How To Sharpen Your Critical Thinking
Last Updated on April 16, 2021
Developing the Mindset
There is so much information coming at us on a daily basis. With all that volume, it’s totally understandable to feel pretty saturated by it. The world has gotten smaller, the news cycle even faster, and the speed of change seemingly quicker. It’s definitely a lot to sort through.
Rather than slowing down for everyone to catch up, it looks as though this information hyper-influx will likely be the new normal for awhile yet. All the more reason to hone your mental filter and sharpen your critical thinking skills. You’re gonna need them working at their best in order to help you make sense of what’s going on out there.
Critical Thinking Is Key
Having a sharp set of critical thinking skills doesn’t mean that you have to live in a state of perpetual doubt, constantly criticizing everything either. That can become mentally exhausting for you, and the people around you. Rather, a well-developed critical mindset can help you in retaining only what information you determine to be true and relevant. This helps with discarding much of the noise & obfuscation that isn’t (see Merchants of Doubt).
There are so many benefits to improving your critical thinking skills! Along with being able to understand things better, you can actually grow your self-awarenesses. It’ll also boost your confidence. You can feel better about your decisions and clarify the next steps in your path forward. In turn, this can also work to diminish some anxieties, as you pursue your own journey of sustainable motivation.
Causation vs Correlation
There is a significant difference between what we might deem to be correlated, and what actually is related. Oftentimes, we look around for correlations when attempting to make sense of the world around us. It’s a fairly natural human response. Whether through the creation of mythology in order to our origins, or our attraction to outrageous conspiracy theories, human beings love finding connections to things.
We try to find patterns and organize the chaos. We attempt to rationalize our observations (consciously or not) as we decipher our surrounding environment. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! However, the potential for error rests with the inclination that we may come to readily accept simple explanations.
Strangely, the opposite is also true. We are equally capable of developing the habit to look for overly-complicated explanations. This means that we can cultivate a bias towards certain types of responses. Such a tendency can lead us to favor particular interpretations, regardless of whether or not they are actually correct. In sum, we’re complicated.
Keeping It Simple
We need to learn how to embrace the complications and understand them better. Don’t get me wrong. Simplifying things does have it’s merits! It’s an excellent technique to try and boil things down to their simplest form, particularly when we’re stuck. There’s even a logical principal to that effect.
It’s called Occam’s Razor. It’s a reasoning principle that suggests that the simplest solution is often the right one. What it really means however, is that we should opt for the solution with the fewest assumptions. Now that doesn’t mean that it’s also the correct solution. Simply that we should aim for the fewest assumptions, when at all possible.
Humans however are messy. Social relationships, cultural influences, early childhood development, and even our geographical location can have an impact on how we formulate our conclusions. We already have so many deep-seated assumptions, often ingrained from an early age, that we regularly make them without even realizing (see The Lottery of Birth).
Understand Your Biases
These pre-established inclinations are our biases. They actually have a pretty significant effect on how we view the world. What’s more, we are often blind to many of them. Why it’s so vital to train ourselves to look past what’s easy, and try to understand what’s actually happening. It does require some conditioning.
Critical thinking is a practice. For instance, to truly understand how complex systems work & interact, we often need to look past the obvious connections. It requires commitment and focus to determine the true cause for things. We can’t opt for the easy solution just because it’s easy. The reality might not be so obvious.
Take A Closer Look
The guys behind Freakonomics do a brilliant job of illustrating this point. Their books & corresponding documentary help explain the very notion of causation. They accomplish this through some intriguing research & revealing case studies.
The Freakonomics authors unravel a number of logical entanglements in their pursuit of causation. Indeed, during their hunt for truth & genuine data (see also data-driven climate science), the Freakonomics founders blow holes through a bunch of prevailing assumptions. They prove once again, the effectiveness of the scientific method. Namely the need to question and investigate.
Feeling the Connection
A correlation simply means there exists a connection. That doesn’t imply a strong connection. Nor does it mean that this connection has a significant effect on the circumstances you’re observing. It just means, that at some point along the way, we managed to find a way to connect two or more sources of information.
Causation on the other hand, is the actual explanation for why things unfolded the way they did. This is what needs to be pursed as much as possible. It’s discovered by asking lots of questions and being open-mind about the results. The mental flexibility will help you follow the data wherever it may lead, regardless of your initial bias. It really comes down to dedication and a willingness to ask the appropriate questions.
Question the Source
This point is key. Where is the information coming from? Is it a vetted or trusted source? Is it impartial & objective? Determine if you can the motivation of those that are sharing the info with you. Who provided the data? Is it a primary source, or an interpretation? What are the operating assumptions? Critical thinking requires that you ask yourself and others a slew of questions.
It’s certainly a tough approach at first. However, as with most habits, it does get easier with time. I tend to think of it as a muscle that needs to be worked out and exercised regularly. As a result, it requires effort on your part. You will get tired (and hungry) from all this brain usage, but you will overcome!
Training Your Brain
All this brain training can get pretty tiring! Applying loads of critical thinking techniques can definitely exact some mental fatigue. Indeed, it can feel draining to be “switched on” all the time. Why you don’t necessarily need to be exercising these techniques all the time. Although this mental exhaustion should diminish as you strengthen your logical skills, it’s more manageable to simply pick your battles. It helps to decide from the beginning what causes you really want to ground yourself in & scrutinize closely.
Select a field or topic. For instance, climate change, social justice, political reform, etc. Each of these involve going through lots of information! It’ll also increase the likelihood of getting into some potentially heated discussions. However, as you discover more, it will also shed light on a number other topics as well. It’s actually pretty cool how that works. The more you want to learn about something, the more you may need to learn about something else. As that happens, it may serve to motivate you to discover even more!
The Virtues of Sci-Fi
On a side note, I find science fiction to be particularly poignant when it comes to asking questions and challenging your underlying assumptions. Many Sci-Fi stories (like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which the film Bladerunner is based), ask some great questions of society. They can provide us with some “what if” scenarios and illustrate what might happen if such questions are played out further.
In a sense, they can give us a taste of what might happen, and hopefully encourage us to contemplate our present as we wonder about the future. I personally find reading/watching Sci-Fi a great balance to the pursuit of critical thinking. One that, when done right, offers plenty of creativity and refreshment.
Now, back to the rundown.
Anecdotal vs Scientific
The next key point in undertaking the critical thinking mentality is understating and appreciating the difference between anecdotal and scientific evidence. In a nutshell, anecdotal is generally what happens to you, or what you hear from a friend or family member.
For example, if your buddy Bob tells you climate change isn’t real. He says he’s heard that it has already happened before (except not like this). Besides, it was pretty freakin cold this past winter, so the planet can’t be warming (weather vs climate). Despite Bob’s view, climate change is very real. Indeed, regardless of an individual’s anecdotal account, science relies on facts & data. It’s the data that determines the conclusion.
Critical Thinking Requires Figuring It Out
Indeed, scientific evidence delves deeper into the various stories and assumptions out there and searches for data to explain events. Science can provide quality information for figuring things out. It forces us to face reality.
At best, the scientific route can offer solutions. At worst, it can still provide for better questions, and potential clues, to eventually finding out those solutions. That’s not to say all anecdotal evidence is worthless or untrue, but it should encourage you to ask for more substantial data.
Welcome the Info
The next time a friend/coworker tells you about what happened to, doesn’t mean you have to go out on the attack and demand evidence. Rather, it just means that you should take most stories for what they are.
Personal stories. Until you know all the circumstances around that individual’s experience, you shouldn’t try to impose it upon every other similar situation (as easy as it might be). For anecdotal situations to have relevancy there should be some serious science associated.
How To Go About It:
For those of you who’ve also been out of school a while, the scientific method hasn’t changed much since we had the privilege of learning about it back in our elementary days. It’s comprised of a few steps that’ll help get you to where you’d like to be.
- Observe: Pretty straightforward
- Question: What are your initial questions?
- Research: Investigate. Find quality information. Look at data, learn from experts, check for references, etc.
- Hypothesis: What do you think happened/caused it? What do you suspect? Formulate an educated guess. If that is so, then that is what should happen under experimentation. Or even for something to not happen, and therefore reject your hypothesis.
- Experiment: Design your own experiment if you can, or try to find one that fits what you’re looking for.
- Data/Analysis: Record, analyze, and document. Go through the numbers, what is it telling you? What are the trends?
- Conclusion: This is where you accept or reject your hypothesis. This can prove difficult for some, as maybe you really, really wanted to believe what you thought was true to be the conclusion. You have to be prepared to be wrong, and even at that, being wrong isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it simply puts your hypothesis out of play, but can provide the groundwork for the next one.
The scientific method remains one of our ultimate tools, one that we perhaps take for granted more often than we should.
Use Your Judgement
Finally, don’t be afraid to fall back on common sense. Until you have the time to research for yourself, or have someone “deep dive” on your behalf, use your existing reason. Reflect and evaluate. If something is too good to be true, maybe it is. Or maybe your intuition is reflecting some remembered explanation even though you don’t yet fully remember all the details.
Trusting your judgement is key when forced to make quick decisions. Indeed, it is often within your interest to make decisions in a timely manner rather than have them made for you. However, when you do have the time to reflect, try and go over the “why” as best you can, and do some quality reading/viewing/listening.
Keeping an Open Mind
Lastly, satire and humor have a great way of cutting through falsehoods and highlighting the absurd. Indeed, I’ve been frequently comforted by the sharp wit of the late night comedians, as they deflate the posturing and ridiculousness of flawed politicians (see Send in the Clowns).
Laughter does help! Lightening up your mood can also encourage you to keep trying things out, despite initial failure. As we evaluate the world around us, and recognize the right and wrong, it’s perfectly fine to make mistakes and the occasional errors in judgement.
The Awesome Power of Critical Thinking
So much of learning comes from making mistakes! What’s key is remaining humble. Admit when your assumptions were wrong. Acknowledge the error once you’ve discovered it. Adopt the better understanding once you’ve found it. That’s part of what makes the scientific method so powerful! It’s self-correcting. You can replace any incorrect assumptions with the truth. It can compel you to change what you’re doing, or how you’re doing it. You can improve!
This might prove challenging to accept, but science has a way of highlighting the truth (see Everything’s Cool). Regardless of our desired acceptance, the truth eventually comes out. If we keep to it, the critical approach can help us continue to be our better selves and assist us in our struggle for a better world. It truly is an awesome mindset, with countless benefits. Please feel free to share with me below your own discoveries and revelations!