In my research, I often come across reference to ‘good critical thinking’. Is there ‘bad’ critical thinking? Arguably, the latter may refer to a ‘lack’ of critical thinking. But this issue of degrees of critical thinking (CT) is much like being ‘kind of pregnant’. What do you mean kind of? Either you are or you aren’t. There aren’t degrees of pregnancy and there aren’t degrees of CT.
Leading on from my last piece, which discussed the importance, in some contexts, of CT for the purpose of being right, in most cases, it’s not about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It’s about the process. For example, if you believe you have thought critically but your answer is wrong, then there’s a good chance that you haven’t thought critically. However, if you acknowledge uncertainty and that your stance might be falsified, then you’re on the right track. On the other hand, people are often right about some things, but fail to conduct CT regarding that ‘thing’. Just because they’re right, doesn’t mean they got to ‘being right’ through CT.
Again, CT is a process. Imagine you are presented a bundle of information on the topic. To think critically about the information, you need to:
Analyse – Tease out an argument structure and identify: a central claim, core reasons and objections to that claim; reasons and objections to the core propositions; and the sources of these propositions.
Evaluate – Examine the information and assess its: credibility; relevance to the central claim and other important propositions; logical strength; the balance of evidence; and the bias of the evidence.
Infer – Gather only the credible, relevant and logical evidence, while at the same time keeping an eye out for the balance and bias of the evidence; and draw a reasonable conclusion. To double-check your thinking, re-evaluate and see if the same conclusion should be drawn.
This may seem straightforward, but to think critically, we must conduct reflective judgment at the same time. That is, while we conduct these three steps (i.e. analysis, evaluation and inference), we must not only acknowledge the nature, limits and certainty of both the information we’ve been provided and our own knowledge; but also how these factors can affect how we both defend our judgments and recognise that our views might be falsified by additional evidence obtained at a later time (see King & Kitchener, 1994). In a practice, this means that we must be open to admitting that we don’t know or that we might be wrong, even after we have spent a lot of time thinking about something. As I mentioned in my last piece, people love to be right; but they hate being wrong more. Personally, I’d much rather admit uncertainty to being wrong!