Why Use Critical Thinking

Too often people blindly accept the beliefs of others and they can’t explain why they believe what they do or what evidence supports those beliefs. People become completely attached to these beliefs and they don’t like to have them challenged. Critical thinkers do the opposite. Some people are resistant to adjust or abandon incorrect or outdated beliefs even when they are presented with evidence that disproves them. Their approach to improving their understanding of an issue is to begin by arguing then attempting to come up with reasons that support their point of view. Critical thinkers do the steps in reverse. First they look for logical reasons and evidence and they analyze the collected data, finally they engage in arguments using the conclusions they’ve made after the analysis.

Types of thinkers

Charles Sanders Peirce, a 19th century American philosopher and logician, identified three kinds of thinkers:

1. Sticklers: These are people who cling tightly to their beliefs regardless of any new evidence that may come along to refute them. They are only interested in information or opinions that can serve to support their own views and easily dismiss or ignore any ideas that stand in opposition to them.

2. Followers: These are thinkers who happily base their beliefs on what they think authority figures support. If there is no authority figure present, they will go along with whatever they think the majority of people agree with. They do not question the wisdom of experts or the consensus of many and often just accept those opinions blindly as being truth. Followers can be helpful in creating a feeling of unity and connection, but they can also be easily persuaded to go with the flow in negative circumstances such as following a dangerous leader or joining in and bullying someone. Followers are unlikely to generate their own original ideas and opinions because there seems to be too much of a risk for error in their mind.

3. System Builders: These thinkers are willing to accept new information as long as they can make it fit within the general understanding and framework that they already have. If they would have to totally reject the way they have viewed the world and the logical structure they have created for themselves that supports their understanding, they would much rather ignore the new information than completely abandon their worldview.

Have you ever tried to follow the advice of a book only to discover half way through that the author was wrong, had strong biases which he seemingly was unaware of, so you decided it would be best to stop reading and choose another book instead? If so, you just might be a critical thinker. Peirce believed that we should look at the world as though it was entirely possible that everything we thought we knew and believed might be wrong and be willing to start over from scratch if we needed to.

Another American philosopher, William James, felt the same when he pointed out that people often believed they were thinking critically when what they were really doing was just moving their prejudices around. They might have been basing their views on emotions without evidence to support them. He recognized that critical thinkers seek to first become more aware of their own biases so that they can consciously work to overcome them and be more objective and open-minded.

Critical thinking skills don’t come naturally. They require effort and must be modeled and taught. We can’t just assume that people automatically know how to think critically.