous reasons why wearing a seatbelt can help save your life and decrease the number of injuries experienced during a motor vehicle accident. Certainly, there exists contradictory evidence arguing seat belts can cause more injuries. For example, if you’re in an accident where your car is partially submerged in water, wearing a seatbelt may impede your ability to quickly exit the vehicle. Does the fact that this evidence exists negate your claims? Probably not, but you need to be thorough in evaluating and considering how you use your evidence.
A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. ~ Oscar Wilde
The final step in critically examining a message is actually a skill we should exercise throughout the entire process. With self-regulation, we consider our pre-existing thoughts on the subject and any biases we may have. We examine how what we think on an issue may have influenced the way we understand (or think we understand) the message and any conclusions we have drawn. Just as contradictory evidence doesn’t automatically negate our claims or invalidate our arguments, our biases don’t necessarily make our conclusions wrong. The goal of practicing self-regulation is not to disavow or deny our opinions. The goal is to create distance between our opinions and the messages we evaluate.
- Adapted from Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction, The Delphi Report (Executive Summary). Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press. ↵
- Adapted from Facione, P. A. (1990). ↵
- Aristotle. (1989). Prior Analytics (Trans. Robin Smith). Cambridge, MA: Hackett Publishing. ↵