Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to watch, listen or read something and not just take it as given. It involves proactive watching, listening and reading. Critical thinking in producing work means producing reliable well -argued material. Altogether critical thinking is about removing the distractions, making sense and building an informed viewpoint, and being able to present the viewpoint.

Issues include:


Tradition and thought

These days writers are more circumspect about using labels such as facts, opinion and argument. What was once "fact" often rests on shifting sands. It is better to think in terms of what works. How something works successfully depends on the area of knowledge or tradition. It is in these contexts that those who learn into a tradition start to argue about what may be regarded as "opinion" or changeable, and where the rules which claim to be based on what works start to look like some dominant elite's preferences within that tradition of thinking.

Each discipline has its own rules of discourse accroding to what works, constituted like language games (after Wittgenstein), so that engineering is clearly a more restrictive tradition than, say, art, and what constitutes knowledge in science is different from social science. This is because of different bases of what works in each area.

Authoritative thinking takes place in lines of tradition. References are cited to place a thesis, dissertation or essay into a tradition of thinking. This activity (the whole point of referencing, bibliographies, etc.) brings forward recognition and engagement with commentaries of authority, and the normal boundaries around which debate takes place (also extending those boundaries). This means that not everyone can express any opinion they like with authority, because opinion to be worth anything has to relate to the work that has gone on before. Experience and knowledge has been built up and there exists a paradigm (Kuhn).

The practioners of a tradition may, however, enter into a period of argument and the tradition becomes unstable, contested and subject to change. A new dominant understanding may take over. This is what Thomas Kuhn has called a paradigm shift. Some fields of academia may run with several "schools" at a time, without one being predominant.



In terms of writing and presenting, even reading, there is a simple application. Some statements are almost truisms and therefore follow very precise rules and need no further explanation. They seem impossible to be subject to any paradigmic change. These may be called facts (but not all facts are facts!). In fact there may be no such epistemolodgical foundation for anything leading to facts (even 2+2=4 is argued to be a symbol system in mathematics!).

Some statements have a quantifiable basis of resolution and also appear to be fact, though the basis of the underlying assumption should be given. Others are falsifiable, meaning they are the given truth until a disproof comes along. Much science is like this. Again the facts gain their overall meaning through connections to other so called facts by existing in a paradigm, and one must be careful not to make a jump from a simple statement of a falsifiable (etc.) fact to the more general system of understanding.

Other statements however are of the form that actively present and weigh matters, and so the argument should be given and made so that the premises (basis for the argument), method and conclusion can be examined for their sustainability and agreement or dissagreement. The argument may well need referencing back to others who have made it before or to sources of evidence and related argument..

Meanwhile, some statements are clearly no more than a recommendation that follows on from an argument and may be called opinion. Policy options or preferences may be surrounded by argument, but they are still opinion.

A writer ought to make it clear when a statement is simple and quantifiable, when an argument is being made and how this is supported, and when an opinion is being expressed. To make an opinion before an argument, and without establishing the roots in a tradition for an argument, is to produce poor academic work.

Good students produce work which gets everything in the order of justification - that opinion is based on argument is based on the given rules of discourse.


Sufficient Argument

Whilst the intention of critical thinking is to present one's own argument without flaws, it is also to find the flaws in the other's argument! Critical writing means attending to the sufficiency of the argument being constructed, whereas critical reading means opening up the argument presented to close ny.

Argument runs in stages. It starts from propositions grounded in the traditions and paradigms. It builds through logical steps. An argument which is sufficient does not derive from ungrounded propositions, leave logical gaps (by which there is an obvious omission) or make logical jumps (leaves territory uncovered).

Of course when an argument is presented awareness must exist of alternative arguments. Then there needs to be further argument to try to back up an opinion as to why one argument is preferred over the other.

Sometimes arguments can be so tight and circular that they block access to criticism. All good arguments are open to criticism - they are, after all, arguments. Arguments can be attacked on the basis of the adequacy of the propositions, or though missed logical steps that deviate the course, or through invalid logic.

Invalid logic is like this:

  1. All swans are white
  2. My coat is white
  3. Therefore my white coat is a swan

This is an example where the first statement is a proposition which historically was once thought to be true but failed on the falsifiability principle, the second statement is presumably well observed, and the third statement shows an invalid argument because even if all swans were white it does not mean that anything white is a swan. In other words, making the argument valid involves making the proposition wrong even if it seems right. This can be something of a mind teaser, and qualitiative academic arguments are rarely like this, but the logical stages must be properly observed.

Academic arguments are often qualitative stages of reasoning, historical and causal in nature, or where some theoretical base implies an outcome and then another outcome according to some active variables. An essay, presentation, and whatever, needs to create the narrative out of the stages of reasoning. The "story" that is any piece of writing is made up by these variables working on the agents of interest. Critical thinking therefore must ask if these variables are present, and if they have the claimed effect.


Critical thinking when writing essays

Essay writing improves when there is an argument presented which clearly moves from one point to another in a sequence of logical links. The essay has a clear structure, taking in various points and keeps focussed on the question and the opinions derive from the arguments flowing along.

Of course it is easy to say that the essay produced could be different, with other arguments given prominence, other opinions, and it can be argued that not everything is covered. This is bound to be the case! Essays and even theses are limited in coverage by the size and by the directions they take (even those considered to be "balanced" and weighing arguments). The assessment of a good essay is not whether everything has been considered and every opinion dealt with, but whether it is a consistently constructed piece of narrative that relates to the tradition it is in (references and bibliography), that therefore it has premises that are well grounded, and derives arguments and opinions that logically flow. Flow means, do the sections relate to the previous section and signpost what is coming? Quality judgements involve asking if the essay deals with the how and why of what it is claiming? Is there depth?

Word processing allows paragraphs to be shifted around easily, and doing this shows how meanings shift simply through a different order of presenting the information. It just shows how much depends on presentation. Using a computer mind map program might also help regarding getting a logical order.

Therefore criticism of an essay is made on the basis of the essay, and on its internal consistency and quality of enquiry. Clearly there cannot be glaring errors and gaps that are fundamental to the discipline and the question posed, but beyond this the judgement and marking of any essay is internal to that essay. Critical thinking is here applied to the art and skill of essay writing.



Critical thinking when producing reports

Reports carry a great deal of apparent authority from their rigid structure. In producing a report, it becomes all the more important to make sure that evidence is well and sufficiently given, and that the extent of the report covers the questions/ issues and that nothing is missing as regards the impact of the evidence. Because, if there are gaps (especially to suit the conclusions) or challenging sources of evidence have been missed, then the impact is to rubbish the whole report and not just part of it. The conclusions/ recommendations become worthless. So the critical questions are:


Critical thinking when reading sources

Reading should be done actively, with questions in mind based on what is wanted from the reading. Reading is not done cover to cover at speed, but selectively according to pre-set needs. it is like a conversation with the book, although the source does not change.

Reading involves tackling a source with a background of own ideas that derive from several sources in the near, medium and distant past. Reading should be thought of as adding to that stock of understanding. So it should be made accessible, looking at contents, conclusions and chapter summaries to see where to go into the main text. The text should be compared with what is already known, and where something new and challenging appears this needs to be followed up. Sometimes it can change beliefs!

Reading should be active deconstruction. Look at the flow of the work and see if you can read the opposite from it. If there is an opposite, compare the opposite with the given. We often do this with politicians so sdo it with academics! Is there a sub-text going on then? What is being concealed behind what is being revealed? This is critical reading.

Disagreement with the source is healthy, but must not lead to an emotional response that clouds judgement. Rather it should lead to an examination of why there is disagreement. The counter-arguments can be written down point by point.

Agreement is actually more difficult because it can lead to a laziness of reproduction (avoid plagarism at all costs!). The question is then why these arguments are convincing, and critical thinking involves going that stage deeper to examine why these arguments work.



Critical thinking regarding multimedia

The great thing about a television programme is that it is laid on, you can just sit back, relax, watch it, and then wonder what on earth it was about.

To watch TV actively needs notetaking and probably video recording to replay essential parts.

This is all very well, however, but just what is a television programme? It is constructed by a producer and editor and really does tell a story. It is very likely to ignore a lot of available evidence. It is very likely to ignore a lot of counter-arguments and counter-evidence.

Look critically at how news and current affairs programmes work their commentary to the pictures and not the other way around. Notice how the pictures limit rather than expand the news. See how entertainment values come into the news, both in terms of the order and content. Also there is a lot of opposition created - two positions presented with each addressed by the interviewer taking himself an opposing point of view. Actually, many people tend to agree and disagree at the margins! Television also tends to confuse analysis and history. It produces what it calls analysis, but it is no more than a regurgitating of what was said in the past matched to pictures. Television adds emotional content with music, which is lost in the translation to academic thinking.

Another problem with telvision news is that it is passive regarding the given agenda. It is very susceptible to "spin". The government and opposition finds that through announcements and strategic availability of personnel it can make a story, and television news dutifully follows. A lot of charities also make a news announcement, put up an example family, and get a slot on the news. Even businesses can get pubilicty through careful insertions into the news agenda. It is important to realise when this happens, and when they and us are being manipulated. An apparently critical approach is often acceptable to news providers (providers being the originators) because they can get some of their point across, and bad publicity may be better than no publity at all. For example, when the unemployment figures went below 1 million the fact that commentaries stated that they were well above one million did not stop the news story, its headline and trumpeting by government ministers!

Critical thinking suggests then that a lot of this televisual material is simply useless. It is probably only useful for the types of comments participants in the news events make, but even these are reduced to soundbites.

So television programmes are often no more than illustrations of a point. Where they include an example of something within its limited argument, this might be a quoteable piece of evidence, to be referenced (including time of transmission - a repeat may be edited).

Radio can be better, and needs tape recording as well as note taking. The relevant channels are BBC Radio 4 and the more intellectual interludes of BBC Radio 3. Radio is not restricted by the need to fit commentary to pictures. However, it still does still tend to pitch one side against another and still follows the news conventions. Radio programmes are less well signposted, but finding one of a relevant subject can produce very useful material.

Newspapers provide easier access and print does give more space for analysis. Nevertheless newspapers also have their own agenda and whereas once it could be said that news and comment were separated, now they are mixed and of course the choice of including or even ignoring a story is part of bias. Again one must look behind the choice and delivery of the story, and extract what data is available.

The Internet contains much information, and most of it can be dismissed as the equivalent of advertising. Organisations which represent themselves on the Internet are simply giving publicity. There are academic resopurces on the Internet, but whereas articles in an academic publications often go through a process of review by peers, anything can appear on the Internet. mistakes are made and errors go unchallenged. Also Internet material seems to get old rapidly and yet also is changeable.

CD ROMS and DVD provide encyclopedic material. Again one has to be careful. Look up something from a position of some expertise from research or from experience. then see what the encyclopedia says. It is often the case that the encyclopedia makes mistakes, is out of date, follows common assumptions and scratches the surface. I find from my own researched and first hand experience of Unitarianism that so many CD ROM based encyclopedias just get it so out of date and wrong that the information is misleading. It isn't critical thinking to just take these sources as if they are guaranteed to be correct; the question is where the CD ROMs got their information from!

All mass media is just that - it carries a kind of average of reasoning to the mass. So minority agendas and explanations get marginalised or even left out. Refreshing explanations are few and far between, sometimes found in corners like "Community Programmes" or late night minority representations. In diverse societies mass culture finds a lowest common denominator of reaching everyone, and actually representing diversity needs to be sought out.

The fact is that in all multimedia information carries a health warning. Using information needs the skills of a detective. Here are some questions to ask:


For a very different approach see:

Cork, C. (1995), Thinking it Through: an introduction to critical thinking, Leicester: De Montford University Library, Student Learning Development Centre