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Diving Deeper: On Critical Thinking

The intellectual roots of critical thinking are as ancient as its etymology, traceable, ultimately, to the teaching practice and vision of Socrates 2,500 years ago who discovered; through probing and questioning, that people could not rationally justify their confident claims to knowledge. It seemed that confused definitions, not enough evidence, or self-contradictory beliefs often lurked beneath one dimensional but largely empty rhetoric.

Socrates established the fact that one cannot depend upon those in "authority" to have sound knowledge and insight. He demonstrated that persons may have power and high position and yet be deeply confused and irrational. He established the importance of asking deep questions that probe profoundly into thinking before we accept ideas as worthy of belief.

“The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators [an orator is a public speaker, especially one who is eloquent or skilled] ... They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.” - William Graham Sumner, 1906

But, what does that look like in society today?

A critical society is a community of people who value critical thinking and value those who practice it. It is a society continually improving. Its most distinguishing characteristic is its emphasis on thinking as the key to the emancipation of the mind, to the creation of just practices, to the preservation and development of the species.

Unfortunately there are no critical societies in the world. Nor have there ever been. The idea represents an ideal not yet achieved, a possibility not yet actualized. There is no culture on earth where critical thought is characteristic of everyday personal and social life.

On the contrary, the world is filled with superficiality, prejudice, bias, distortions, lies, deception, manipulation, short sightedness, close-mindedness, righteousness, hypocrisy, on and on, in every culture in every country throughout the world. These problems in thinking lead to untold negative implications - fear, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, pain, suffering, injustices of every imaginable kind.

Yet humans have great capacity for rationality and reasonability. The history of human accomplishments, achievements and contributions well documents this fact. But for the most part this capacity must be developed, actively, by the mind. It is our second, not our first, nature.

In his 2009 book The Overflowing Brain, Torkel Klingberg demonstrated that if a child learns a structured problem-solving process and develops the capacity to use it fluently, they gain a 10% increase in IQ and sustain this throughout their life.

So what do we need to think more critically?

One of the most important aspects of critical thinking is to decide what you are aiming to achieve and then make a decision based on a range of possibilities.

Once you have clarified that aim for yourself you should use it as the starting point in all future situations requiring thought and, possibly, further decision making. Where needed, make your workmates, family or those around you aware of your intention to pursue this goal. You must then discipline yourself to keep on track until changing circumstances mean you have to revisit the start of the decision making process.

However, there are things that get in the way of simple decision making. We all carry with us a range of likes and dislikes, learnt behaviours and personal preferences developed throughout our lives; they are the hallmarks of being human. A major contribution to ensuring we think critically is to be aware of these personal characteristics, preferences and biases and make allowance for them when considering possible next steps, whether they are at the pre-action consideration stage or as part of a rethink caused by unexpected or unforeseen impediments to continued progress.

The more clearly we are aware of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, the more likely our critical thinking will be productive.

Where can critical thinking be applied on a professional scale?

Critical thinking is a skill set that is becoming increasingly valuable in a growing number of professions. Lawyers, analysts, accountants, doctors, engineers, reporters, creatives and scientists of all kinds must apply critical thinking frequently.

In a nutshell; critical thinking can help you in any profession where you must:

  • analyze information

  • systematically solve problems

  • generate innovative solutions

  • plan strategically

  • think creatively

  • present your work or ideas to others in a way that can be readily understood

And, as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, critical thinking has become one of the most sought-after skills. It’s important to appreciate that the Fourth Industrial Revolution involves a systemic change across many sectors and aspects of human life: the crosscutting impacts of emerging technologies are even more important than the exciting capabilities they represent.



Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi from Pexels

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