EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Critical Thinking

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How many times have you been asked to "think critically" about an issue? Have you ever stopped to think what that really means? I think most of us innately understand what it entails, but it is difficult to put into words. I must admit that I am guilty of asking that of students without clearly outlining what I expect, but that ends today for this course! Please take a minute or two to fill out the poll below before continuing.

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What better source to look to for critical thinking advice than the Foundation for Critical Thinking? This is hands-down the best summary of critical thinking that I have seen. Please read it carefully.

There is a lot to unpack here. Let's take a look at it again, with key elements indicated in bold. It is all important, really, but a few things stand out. I have numbered the paragraphs to assist in the analysis below.

Critical Thinking as Defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987

A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

(1) Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

(2) It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

(3) Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

(4) Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fair-mindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.

(5) Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.

Source: The Foundation for Critical Thinking

Let's look at these paragraphs one at a time:

  1. Critical thinking requires skilled evaluation of information using all manner of analytical and observational tools at your disposal. Regardless of what you are analyzing, you should use the same or similar set of skills. Critical thinking transcends the subject material.
  2. Critical thinking requires self-evaluation of what you know and do not know, your assumptions, the scientific basis of the problem at hand, and an analysis of the results. One aspect of this is looking at issues from viewpoints different than your own, to the extent possible.
  3. Critical thinking requires more than just "knowing things" and having information processing skills. You must apply this knowledge and these skills, and accept the results, whether they are the results you had hoped/expected or not.
  4. If you are seeking selfish (subjective) motives, you may be able to think critically, but the results will usually be flawed. You must approach the issue with "intellectual integrity," which really refers to the above three points (thorough analysis and acceptance of the results).
  5. No one knows everything, and everyone is subject to bias by virtue of being limited in knowledge in experience. You can be an extremely skilled critical thinker but are limited by your knowledge and experience in the topic at hand. The best critical analysis may arrive at an incorrect conclusion due to this. The flip side of this is that the more you know about, experience, and objectively analyze a piece or type of information, the more likely you are to arrive at a sound conclusion. As stated in the article: "The development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor."

They also provide a good approach to critical thinking:

A well cultivated critical thinker:
  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Source: The Foundation for Critical Thinking

This is all very good advice when reading through the material in this course. I am asking you to apply these principles as much as possible. Keep an open mind, and try to analyze information using evidence, logic, reason, and with an eye on alternative viewpoints. Try to recognize the limitations of your knowledge, and attempt to be self-critical with regards to biases and limited worldviews that you have. Embrace discussion with others, and try to approach discussions with the intent of learning from each other to come to a reasonable conclusion, not to convince the other person that you are correct. This is particularly important because some of the material that follows is considered controversial in some circles, largely because it does not fit with certain worldviews and social/political modes of thinking. Please do your best to look at things as objectively as possible.

To be clear, I do not claim to know all of the answers and recognize that I have limitations in knowledge. The ideas presented in this course are based on reliable evidence, but many of the issues are not clear-cut and are thus open to substantive discussion. As noted in the Orientation, respectful dialogue is encouraged, and often the best way to learn is to discuss things with someone that does not agree with you. I hope that we can have good, substantive discussions throughout this course.

One last thing and this probably goes without saying but I'll say it anyway: critical thinking should be "systematically cultivated," as stated in the reading, and applied constantly. It is useful for every human endeavor, and certainly, can and should be applied beyond this course.