GEOG 885
Advanced Analytic Methods for the GEOINT Professional

Critical Thinking

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There is a great deal of confusion about what critical thinking is and its relationship to an analytical method. Much of the confusion is because there are many definitions of critical thinking. According to Cohen and Salas (Marvin S. Cohen and Eduardo Salas, Critical Thinking: Challenges, Possibilities, and Purpose, March 2002), definitions in the literature suggest that a common core meaning exists, and one might define critical thinking as:

The deliberate evaluation of intellectual products in terms of an appropriate standard of adequacy.

Related to this definition is a theme of early philosophers, such as Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, of the importance of challenging inherited and customary beliefs. In other words, to adopt not only a first-person but also a second-person critical point of view. This imperative of doubting one’s own accepted beliefs is critical thinking. The early philosophers agreed on two things about critical thinking:

  1. Its purpose is to fulfill an ethical duty to think properly about whether to accept or reject each of our beliefs.
  2. A constraint on proper thinking about belief acceptance is that it must be based upon good evidence.

Initially evidence was regarded as sufficient only if it guaranteed the truth of a conclusion. Today, theorists acknowledge uncertainty about matters of fact and even about logic. The purpose of critical thinking is therefore now seen as to ensure a high probability of truth.

More recently, in 2002, Robert H. Ennis, Retired Director, Illinois Critical Thinking Project, wrote that "Critical thinking is here assumed to be reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do. This rough overall definition is, we believe, in accord with the way the term is generally used these days. Under this interpretation, critical thinking is relevant not only to the formation and checking of beliefs, but also to deciding upon and evaluating actions. It involves creative activities such as formulating hypotheses, plans, and counterexamples; planning experiments; and seeing alternatives. Furthermore, critical thinking is reflective -- and reasonable. The negative, harping, complaining characteristic that is sometimes labeled by the word, "critical", is not involved."

In his piece, Super-Streamlined Conception of Critical Thinking, Robert H. Ennis, points out that a critical thinker:

  1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives
  2. Tries to be well-informed
  3. Judges well the credibility of sources
  4. Identifies conclusions, reasons, and assumptions
  5. Judges well the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions, and evidence
  6. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position
  7. Asks appropriate clarifying questions
  8. Formulates plausible hypotheses; plans experiments well
  9. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context
  10. Draws conclusions when warranted, but with caution
  11. Integrates all items in this list when deciding what to believe or do

Richard Paul has further defined it as:

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them. (Paul, Fisher and Nosich, 1993, p.4)

Alec Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, points out that, "This definition draws attention to a feature of critical thinking on which teachers and researchers in the field seem to be largely agreed, that the only way to develop one's critical thinking ability is through 'thinking about one's thinking' (often called 'metacognition'), and consciously aiming to improve it by reference to some model of good thinking in that domain."

The essence is that critical thinking in geospatial intelligence is exemplified by asking questions about alternative possibilities in order to achieve some objective analysis, rendering a high probability of the selected alternative being true.