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My definition of critical thinking is: “The process by which we analyze written or spoken language to arrive at the value of the objective information contained therein.”

I read somewhere that language researchers are now suggesting that the prime purpose why language has evolved is to “come to a similar worldview”. To “synchronize” our world views.

That is a remarkable result imo. And the implications are significant. Among other things this suggests to me that emotions are a significant part of trying to influence others to share a worldview. And that is precisely the point where critical thinking starts.

Language is overladen with words that are only present to invoke an emotion in the listener. The first task of critical thinking is to identify those words en remove their impact.

An example: “The suspect drove aggressively in a big black car.”

Removing the words that are present to invoke emotions leaves us with: “The suspect drove in a black car”. It should be clear that “aggressively” is a subjective term. But “big” is also relative. How big is big? This is a bit more contentious than “aggressively” though. We all know the average size of cars, thus it can be argued that “big” refers to the “average” size. However the language is used by an individual, and that individual may not have the same experiences as the average human has. It is essential that this is clarified if it is an important point. Hence a follow up question could be: “What do you classify as ‘big’?”.

But even the line “The suspect drove in a black car” is still open to questioning: for example it is not entirely clear that the suspect was actually steering the car. He may have been a passenger. Though in general the words “drove” will indeed refer to “was steering” it would be wrong to assume that this was the case.

This is the second step in critical thinking: After removing the emotional words, it is important to identify all ambiguity. Any words that may be ambiguous must be examined and -if possible- clarified. If clarification is impossible, then at least we are aware of the ambiguity.

After removing ambiguity the last step is making sure how the fact was established. In our example (assuming the speaker actually ment “was steering the car”) we need to know how the speaker knows that the suspect was steering. It makes a huge difference for example if the speaker himself saw the suspect actually steering, or if he heard it from somebody else. A follow up question should be used to find out. If a follow up question is impossible, then again we should recognize that the description is lacking substantiation of facts.

It may be clear that critical thinking is a lot of work. It takes a lot of mental energy of our system 2 brain. Which is probably why people like to take shortcuts. An often used shortcut is authority. Listening to an authority we often disengage our critical thinking skills. However shortcuts are always fraught with danger. And many of these shortcuts have been identified as “fallacies”. For example the “fallacy of authority”. Critical thinking should only be suspended when we are talking for entertainment purposes.

Recap: my critical thinking process follows these three steps:

  1. Remove emotive words
  2. Remove or become aware of ambiguity
  3. Establish the basis for the facts

Once the analysis is complete, there is another step we should take. This is as much part of critical thinking as the first three, but only indirectly related to the analyzed information: What is the purpose of the information. Why is it given? Wether given in response to a question or without prompting, what is the motivation behind the question cq information? Depending on these answers another question may be important: What information is absent or was not given?

This last one is of course very difficult to answer, but it is always good to realize that the present information may be incomplete.


Originally posted at: 2016-11-24
Last modified on: 2016-11-24