Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to take what you know, combine that with what you've learned, and draw a new conclusion.

A search in any search engine using key words critical thinking analysis should identify some helpful resources for you.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab has an excellent page on critical thinking/analysis: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/workshops/hypertext/ResearchW/critical.html

Another explanation that might help comes from “An Introduction to Critical Thinking” by Robert Harris, 1/1/2001:

Introduction to Critical Thinking
Robert Harris
Version Date: January 1, 2001

What is Critical Thinking?

You've been thinking all of your life, of course, for thinking is simply the interaction of ideas. However, thinking is somewhat similar to other skills, like writing, drawing, or fixing cars. Practice and education can improve it. So even though you "know how to think" already, you can improve your thinking by learning about the tools and mental habits that produce the best thinking.

Analysis. Critical thinking might be defined as an approach to ideas from the standpoint of deliberate consideration. You hold an idea at arm's length and examine it before accepting it into your mental framework. Another way of defining critical thinking might be as a habit of cautious evaluation, an analytic mindset aimed at discovering the component parts of ideas and philosophies, eager to weigh the merits of arguments and reasons in order to become a good judge of them. Analysis is the ability to break arguments or claims down into parts and to discover the relationship between the parts. The arguments can then be evaluated.

It follows that sometimes the evaluation and judgment will be positive. Whether you are evaluating record albums, people, cars, political parties, recipes, controversial issues, books, vacation spots, whatever, there is a range of arguments stretching from good to bad about each thing, and sometimes the net result of the evaluation will be that the thing is good and worthy, right and true. Critical thinking, then, is not a cynical, negative force designed to improve your fault finding. In fact, if this class merely strengthens your ability to depreciate the arguments of your opponents, I will not have succeeded in teaching you how to think critically.

Critical thinking should be a constructive force and attitude, for examining all ideas and arguments, including your own dearly held ones, and for separating the ideas from their vehicles, to divide true from false, accurate from distorted, complete from incomplete, and so on. In fact, far from being an expert at fault finding, a critical thinker will be even more open to opposing arguments and ideas, carefully considering the merit and weight of each one, recognizing that he or she, the critical thinker, can always learn something from others, and might even be wrong in a current position.

Good thinkers develop the habit of analysis and take the time to think about claims and issues instead of just reacting to them. Thinkers take claims apart and see what is going on.

A scriptural mandate here is from first Thessalonians 5:21: "But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good."

Ask questions about claims: How is it known? What does it mean? What are the reasons given? What is implied? Is this a fair and balanced presentation? Is something left out?

Some facts are unknowable: "Your dog will think it's steak." This claim cannot be known at all. "Seventy percent of all married men in the U.S. are adulterers." This claim is questionable because it's based on a sample—how representative is the sample and how truthful are the answers?

Some claims are quite a bit more ambiguous than they appear. "Now buy any computer product for just 8% over wholesale." What does that mean? Doesn't that imply that there is such a thing as a wholesale price? But there are many wholesale prices, and the question becomes, "8% over which wholesale? For example, if a dealer buys 10 items, the wholesale price may be 20% off retail list, while buying 500 items may yield a discount of 40%.

What about: "The question of how the Earth came into existence is one that has long intrigued mankind. It was not until comparatively recently that plausible theories were advanced" (Random House Encyclopedia). What is implied here? The implication is that the Biblical account is implausible (because the Biblical account is not a comparatively recent one). The implication is subtle, but it is clearly there. Another question to be asked here is, Plausible to whom?

Or consider an L. A. Times poll question: "Do you think most poor people are lazy or hard-working?" What is the problem with that question? It is a combination sweeping generalization and false dilemma (there may be many people who are neither lazy nor hard-working). Also, how significant is it that 25% said lazy, 50% said hard working, and 25% didn't know? What is the value of a poll like that? It is a sampling of mere opinion, not based on evidence other than anecdote or an occasional observation.

Another goal of analysis is to recognize the existence of non-argumentative persuasion, that is, the attempt to persuade you to adopt or reject a position not by arguments or reasons, but through various kinds of manipulation, emotional, intellectual, or whatever. As we will be seeing soon, one of the golden principles of critical thinking is to realize that almost all discourse is directive, that it all has a goal, a conclusion behind it. This is as true of news reporting as of any other kind of discourse.

Let's say a reporter doesn't like Senator Jones or his new plan to build a park in California. Question: "Senator Jones, isn't your plan to build a park just a cynical attempt to hide your previous anti-environment position?" Senator Jones: "Not at all. I've always been interested in the environment and in parks." Six O'Clock News: "Senator Jones denied today that his plan to build a park is just a cynical attempt to hide his previous anti-environment position." Is that news? Yes, but it's also an editorial only in non-argumentative form.

Reporters also present their own ideas as news in the form of statements beginning with, "The question has been raised," or "One observer has suggested," or "X has been criticized for" and so on.

Note also that newspapers give differing degrees of credibility to different people. For example, a newspaper ran the following cutline under a photo: "Paul Apodaca, curator of American Indian pipe exhibit in Santa Ana, holds a pipe that belonged to the famed Sitting Bull." This might not seem remarkable until we compare it with another cutline from the same newspaper: "Former Elvis back-up singer Kathy Westmoreland with the car she says Presley gave her." Note that in the first instance, the paper grants credence to the speakers claim by treating it as fact, while in the second instance, the paper distances itself from the claim by using the phrase "she says" to qualify it.

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