I teach a course in critical thinking and friends sometimes ask, “Well, what does that mean?” Essentially, it’s a process of thinking about thinking in a structured, systematic way. The goal is to think more clearly and fairmindedly.
It’s also about epistemology: how do we know what we know? More specifically, how do we know that what we know is true?
It’s generally agreed, for instance, that there are eight “intellectual standards” that can help us think more clearly. Each is important in its own right but the order is also important. Here they are:
Clarity – this is the most basic standard; it’s a gateway to other standards. If a statement is not clear, we can’t reason effectively. The question, “What can be done about the crisis in the family?” is unclear. Useful clarifying questions include, Can you give me an example?, How do you define the problem?
Accuracy – a statement can be clear but not accurate: “Travis is a genius.” Advertisers and politicians frequently make statements that are clear but not accurate. At the same time, our own thoughts may not be accurate. So, we need external reference points that can help us validate accuracy. For instance, a friend publishes the website Thinking Arizona, which provides “facts to inform the public discourse”. That seems like a growth market.
Precision – a statement can be clear and accurate but not precise: “Travis is overweight.” Well, how much overweight? Is this a small problem or a big problem? Key question: can you be more specific?
Relevance — a statement can be clear, accurate, and precise but not relevant. I once explained to my boss just how hard I was working on a particular project. Her response was, “So what?” It really wasn’t relevant.
Depth – a statement can be clear, accurate, precise and relevant but shallow. Here’s one: “If we just eliminated sex ed in high schools, teens wouldn’t get pregnant.” Well, maybe … but somehow teen pregnancy seems to be a much deeper, more complicated issue. Key question: Is that really the most significant factor?
Breadth — a statement can be clear, accurate, precise, relevant and deep but too narrow. Politicians do this regularly, presenting only the conservative or only the liberal point of view. At the same time, we may be narrow in our own thinking. So we may need to broaden our own thinking as well as “their” thinking. Key questions: What about the other side? What if we flip the question around?
Logic – a statement may be all of the above but not logical – it just doesn’t make sense. The coin toss experiment that proves that criticism is more effective than praise is a good example. Key questions: How does that conclusion flow from the evidence? Are other factors involved?
Significance – a statement may be all of the above but not significant. This is a little different than relevance. You may find that multiple factors are relevant but only one or two are significant. For instance, lung cancer may have multiple causes (all of which are relevant) but smoking is probably the cause that is most significant.
All of this may seem like “structured common sense” and in a way it is. But it’s useful to review these standards occasionally to remember how they fit together. I also like to review the questions from time to time so they’re on the tip of my tongue when I get into an argument.
Note: Most books on critical thinking would present some variation of this material. I adapted this version from Critical Thinking, 3rd edition, by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.