What is Critical Thinking?

by Jon Guy

In the world of information - which often becomes the world of misinformation - misconceptions and folk beliefs about what critical thinking is abound. To the dismay of critical thinking advocates everywhere, it’s extremely common for science deniers to confuse genuine skepticism with contrarianism and cynicism.

Young woman with a skeptical expression

In this post, I want to clarify some of these misunderstandings. Since critical thinking covers so many topics, it’s nearly impossible to pin down exactly what it is or how to do it. Thus this post is by no means exhaustive. However, lest there be any confusion as to how I’m using the term, I want to define critical thinking using one of my favorite definitions.

Bob Froehlich, and Julia Minton, hosts of the Thinking Clearly podcast, define critical thinking as:

“a mode of thinking that uses the process of logical reasoning, based on a thorough examination and evaluation of a robust cross-section of evidence relevant to the issue at hand, when forming claims, conclusions, opinions and beliefs.

“Critical thinking also includes an awareness of, and attempt to compensate for, the vulnerabilities we all have in our thought processes, including cognitive biases such as confirmation bias. Critical thinking is most effective when there is a basic understanding of the scientific method, a certain minimum amount of basic literacy in the content areas relating to the issues we are examining, and the willingness to be a life-long learner. Critical thinking is best complimented by having a mindset of genuine curiosity, when examining and communicating our ideas, a willingness to acknowledge and evaluate evidence that may be contrary to our conclusions and an openness to considering alternative conclusions and beliefs.”

Figure putting together a puzzle in someone's head

Misconceptions about critical thinking include beliefs such as “We are all born critical thinkers” or “Critical thinking comes naturally” or “I’m a critical thinker because I question authority.” These ideas persist in part because we mistake being curious or inquisitive (oftentimes without any background education on the topics we’re questioning) with being analytical and self-reflecting (which requires at least a minimum of training and education).

The main problem with such misconceptions is that our default mode of thinking is more intuitive than analytical (Kahneman, 2013), and we’re far more likely to believe we’re thinking critically than we are to actually be doing it. Critical thinking is a learned skill, and this point cannot be stressed enough. It isn’t something we can do without formally learning how to do it.

Young boy at a table learning

The discipline of critical thinking ranges across tons of areas of study including psychology, philosophy, logic, and even neuroscience! It includes an understanding of how science works, how logic is used to reach accurate conclusions, how biases affect our judgments and beliefs, the flaws in our memories, how our brains trick us into misconstruing reality & believing falsehoods.

The sheer breadth of the topic itself rules out the (intuitive) belief that we can be astute critical thinkers by our very nature. Because critical thinking is geared towards helping us understand the most accurate version of reality, one of the most important things a skilled critical thinker can do is to understand and follow scientific methodology.

Thus, another widely used term for critical thinking is scientific skepticism, which is why I tend to use the terms interchangeably. Since we perceive reality through our subjective and flawed senses, getting pretty close to an accurate understanding of it is the best we can hope for.

Young girl looking into a microscope

A good analogy here is trying to truly understand someone else’s personal experience. If person A is conveying her experience to person B with breathtaking detail, using robust analogies, compassionate language, and really explains herself well, the best person B can do is get pretty close to understanding person A’s experience. And so it is with our ability to understand reality. We investigate reality using sophisticated devices, breakthrough technologies, & scientific instruments that can take measurements with mind-blowing accuracy.

Reality is thus filtered through our sensory devices which we then interpret via our subjective lenses and flawed cognitions, & formulate our understanding through these filtered & flawed processes. We get pretty close to understanding reality, but we can never understand it with absolute fidelity. Thinking critically means being able to objectively examine claims while also having enough background knowledge to make evidence and reason-based judgments about them, along with the humility to recognize our limitations.

Critical thinkers understand the value of logic and evidence along with the limitations of our perceptions, and good skeptics place far more weight on empirical evidence and rigid logic, than they do on emotional proclamations, personal stories, or anecdotal testimonials.

Let’s face it: We are intensely social and emotional creatures, which is why it’s so easy for us to be swayed by gripping stories, emotional tales, and the information we receive by those we trust and allow into our information and social circles. But when it comes to figuring out what’s true or false, these aren’t exactly the best tools for the task.

Teen boy and girl interacting with flowers

Empirical evidence and the application of logical principles are far superior because they tend to produce more accurate and reliable results. Logic and evidence are the backbones of scientific methodology, and when it comes to accurate and reliable results, science is in a league of its own with no competitors in sight.

So, critical thinking is a systematic method of accurately understanding not only the world around us but also how we interpret reality and construct our worldviews. It’s a way of figuring out what’s true (or false), being able to determine when we’re being deceived by ourselves or others, and staying vigilant when it comes to the ways that both our brains and the outside world conspire to misrepresent reality.

Profile of a face and brain made of tangled wires

Let’s recap: Critical thinking and scientific skepticism are two sides of the same coin. They’re learned skills that combine a plurality of subjects to help us make better decisions, figure out the difference between what’s true and what’s false, and avoid the many cognitive pitfalls that come with being human. Thinking critically means having the skills to be rational, open-minded, guided by evidence and logic, and having the requisite background knowledge to apply those skills meaningfully to the information we receive, and our subjective interpretation and analyses of that information.

There are zero downsides to becoming a skilled critical thinker, but as the Psychology Professor James E. Alcock warns, “Possibly the most common pitfall with regard to critical thinking is the belief that one is already a good critical thinker” (Alcock, 2018). Or as one of my favorite authors on the subject of critical thinking, Guy P. Harrison is fond of saying, “Use your brain to protect yourself from your brain”.

References
Alcock, J.E. (2018). Belief: What it means to believe and why our beliefs are so compelling. Amherst, NY: Prometheus

Kahneman, D. (2013) . Thinking fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

About the Author
Jon Guy is an independent researcher and science communicator who writes about critical thinking, pseudoscience, logic, psychology, and related topics. He is the author of Think Straight: An Owner's Manual for the Mind, a frequent guest writer for Thinking is Power, and the host of The Curious Case of Science, a YouTube channel aimed at tackling contemporary issues in science and critical thinking.