Critical Thinking

15.03.2019 |

Episode #4 of the course Learning how to think clearly by David Urbansky


Today, we’ll talk about critical thinking, a skill of utmost importance in today’s world, where we are drowning in information that has to be carefully analyzed for truthfulness. But before we get started, what is “critical thinking,” in a nutshell?

Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a belief.

This means that if you read an argument, you do not simply believe it to be true and add it to your own beliefs, but rather think about it critically first. You can then reach your own conclusion about whether to believe the argument. I’ll outline a three-step process for applying critical thinking to arguments you may encounter.

I’ll illustrate the three steps with a sample argument that we want to think critically about:

“People who get up early are more productive than their lazy night-owl counterparts. Productive people make more money; therefore, you should get up early to get rich.”

Step 1: Understand the argument

First, you need to understand all parts of the argument. This can be achieved by asking questions about it. What are the premises (in our example, “getting up early makes you more productive” and “productive people make more money”)? What is the conclusion that we are supposed to believe (in this case, that early risers make more money)? Furthermore, we can see that this statement is rather vague, raising the immediate questions, “How much more productive?” and “How do you measure productivity?”

Step 2: Evaluate the argument

Once you understand the argument, it is time to evaluate it.

Before you start, however, it is important to get your attitude right. You should be curious, open-minded, humble, and skeptical. You must also leave emotions out of it. If you are not an early riser, you might be angry after reading the example argument (especially because the argument insulted you with “lazy night-owl”). This anger could compromise your ability to judge the argument fairly.

Additionally, you should gather information in order to find out whether the statements can be corroborated. You can, of course, use the internet to research, but it is a good idea to evaluate your sources. The internet has everything from thoroughly researched documents to accumulations of myths. Much information online is just repeated without applying critical thinking, and reading the same thing 100 times does not necessarily make it true. To evaluate your sources, you can use “AAOCC” [1], which stands for:

Authority: Who is the author? What are their credentials and professional experiences?

Accuracy: Is the information backed up by published research? Can the claims be verified?

Objectivity: Is the author objective, or do they have something to gain from either side of the argument?

Currency: How up to date is this information?

Coverage: Does the source cover every part of the argument or only a fraction?

Finally, check the argument for sound logic. For example, one logical fallacy known as “false cause” means that correlation is often confused with causation. If you exercise critical thinking with our example, you will find many articles online that list rich people who also get up early, and conclude that getting up early makes you rich. This is flawed logic and should be discarded; this correlation may simply result from the fact that the older you are, the more time you’ve had to earn money, and that older people also tend to get up earlier than younger people [2].

Step 3: Draw a conclusion

After carefully understanding and evaluating the argument, you can draw your own conclusion. Be aware that this does not have to be black and white. Some parts might be true, some parts false, and others possible but with little supporting or detracting evidence. It is perfectly fine to assign a probability to your conclusions that you can update when new information becomes available.

After the critical thinking process, you will be able to take ownership of your conclusion. This means that you have good reasons to believe or disbelieve the argument and you can explain why.

Exercise: Pick a topic you are interested in, and start honing your critical thinking skills on a debate platform. There are many emotionally charged topics, so this is a great place to practice keeping emotions out of your thinking.

Tomorrow, you’ll learn about thinking tools called mental models, which are used by great thinkers to understand complex issues and will improve your critical thinking skills even further.


Recommended video

Fundamentals: Introduction to Critical Thinking


Recommended book

Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono



[1] Evaluating Information Resources

[2] Study of Sleep Patterns by withings


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