In scientific publishing, newspapers and magazines often you will see headlines of the greatest scientific discoveries ever made, but what of them? In a recent conversation with a doctor he told me how they review certain articles from popular medical journals on mistakes made in the process and compare them to the headlines, which often lead to astounding insights in wrong methodology or overly optimistic conclusions. Oftentimes the conclusions shown in media headlines are taking the most positive outcome possible and displaying just that to the world.
What happens even more often is that these headlines are copied and repeated ad nauseum, so that one might actually believe them, because there are but a few places that show the whole truth, and they often require a better understanding of the subjects at hand. One is then left to wonder whether things are really too good to be true, which they unfortunately are not most of the time, or just another incorrect statement. It used to be that we could believe respected sources on what they said, but luckily fact checking became easier to do and, unfortunately, more necessary.
What is critical thinking?
The first thing to do before discussing the subject is to analyse what critical thinking entails, because without this definition it would be a hard subject to discuss. It might mean different things to different people and on a subject like this we should take care to discuss the same thing. What I did at first was go online and do a quick search on critical thinking, which eventually yielded a definition on which all definitions I could find (there are 9 alone on Wikipedia) that quickly seem to agree and one that’s clear in what it wants to say: critical thinking is “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.” (dictionary.reference.com)
This definition isn’t narrowed down enough, as all logical thinking would be critical according to it. It needs some more spice, something to differentiate logical thinking from critical thinking. In academics, the focal point of this post, I would say I see critical thinking as the idea of thinking further than the lesson being thought, rather than thinking along the lines presented.
Let me explain a bit further: when shown a theory that’s based on a certain logic, why not think about the logic instead of blindly assuming it’s right? Often there are assumptions behind a theory and, whilst not immediately presented, there are almost always arguments against it, however logical the whole thing may sound at first. Thinking of such arguments and accepting or rejecting the theory after posing those possible objections is what makes that whole process. So why do we practice it so little? Why do we often just agree with what we’re told?
The challenges of critical thinking
In my opinion the biggest reasons, at least for me, to neglect critical thinking are:
- Finding acceptance in your own world views is comfortable, whilst challenging theories and thoughts of others costs a lot of energy and may be uncomfortable.
- It can be hard to challenge what you see as an authority: a teacher, a scholar, the government. They know what they’re talking about and asking questions is just stupid.
Both reasons can be seen as a fair argument and I won’t criticise those who won’t go further than this, but I myself do not like to leave it at that. The first point is the easiest to tackle, as it means you just need to man up and get over yourself. Challenging existing thoughts leads to a greater understanding of things, although you need to ask the right questions. One of the largest disciplines we know of has been built upon the premise of thinking critically and asking questions: philosophy. And one of the most famous philosophers was known for doing just that: Socrates. Also take a look around, as there are plenty of examples of people who challenged the thoughts of the general populace and decided to live differently. That’s what critical thinking can do.
The second reason is the tougher one to handle. It can be hard to speak up to an authority figure, to someone who’s an expert in his or her field. In my experience though, I can say that those who have more expertise are often more than happy, and often very enthusiastic, to elaborate on a subject and talk about the pro’s and cons of an idea, of a theory. And when you learn from them, you deepen your understanding of those subjects and know what else is out there. This is of course easier said than done, but it can get you further than just blindly accepting the ideas that are presented.
The importance of critical thought
In academics and later on in life critical thinking is something which is deemed important. For example a research cited in this article shows the skill shows up more often on job listings. It’s one of those skills that can be interpreted in a lot of ways, so with our definition, what can we say about the importance of critical thought? Why do people value the skill?
This web page lists several reasons on why critical thinking is so important. I will pick two out of six to elaborate on, as the other four are either quite self-evident – yes I know that’s a bad thing to state in an article on critical thought – or too vague. The two I want to highlight are:
- Critical thinking promotes creativity. To come up with a creative solution to a problem involves not just having new ideas. It must also be the case that the new ideas being generated are useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones and modifying them if necessary
- Critical thinking is crucial for self-reflection. In order to live a meaningful life and to structure our lives accordingly, we need to justify and reflect on our values and decisions. Critical thinking provides the tools for this process of self-evaluation.
In my perspective the purpose of critical thinking boils down to these two. When thinking critically it’s necessary to evaluate ideas and statements and see what they’re worth. It helps you think creatively and think of other possibilities; it might even help you to see other people’s point-of-view. This continues in self-reflection, where critical thinking helps evaluate your own ideas and helps you be more open-minded, even though you might not change your views.
Concluding, I’d say critical thinking is a great skill to have and keep practising, although it’s not always that easy to do. It’s important to keep your eyes on what’s being shown to you and, when in doubt, to start asking questions.
But that’s enough from me. What do you think of critical thinking? Am I right here, or do you think differently? Please let me know below in the comments.