What Is Critical Thinking?

“The philosopher Richard Paul has described three kinds of people: vulgar believers, who use slogans and platitudes to bully those holding different points of view into agreeing with them; sophisticated believers, who are skilled at using intellectual arguments, but only to defend what they already believe; and critical believers, who reason their way to conclusions and are ready to listen to others.”

Carole Wade and Carol Tavris

According to the dictionary, critical thinking is the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.[i]  In other words, critical thinking is an attempt to dig deeper and get beyond a superficial understanding of things by asking good questions, examining words, being sensitive to the context words are written in, understanding the feelings and emotions behind them, and being generally open minded. It is a quest to understand the reason behind people‚Äôs thoughts and a refusal to accept things at face value without making sure they are supported by facts and evidence, even if it takes questioning an authority figure to achieve this.

Critical thinkers want to examine other possible explanations and options instead of only being satisfied with the first one they come across. They not only question the conclusions people make, but also the assumptions at the root of these conclusions. Logic is valued over gut feelings and intuition. Critical thinkers want to see the proofs that lead to the conclusion before they are willing to believe it. Just because someone thinks something does not automatically make it true.

Thinking and knowing are not the same things. A healthy dose of skepticism can be beneficial when it comes to uncovering reason. Critical thinkers are willing to question what they hear on the news, from authority figures, as well as people in their lives whom they respect. They even question their own words and thoughts in their search for concrete knowledge and unbiased answers.

If critical thinking was only about drawing logical conclusions, we could input an algorithm into a computer and all of our problems would be solved, but thinking critically is so much more than that. Critical thinkers are keenly aware of the ways words are used and the role feelings and emotions play in guiding people to reach certain conclusions. As humans, we all come with our own baggage, filled with biases and preconceived notions.

As critical thinkers, we understand this and recognize how our biases can get in the way of finding the best answers. With the help of critical thinking, we can make a conscious effort to not only uncover these biases in others that may lead them to draw certain conclusions, but also to check our own biases at the door when we examine information and arguments.

Using critical thinking, we can become open-minded enough to accept new evidence even when it goes against something we currently believe. We recognize that beliefs are not absolute, but rather works in progress that can, and should, evolve and change over time.

Some people are willing to accept the first argument that is presented to them or give up when it seems there is only one explanation or option. Not critical thinkers. They will keep digging until they find a solid idea or option based on evidence.

Rutherford, Albert. Elements of Critical Thinking: A Fundamental Guide to Effective Decision Making, Deep Analysis, Intelligent Reasoning, and Independent Thinking (The critical thinker Book 1) . ARB Publications. Kindle Edition.