Critical Thinking

Recently stumbled across a great resource from The Foundation for Critical Thinking. More than ever, the role of critical thinking is essential to our discourse – and particularly in economics. How we discuss ideas is a direct product of how we think about those ideas.

In particular, critical thinking is about:

  • raising appropriately, clearly defined questions;
  • gathering, assessing, and interpreting information accurately;
  • retaining open-mindedness, particularly with regard to our own biases;
  • identifying and, when necessary, challenging underlying assumptions;

The notion “You are what you think.” is powerful. Developing sound ways of reasoning is at the core of participating in intelligent debate, formulating logical viewpoints, and contributing to your (or your neighbors’, or the world’s) store of knowledge. So, what drives critical thinking?

The Foundation for Critical Thinking provides a simple checklist as a starting framework:

1. All reasoning has a purpose.

  • Can you state your purpose clearly? 
  • What is the objective of your reasoning?
  • Does your reasoning focus throughout on your goal?
  • Is your goal realistic?

2. All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, to solve some problem.

  • What question are you trying to answer?
  • Are there other ways to think about the question?
  • Can you divide the question into sub-questions?
  • Is this a question that has one right answer or can there be more than one reasonable answer?
  • Does this question require judgment rather than facts alone?

3. All reasoning is based on assumptions.

  • What assumptions are you making? Are they justified?
  • How are your assumptions shaping your point of view?
  • Which of your assumptions might be reasonably questioned?

4. All reasoning is done from some point of view.

  • What is your point of view? What insights is it based on? What are its weaknesses?
  • What other points of view should be considered in reasoning through this problem? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these viewpoints? Are you fairmindedly considering the insights behind these viewpoints?

5. All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.

  • To what extent is your reasoning supported by relevant data?
  • Do the data suggest explanations that differ from those you have given?
  • How clear, accurate, and relevant are the data to the question at issue?
  • Have you gathered data sufficient to reaching a reasonable conclusion?

6. All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and theories.

  • What key concepts and theories are guiding your reasoning?
  • What alternative explanations might be possible, given these concepts and theories?
  • Are you clear and precise in using concepts and theories in your reasoning?
  • Are you distorting ideas to fit your agenda?

7. All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.

  • To what extent do the data support your conclusions?
  • Are your inferences consistent with each other?
  • Are there other reasonable inferences that should be considered?

8. All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.

  • What implications and consequences follow from your reasoning?
  • If we accept your line of reasoning, what implications or consequences are likely?

In a previous post, I highlight some important aspects of critical thinking from Paul Gary Wyckoff, many of which can be found directly in the checklist above – this includes thinking empirically; thinking in terms of multiple, not single, causes; and understanding one’s own biases.

Some components of the checklist seem like common sense, but they are nearly universally fundamental. A few personal points of importance:

  • Formulating a good question – Good questions are often complex. Any productive thinking begins with a clear inquiry. Very often in the course of a debate, research, or thought process, we get sidetracked. A good question provides a clear point of focus, and we can (hopefully) avoid the noise and persist at the task at hand.
  • Identify the possibility of multiple answers – Mathematically, some problems have unique solutions, while others allow multiple solutions (and yet others have no solution). It is important to identify the characteristics of the question we are addressing. This is of particular importance in economics, where one can potentially recommend a variety of policies to combat one issue. Accepting the potential for multiple answers can better frame your thinking.
  • Understanding your own biases – In order to think clearly, we must accept that there are mental forces at work pushing personal biases very often. It can be difficult, maybe impossible, to fully incapacitate them, but it is important to realize their potential influence, and to acknowledge or account for the role they may play in your thinking.

Critical thinking undergirds education. By learning to think critically, a student can assess data and policy suggestions in economics, political science, and many other areas. A student will be able formulate informed opinions, and continuously check the validity of those opinions. Even though a student may make mistakes due to personal or psychological biases and heuristics (just like any of us), he can be made aware of his own biases, account for them, and limit their influence in thinking about problems.

More than anything, critical thinking presents a scientific approach to acquiring knowledge. It encourages us to constantly ask questions, to examine all angles of an issue, to learn to avoid the pitfalls of biases, and to develop the tools to process information in a world where information is an overabundance.

When I picture an ideal CEO, an inspiring teacher, or a promising policy maker, the foremost property they possess is that of critical thinker. My sincere hope is that instead of ideologues and media spinners, critical thinkers will lead future debates in public policy, science, and economics. With true critical thinking, you can’t go wrong.

[Edit: 4/18/13]: Here is a piece on distinguishing between science and hype (original blog post) which underscores many of the essential elements of critical thinking, such as how to consider data and prior biases of authors. It highlights a couple of data “traps” used in studies as well. Highly recommend.]

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One comment

  1. […] talk relates closely to the proactive approach to critical thinking I discuss here. There is often much more we can control than we think, including considering the implicit […]

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