We tend to think of critical thinking as something that only needs to happen for scientists, philosophers, people who get paid to sit around and think about things. The rest of us have jobs and families and bills to pay and better things to think about like how we can better pose for a selfie or put together a cute outfit. Critical thinking is way down on the list of essentials and so never gets done.
But it should.
I learned the other day that the British education system actually has critical thinking classes at the high school level. I was so jealous when I heard this. I don’t know if this is the same for every school, but just the acknowledgement of the importance of this skill is amazing in itself. We never had critical thinking classes. We had classes on determining the circumference of an imaginary circle. I still don’t get it.
There are lots of ideas about what makes a good argument. Unfortunately, most people’s criteria seems to be ‘I’ve always thought this way’ or ‘my parents taught me this’ or ‘that’s just the way it is’. Nothing. Absolutely nothing ticks me off more than the above arguments or any of their variations.
Nothing in the world.
If you believe something, if you stand behind it, if you live by it, then you have to be able to back it up. And I don’t mean back it up emotionally. I have issues with the idea of backing up an idea solely with your emotions. To be honest, I think a lot of really bad decisions are made on an emotional basis. When a friend comes to me complaining that her boyfriend has cheated on her, yet again, but she loves him and will take him back, that is an emotional decision. It’s a bad decision. When people hate a group, a race, a sexual orientation because ‘God said so’, that is an emotional decision blamed on a scapegoat. It’s a bad decision.
So what makes a good decision? Too much of life is divided into separate systems. At school and university we learn subjects as if they were separate things, non-touching issues. The reality is that everything is intertwined and your decision making process should be the same way. Brains and emotions do and should work together. So by that definition, a good decision is one that you use your brains and your emotions to come to.
Your brain to gather evidence, evaluate the evidence and then your emotions to make sure you’re okay with what the evidence is telling you.
And don’t use your emotions to just dismiss the data, that’s cheating. If your emotions are telling you something other than what the data is telling you, that means you need to dig deeper and find out why, both emotionally and within and around the data.
So really, it’s simple. To make a good decision, gather the data and decide in alignment with all the information. A seemingly simple idea, but you’d be surprised how few people actually do it.
The most basic books on critical thinking say the same thing. Gather the data, understand what each piece of data is saying. Evaluate whether each piece of data is true. Add together the separate pieces of information until you get a conclusion. Stand back and check that the information leads to the conclusion. Check for bias. Don’t say that you don’t have any biases because that’s a lie, we’re all biased. Ask yourself whether you’ve missed something. This can be a difficult step, we can’t see what we can’t see after all, but sometimes just going through the process can help widen your view. Check in with your emotions to make sure they aren’t rebelling wildly. Sometimes your emotions can spot problems in your process more accurately than the thinking part of your brain ever can. Consult and evaluate if your emotions are negative. Adjust if necessary. Act according to the conclusion.
Simple, right? But how many people have you seen make decisions based on something else? How many people do things that seem so obviously wrong from the outside and yet they are convinced otherwise until they inevitably fall on their faces? How many people repeat and repeat harmful behaviours because they are convinced that the results will be different this time?
How many times have you done it yourself?
Thinking critically doesn’t come naturally. School teaches us what to think. It teaches us facts and dates and theories and formulas and seems to imply that this is all you need to think. But this is not how to think. This is what to think based on the goals of a faceless bureaucracy and assuming that’s thinking. It’s really not. Thinking and decision making don’t come naturally and they aren’t just memorising facts. Critical thinking is about looking at facts and wondering why they’re facts. It’s wondering who decided that they’re facts and what the motivations of that person were and the process they used to get there. It’s a tiring and never ending process of evaluating everything around you and everything inside of you. And you will fail. You will miss things. Your biases will change how you see the world and the decisions you make. Your brain will refuse to see the truth because it doesn’t like that particular truth.
Thinking critically and making good decisions can be exhausting sometimes.
Hell, being human is exhausting.
But the world really needs more critical thinking skills at the moment and if we all do it, we can hopefully pick up on each other’s mistakes.