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Understanding critical thinking and analysis

Updated February 17, 2018

Thinking is a tricky business. Advertisers, politicians and many people with an over-arching agenda go to special lengths to convince you to think the things they want you to. You’re under constant attack from logical fallacies, emotional ploys and deliberately misleading statistics, and most people are woefully unprepared to deal with the onslaught. If you want to know why people believe in the effects of homeopathy or swear that psychics can accurately predict future events, a lack of critical thinking skills is your answer. This guide is designed to help you avoid these logical pit-falls and move continuously towards the actual truth, not just what others want you to believe.

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”

Michael Scriven (ex-president of the American Educational Research Association) and Dr. Richard Paul (Chair of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking)

Adopting the mindset

In order to think critically, you have to get into the right frame of mind. Most people’s main problem is that they are too attached to their own viewpoints. A good critical thinker is concerned only with finding the truth. If a particular belief of yours is contradicted by a piece of evidence or an infallible argument, you have to be ready to throw it out like a mouldy loaf of bread. In the same vein, you have to be open-minded to new viewpoints, and be willing to look into things you may not agree with as genuine possibilities. At the same time, you can’t afford to become gullible, and let yourself be taken in by rhetoric and pseudo-scientific claims. You have to tight-rope walk the fine, objective line between blind scepticism and dogmatic faith.

Arguably the most important quality for a free-thinker is curiosity. In order to develop a true picture of whatever it is you’re investigating, you have to have the motivation to learn about to the point of true comprehension. It’s also important to think freely. The conventions of any particular society are utterly irrelevant to the objective truth, and you have to be unburdened by any such shackles if you’re to become an effective critical thinker.

The main difficulty in obtaining this ultra-rational, objective mindset is that as humans we are somewhat flawed in our perception. Dr. Linda Elder, the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, says that true critical thinkers “recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement. They embody the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.”

Identifying fallacies

If all of the information or lines of reasoning you came across were presented without bias in an explicitly clear fashion, critical thinking would be much easier. The problem is that fallacies are rife in information we’re presented with on a day-to-day basis, and they lead you to believe things which aren’t necessarily true. They’re the traps and pit-falls that lead your critical faculties astray on a day-to-day basis.

One of the most prominent of these and one of the easiest to identify is the authority fallacy. There are some things which are under full jurisdiction of authority figures, such as the speed limit. Getting hit with a car at 70mph isn’t going to significantly safer than being hit by one at 80, but the government literally determines the speed limit. If the subject is factual, however, the government’s opinion holds no weight whatsoever. If the government said that the Second World War ended in 1989, it wouldn’t suddenly become true. This seems obvious, but almost every day an ordinary member of the public who has been personally affected by something is offered up as an authority on the subject. Just because John Smith’s daughter was murdered doesn’t mean he is an expert in criminal sentencing, so his calls for the death penalty aren’t reliable.

Most fallacies can be described concisely as arguments or lines of reasoning which don’t actively contribute to the quest for the truth of the matter. For example, if the leader of the parliamentary opposition disagrees with the current prime minister on workers’ pensions, it’s no use for the prime minister to claim that his opponent only says that because he’s “in the pocket of the unions” or “just disagreeing to gain public favour.” Criticising the other person’s motives does not make them wrong. The reason they are saying something does not magically make the current pension system fair, it just distracts people from thinking about the real issue.

Jamie Whyte, a former lecturer of philosophy at Cambridge University, uses the example of somebody attempting to refute a viewpoint through a comparison with Hitler. “‘That’s what Hitler thought!’ would, on its own, constitute a successful refutation of an opinion only if everything Hitler thought was false, which it clearly wasn’t. Even the worst among us has many true beliefs.” Fallacies are used to cast something in a negative or positive light whilst simultaneously undermining or otherwise subverting the quest for truth.

The dangers of rhetoric

Rhetoric is the art of argumentation and discourse, but it is primarily concerned with swaying an audience, not presenting the most cogent argument. This makes it a danger for critical thinkers, because it hides the facts underneath layers upon layers of misleading meaninglessness. It’s like the intellectual equivalent of stuffing a rolled up pair of socks into your underwear to appear well-endowed.

Jargon is one of the most well-known forms of rhetoric. Somebody who says they are going to “diversify their intellectual capital to gain leverage upward potential going forwards” is actually saying they’re going to explore new ideas in the hope that they’ll do better as a result. The reason that mess of words is used in place of the much simpler explanation is because it makes things harder to decode whilst appearing complex. In the same way, words like “justice” and “change” can be used arbitrarily to evoke powerful responses in audiences despite being incredibly vague.

Another common form of rhetoric is equivocation, where terms are used in order to draw unfair comparisons with their other connotations. For example, Karl Marx used the term “exploitation” to describe the general rule that an employer will pay an employee less than they receive for his or her work, in order to make a profit. This is a fact of the system, but by equating it with the word exploitation, its negative connotations are linked to the system, although that hasn’t been clarified in argument or evidence.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.