Top 10: Critical Thinking Cheat-Sheet

The ability to slice through the fog of misinformation and disinformation, propaganda and quackery, is a vital skill in our information-saturated digital era.

Critical thinking is a powerful tool, and a discerning mind is aware of how our innermost feelings shape our perception of the world. A critical thinker knows what shade of glasses they are wearing over their mind’s eye.

But all too often, and with few exceptions, we find ourselves falling into a common trap: we may believe we are thinking critically when our kneejerk responses simply reflect or reject the received wisdom of the day.

Thinking critically involves a number of steps, skills, and habits, as well as an open-minded truth-seeking attitude detached from the need to confirm one’s pre-existing biases. First and foremost, a desire to follow reason and evidence wherever they may lead is what sets critical thinkers apart. This desire, teamed with a systematic approach to problem-solving, a natural inquisitiveness, even-handedness, and competent reasoning, generates a framework from which the critical mind can work.

The humility to identify one’s prejudices, biases, susceptibility to propaganda, self-deception, and distortion enables us to critique from a detached position, opening our minds up to perceive reality as it is, and not as we would wish for it to be.

Although it may not be intuitive for many of us, critical thinking isn’t rocket science either, and it’s a tool that belongs in any discerning thinker’s kit.

Here’s SHIFT’s cheat-sheet of ten top tips to crank up your critical thinking a notch or two….

1. Identify the problem at its root

Identification of the problem is where critical thought begins. Here is it important to unpack the problem: identify what it is, and not just observe its symptoms; identify where the problem originates – which may require a stroll down the rabbithole; and comprehend the relationships of cause and effect.

As an example, take the issue of environmental destruction: the symptoms are climate change, deforestation, marine pollution – you name it – and the means include greenhouse gas emissions, clear-cutting, industrial and agricultural run-off, and so on. But the actual problem is something else. The problem originates in our way of life, and the systems by which we live: economic growth via over-consumption and over-population; it’s not as simple as greedy capitalists hatching evil plots. The relationships of cause and effect here, put simplistically, are that the more we consume, and the more of us there are to consume it, the more we will trash our planet.

2. Map out a process for tackling the problem

This is thinking at the ‘meta’ level – a preliminary step that involves deciding how to work through the problem so that it is tackled systematically, thus reducing the risk of falling into thought-traps. At this stage at we consider what the problem is that we need to tackle, what our goal is, and the steps we will take to determine how to reach our goal.

Returning to our environmental destruction problem as an example, our way of life is identified as the problem, and our goal is to identify a different way of living that would not cause destruction. From here it is sensible to frame the problem as a question, as this assists in cultivating the methodical mindset essential to tackling the problem with integrity. Our problem can be framed as, “how can we live in harmony with our environment?”

To address the problem we will need to define the terms of the question, seek information that directly answers it, interpret that information, evaluate it, and then draw conclusions.   

3. Gather and organize relevant information

The information-gathering stage is an obvious one, but one that is so often evaded. With the wealth of information that is likely to be available, it is vital to organize it so that it can be interpreted and evaluated effectively. This is the stage at which we are concerned only with facts: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to find out.

With our question – “how can we live in harmony with our environment?” – we are now positioned to seek information regarding human activities that have either no negative impact on our environment, or negative impacts that can be addressed without serious knock-on effects. Categories will emerge as we discover information, and this will guide us in organizing it so we can put it to practical use.

Before we move on to interpreting our information, a couple of side-trips are necessary…

4. Recognize unstated assumptions & values

Underlying all worldviews are a set of assumptions and values that usually go unrecognized, much less acknowledged. Recognizing these assumptions and values enables us to uncover hidden biases. Challenging our assumptions and values is a vital step toward perceiving reality as is, and we especially need to challenge those assumptions that stem from dominant ideologies that are invisible and embedded in the received wisdom.

An example of a commonly held assumption is that in order to live in harmony with our environment we will need to develop technologies that produce what we want with less impact.  This stems from what Ozzie Zehner refers to as a productivist worldview – a set of values that holds that in order to live more sustainably we need to produce less damaging things, as opposed to producing fewer things, or things that last longer. If we recognize these assumptions and values for what they are, and open ourselves up to challenging them, we may find that alternative possibilities become available.

5. Identify suitable sources for research

When it comes to doing research, a quick skim of Wikipedia just won’t do, and neither will an unfiltered Google search. In order to find useful information, we are going to need to know where to look, which requires information literacy – a skill that takes practice and integrity to acquire.

So finding quality information is easier said than done – especially when we find information that confirms our biases and don’t want to question its source lest we find we’ve been looking in the wrong places… But discipline our search we must! This starts with a list of criteria with which to dismiss a source. As a simple rule of thumb, if your source looks like it has a commercial agenda, ditch it; if it doesn’t back up its assertions with verifiable evidence, ditch it; if it draws conclusions that aren’t logically connected to its assertions, ditch it; and if it doesn’t stand up to cross-referencing against sources you’ve identified as kosher, again, ditch it. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

To be frank, that’ll lead you to quickly dispense with most of the internet, but at least it’ll make your search for quality information a bit quicker!

6. Recognize logical relationships

Logic is a vital component of critical thinking, but we humans are heavily disadvantaged in that our minds tend to favour information that supports our pre-existing biases, rather than being naturally inclined toward logical reasoning. Logic is a skill that requires effort and discipline, and can lead you to wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night suddenly aware that everything you thought you knew could actually be completely wrong!

Simply put: if an argument does not logically support an assertion, then it is either irrelevant – in which case you should dismiss it, or it suggests a different conclusion entirely. Being well versed in the suite of logical fallacies often employed by our minds in defence of our pre-existing biases – or those generally employed by politicians and the mainstream media – will help us to identify when we’re heading down a slippery slope, erecting a strawman, or chasing after red herrings, to toss out a few examples.    

7. Interpret data & evaluate arguments

Once we have gathered information, categorized it, understood it, and dispensed with our own pre-existing biases, we are in a position to interpret and analyse it, draw inferences, and evaluate arguments on the basis of their merit. This is where we can start to have some fun.

Returning to our example of how to live in harmony with our environment, we can expect to be faced with a wide array of information (hopefully categorized by now) pertaining to various aspects of sustainable living. We need to consider what each piece of data means for any given aspect of our way of life – whether it supports maintenance of the status quo or indicates changes, and what kind of changes are indicated. We may well find ourselves unpacking a whole host of behaviours and policies we’d never even considered before!

Once we’re done interpreting our data we’ll then need to weigh up our options in terms of which ones appear to add most value to the task of reaching our goal.

8. Draw appropriate conclusions & generalisations

Too often we mere mortals think in black and white terms when problems in the real world are complex, nuanced, and may have numerous causes and effects. Although it’s commonly understood that answers to our problems are usually not as simple as right or wrong, we often miss the point that problems exist in a context – an invisible set of parameters that constrains what is possible.

A critical thinker is also wise to the fact that there isn’t usually just one logical approach. We humans are rationalizing creatures – not necessarily rational per se. Perhaps we have cause and effect the wrong way round; perhaps we are focusing too much on one cause and failing to note other causes; perhaps the cause is not a cause at all, but just something that occurs in tandem.

Following up on our example of how to live in harmony with our environment, it can be easily inferred that because burning coal emits CO2 and solar panels don’t (at least, not post-production), that producing more solar panels is what’s required to combat climate change. This conclusion misses the point that it is the reduction of CO2 from burning coal that has the desired effect – therefore it is necessary to quit coal regardless whether it is replaced, or what with.

9. Put conclusions and generalisations to the test

Drawing appropriate conclusions and making fair generalizations on the basis of information that has been gathered, interpreted and evaluated isn’t as simple as it may appear at first blush. A critical thinker realises that at all times we are interpreting information, both before and after the problem is solved. The conclusion itself is interpreted, and so we can misunderstand our own findings.

Once we have arrived at a conclusion it may be tempting to languish there, safe in the comfort that one’s critical thinking process has led one to arrive at the ‘truth’. However, there is another step that must be taken for the integrity of critical thinking to stand firm: one’s new conclusions must be put to the test just as rigorously as one’s formerly held beliefs – which means (yup, you guessed it!), rinse and repeat the process. Nothing can be sacred.

10. Reconstruct patterns of belief based on wider experience

Reality does exist – but not necessarily in the way I think it exists.

Ultimately we do not know what is real or how reality functions. We humans think in symbols, languages, models, and numbers, and we assign names and functions to things that are merely personally and socially processed representations of what we think reality is. What we end up with is a picture of reality based on social consensus and/or affirmation of our own experiences. We try to get as close to the truth as we can, but since the picture is never the same as the real thing, we never quite get it.

The willingness to remain open-minded when considering alternative perspectives may seem annoyingly non-committal to some, but it is a precondition for an ongoing learning journey in which we recognize that we are unlikely to ever arrive at a fixed destination. Reality is constantly changing and evolving, a constantly moving target; we are forever kept on our toes by the need to integrate new or revised perspectives into our ways of thinking and acting.

Nevertheless, when the moment of clarity comes and we can see the way forward, we should go for it as part of the journey of a wise life.

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