A 'Crash Course' in Critical Thinking
1. "Why Critical Thinking Matters"
2. "Perception is Reality"
4. "Problem Solving"
This series is only a high-level overview of what critical thinking is. It’s not a workshop on how to master the skills of critical thinking. There are several valuable resources available for going deeper.
5. "Operating Assumptions"
This is the 5th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
We all operate on an unconscious platform of assumptions and biases, many or most of which are unexamined and merely accepted as given. Critical thinking aims to correct this flaw in our approach to reasoning, problem solving, belief formation, and decision-making.
6. "Truth's Best Friend"
This is the 6th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
Critical thinking is about getting at the truth. While the truth comes as an enemy to those who refuse to greet it as a friend, it comes to no one who has not developed the skills of following the evidence wherever it leads.
7. "The Anchoring Bias"
This is the 7th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
Ever notice how, as a species, we just seem to go nonchalantly along with the latest “news” or idea, the most current fad or podcast, the most recent movement or campaign… with very little question? It’s called “anchoring bias” in critical thinking. It’s one of the biases critical thinking aims to relieve us from.
8. The "Sunk Cost" Fallacy
This is the 8th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It is closely related to the “anchoring bias” we covered in the last installment. Awareness of the fallacy and how to take control of it can save us from ultimately feeling overwhelmed and defeated.
We often find ourselves investing time, money, emotional energy, even our reputations and relationships, in causes, dreams, programs, or sure-fire schemes without ever really thinking it through… until we wake up one day to realize we are over our heads but feeling like we are in too deep to do anything about it. This is called the “sunk cost fallacy” in critical thinking. And critical thinking shows us how it’s rarely too late to turn things around.
9. The "Halo Effect" Bias
This is the 9th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
Movie stars, sports heroes – indeed celebrities of all kinds, including popular politicians (popular often for wrong reasons, or popular with certain groups), trendy talking heads and media gurus, and even cult leaders, all share one thing in common: they possess an aura, a charisma their followers find irresistible. And there’s the rub.
No matter how popular or attractive, no matter how many followers they have or how many “Likes” on Facebook, critical thinking teaches us to always question, to always scrutinize and test the claims they make, the assumptions they embrace, and the motivations that animate them. How? By learning the basic skills of critical thinking.
This series is only a high-level overview of what critical thinking is. It’s not a workshop on how to master the skills of critical thinking. There are several valuable resources available for going deeper. Where to start?
There are several valuable resources available for going deeper. Where to start? Here is a link to a helpful, low-cost introduction to critical thinking for anyone interested.
To get the most out of the series, you may follow the posts in the order presented (chronologically), and join in the discussion on my Facebook page.
10. The "Assumed Knowledge" Fallacy
This is the 10th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
Knowledge is a necessary cornerstone of reason, science, learning, self-improvement, and growth. We acquire knowledge through study, reflection, and applied experience. Once acquired, it becomes our possession.
Ask anyone how difficult it was for him or her to acquire their knowledge of, say, history or physics; of geometry or algebra; computer technology or video production; psychology, medicine, or law; of gardening, carpentry, or just about any art, craft or science we largely take for granted. And you are likely to hear it required time, effort, and disciplined practice, often over a period of years. Yet, once acquired, it became part of their DNA, as it does ours.
Remember this the next time you are engaged in teaching someone a new art or skill, a new form of abstract thought or theory, or engaged in dialogue or heated debate. Just because you now know what you didn’t know before you knew it is no justification for assuming the knowledge you now have is universally known or shared. That is the “assumed knowledge” fallacy in critical thinking.
11. The "Integrity Principle"
This is the 11th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
Integrity is defined as “moral soundness; honesty; unimpaired by corrupting influences.” This is both the condition and the outcome of authentic critical thinking.
One must possess integrity to pursue the evidence wherever it leads, even when it pits us against the maddening crowd. To pursue the truth through critical thinking, we must not only be willing to stand alone against the prejudice of unexamined popular opinion and beliefs; we must be equally willing to accept the results of our pursuit of the truth, even when the results turn out to undermine or entirely discredit our own cherished beliefs. It requires integrity to stand that ground in the face of opposition, uncertainty, and doubt.
12. The "Integrity Corallary"
This is the 12th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
In yesterday’s installment of the series we covered what I call “The Integrity Principle” of critical thinking. Integrity we might say is the engine of critical thinking; the desire for truth, its fuel.
Today, we carry the Integrity Principle one step further. Not only does integrity demand that we follow the evidence wherever it leads (even if it ends up undermining our own cherished beliefs or requires us to stand against the currents of popular culture), its corrolary demands that we defend unpopular opinion or truth claims when those claims have been rigorously investigated, tested, and found to be true.
13. "Skepticism & Objectivity"
This is the 13th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It identifies the two overarching principles of critical thinking: skepticism & objectivity.
Skepticism (as used here) is about entertaining a healthy and constructive suspicion of truth claims, data, or narratives that are presented baldly without falsifiable empirical evidence.
Objectivity is about the real world in which we live. A world where the laws of nature bend to no prescribed ideology or outcome. A world where truth claims can be tested without fear of corruption or mischief.
14. The "Self-Deluding" Bias
This is the 14th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It identifies one of the common foibles of human nature.
We have such a marvelously exaggerated estimation of ourselves. The reason adopting critical thinking as a way of life is so powerful is that it begins by focusing the searchlight of accountability on ourselves. It enables us to critically evaluate our own contributions to the results (good or bad) we produce.
15. The "Accountability Imperative"
This is the 15th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It follows from the last installment on the “self-deluding” biases we harbor, often unconsciously, and how critical thinking enables us to see these latent in ourselves.
It doesn’t take a genius or anyone skilled in critical thinking to hold others accountable. That comes naturally. But to hold ourselves accountable?
The first week of February 2021, I posted a series of musings on accountability, the first branch of which I defined as follows:
* Accepting responsibility for our actions
* Taking ownership of our mistakes
* Being accountable for our results
Accountability is no stranger to the art of critical thinking. It is through the disciplined practice of critical thinking that we acquire a seasoned and mature awareness of our all-too-human limitations: our weaknesses as well as our strengths. It is only then that we can begin holding ourselves to account.
16. Distinguishing "Thought & Bias"
This is the 16th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It’s a further extension or alternate manifestation of the “self-deluding” bias identified in the 14th installment of the series posted on April 7, 2022.
Not one of us is immune from conscious and unconscious bias. It’s part of our DNA. Very few of us care to admit it, but that doesn’t change the fact we do. William James was right when he observed how we so often delude ourselves into thinking we’re thinking when all we’re really doing is rearranging our prejudices.
Critical thinking gives us the tools to critically examine our assumptions and thereby distinguish between our thought and our biases.
17. "Fast Thinking" vs. "Slow Thinking"
This is the 17th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It highlights the relationship between critical thinking and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”
Dr. Kahneman is an accomplished psychologist who also won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in “prospect theory” (making decisions in a climate of uncertainty). This makes him a worthy candidate for a 20th Century version of the Renaissance Man .
In the quote below, Dr. Kahneman identifies science as the search for objective truth: truth or reality that is mind-independant; that lies outside us. This he distinguishes elsewhere from subjective perception.
Decisions based on subjective perception or experience are more closely related to what he describes as “fast thinking,” which is quick, intuitive, and unreflective. Objective truth, on the other hand, is the goal of science and is more closely related to what he describes as “slow thinking,” which involves deliberate, conscious reasoning.
Critical thinking enables us to more easily distinguish between the two modes of thought. Most of the time in our everyday lives, “fast thinking” is all we need or want. But when important decisions must be made or serious action needs to be taken, it’s critical that we shift to “slow thinking.” This is where skill in critical thinking distinguishes itself.
For more about critical thinking and the purpose of this series, see my first post on this “Crash Course in Critical Thinking,” posted on March 26. To get the most out of the series, try following the posts in the order presented (chronologically).
Anyone interested in learning more about “fast thinking” and “slow thinking”, here is a link to Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” on Amazon.
18. Asking the "Next" Question
This is the 18th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. Perhaps more than anything else, getting this lesson, really getting it, will put you on the right path toward becoming a critical thinker.
Too often we simply accept at face value truth claims, nutty hypotheses, conspiracy theories, and a whole litany of misinformation we read or hear from friends, colleagues, family… or worse, our social media groups or “friends”, our echo chambers, and, yes, heaven forbid, even mainstream media, without question.
Next time someone makes a bold claim, in writing or in person, in a social media post or even in an article in the mainstream press, radio or T.V., ask yourself or them, “Where did you get that? What’s the evidence? Did you check the source? And what about that source’s source? How do you know that?” In other words, peel back the onion. Ask the next question, and the next one after that.
Will it make you a nuisance? You bet it will. But an informed, reliable nuisance others can depend on when the truth matters.
19. The "Why Not" Hypothesis
This is the 19th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series.
Yesterday we described knowledge as having the right answer; intelligence as asking the right question; and critical thinking as an instrumental extension of intelligence, i.e. always asking the next question. I also included a number of questions we might consider asking in our pursuit of knowledge, and validation of truth claims.
Today we go one step further. Assuming we have asked all the “How do you know that?” and all the “Why?” questions, what then? To test the hypothesis, we need to go one step further and ask, “Why not?” This last question will force us to examine our own assumptions and cognitive biases; it will encourage us to query our own unconscious biases; and finally, it will enable us to scrutinize the hypothesis or truth claim still more rigorously.
20. "Ockham's Razor"
This is the 20th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It offers insightful advice worth its weight in gold for anyone willing to take it seriously.
William of Ockham was one of the Middle Age’s leading empiricist thinkers (long before Locke, Berkeley & David Hume). He was not a determinist. He believed that the natural order of things does not imply the inevitability of any predetermined outcome. We have to look at how things actually are (not at what we suppose they are or must be).
What he is best known for is a principle of reasoning that has come to be known as “Ockham’s Razor”. It argues that where two or more competing or alternative explanations exist for any given phenomenon or state of affairs, the simplest one (the one with the fewest assumptions) is more likely correct.
21. "Hanlon's Razor"
This is the 21st installment in my “Critical Thinking” series.
Yesterday I posted about one of critical thinking’s secret weapons: Ockham’s Razor. Today we post on another Razor: Hanlon’s Razor.
While no doubt tongue in cheek, Hanlon’s Razor exposes an all too common flaw in the “fast thinking” assumptions we all too often adopt. We are often far too quick to attribute to malice or sinister motives behaviour of others we find peculiar, behaviour that is often the result of unthinking or unexamined assumptions, or, yes, sometimes, outright stupidity.
It’s always smart to ask ourselves the question. This too is a useful strategy in the critical thinkers arsenal.
22. The "Just World" Fallacy
This is the 22nd installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking”. Today we tackle a truism many of us have a hard time accepting.
For some reason we often assume the world owes us a living, a “just” share of outcomes regardless of our individual effort, merit, or contribution… that any inequality of outcome is or must be the result of some form of injustice, bias, or cruel joke. It’s easier to accept such a rationalization for unequal outcomes than acknowledging that sometimes it might just have something to do with us. It might not be a cosmic or systemic conspiracy.
Critical thinking enables us to face the world as it is, to acknowledge that there are not always clean, simple answers to complex dilemmas or to troubled personalities. It behooves us to always reserve judgment until we’ve worked out the causes, and have engaged in sober self-reflection.
23. "Arguing from First Principles"
This is the 23rd installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It identifies an inescapable dilemma in critical thinking: How to critically analyze and validate first principles? And whether that is even feasible, or desirable?
Sometimes referred to as self-evident truths, as axiomatic, or as “clear and distinct ideas” (René Descartes), first principles are the foundational baseline of reasoning, behind which we cannot productively go. They are not deducible from prior hypotheses or axioms. They stand on their own.
One example, borrowed from Aristotle, is that good is always to be preferred over evil. This is an axiomatic, almost indisputable principle (defining what we mean by “good” and “evil” is where the controversy resides; not the principle itself). Another is to “Do no harm”. And still another: the “Golden Rule” itself. All of these are common examples of first principles that are not readily deducible from ancillary hypotheses.
So yes, critical thinking makes peace with first principles by recognizing that hypotheses must be drawn from somewhere; that it is always useful and necessary to question sources and test hypotheses. But not indefinitely. One of the virtues of critical thinking lies in its ability to recognize the futility of deduction where the inescapable result of that pursuit is eternal regress.
24. "The Key to Reliable Results"
This is the 24th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking”. Today we examine why we so often fail to produce the results we are looking for, despite our best efforts.
It often boils down to this: method. Possessing the knowledge or training, even the skills and experience, are often not enough. More often than not, it’s how we apply that knowledge or training, those skills and experience, that marks the difference between success and failure.
Critical thinking is a disciplined method, a reservoir of tools, attitudes and cognitive techniques (including, for example, Ockham’s Razor) for identifying root causes, unexpected curve balls and/or opposition, that all too often seemingly conspire to thwart genuine progress and reliable outcomes. All other things being equal, he or she who has learned the principles of critical thinking will always be ahead of he or she who hasn’t.
25. The "Never Quit" Fallacy
This is the 25th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking” series. It’s one few people would associate with critical thinking. Yet, if we recall that critical thinking begins with a sober, critical awareness of ourselves, the pieces fall into place nicely.
Critical thinking is not about solving every problem, winning every argument, or acing every project. It’s about questioning every assumption, testing every hypothesis, and falsifying (or seeking to falsify) every claim. This includes the claims we take on board about ourselves, our insights & capabilities.
The “Never Quit” fallacy is a reminder that critical thinking and a sane estimation of ourselves are not mortal enemies. Quite the opposite. Critical thinking, rightly understood, engenders humility. It reminds us that we are human, and that sometimes the problem can’t be solved, the argument can’t be won, the project can’t be aced… or at least not now. It reminds us that sometimes “enough is enough”, and that’s okay.
26. The "Dunning-Kruger" Effect
This is the 26th installment of my “Crash Course in Critical Thinking”. Today we focus on one of the cognitive biases that is so subtle even Charlie Munger misses it in his list of 25 cognitive biases: the “Dunning-Kruger” Effect.
But first, what are “cognitive biases”? There are several popular, technical definitions one can look up. My definition, distilled from a long history of learning & applying critical thought, is this: they are the biases (assumptions or inclinations), often unconscious, that govern, drive or influence our decisions or reactions.
The “Dunning-Kruger” Effect is one I find particularly intriguing and relevant today. The most glaring example that comes to mind is the contemporary social media phenomenon where people, without having studied an hour of epidemiology, biochemistry or law, are instantly transformed into “experts”, knowing more than the scientists and other experts who have devoted their lives to studying the root causes and operations of the phenomena or issues under immediate consideration.
And how have these people become overnight “experts” on questions they have never studied formally or in any depth? From friends who “heard” or “read” it somewhere, of course. On Facebook, or Twitter, or YouTube… This is the stuff of the “Dunning-Kruger” Effect. Yet, just a moment of detached reflection will show that facts and science and study, and the rigorous application of critical thinking, still matter when the goal is the honest search for truth and reliable results, and not the garnering of political or ideological points.
27. Recognizing Confirmation Bias
28. The Falsification Imperative
29. The Data Imperative
30. The "Strawman" Gambit
- The necessity of reasonable Covid-19 protocols, vaccinations and mandates;
- Whether the 2020 U.S. election was “stolen” from Donald Trump;
- The recent occupation of the Nation’s Capital by “protestors” who had little to no regard for the harm they were causing local residents & business owners by their actions;
- The dangers of “Critical Theory” (not to be confused with “critical thinking”); and more…