Intro to Logic: Techniques of Critical Thinking

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 14, 2009 in Intro to Logic

Good thinking has many benefits. You can learn to think better. Critical thinking is the place to start. Critical thinking is the attempt to overcome your own biases by carefully evaluating claims, observation, and experience. It is an active skill that seeks clarity, credibility, accuracy, relevance, fairness, and significance.

Great! But how can we think critically?

Here are 16 basic techniques of critical thinking.

  1. Clarify.
    State one point at a time. Elaborate. Give examples. Ask others to clarify or give examples. If you’re not sure what you’re talking about, you can’t address it.

    Unclear: “How can we fix education?”

    Clear: “How can teachers better prepare students for the workforce?” or “How can we change policies to encourage better teaching?”

  2. Be accurate.
    Check your facts.

    Inaccurate: “Most people these days are obese” or “Just vent your anger; you’ll feel better.”

    Accurate: “Most people in the U.S. are not obese” or “Studies show that venting your anger actually increases angry feelings and actions.”

  3. Be precise.
    Be precise, so you are able to check accuracy. Avoid generalizations, euphemisms, and other ambiguity.

    Imprecise: “Mary is overweight.”

    Precise: “Mary is 6 pounds overweight according to her Body Mass Index, which is a deceptive measure of healthy weight anyway.”

  4. Be relevant.
    Stick to the main point. Pay attention to how each idea is connected to the main idea.

    Irrelevant: “Why do I believe in the Christian God? Well, the human eye is too complex to have happened by chance, so God must have created it.”

    Relevant: “The human eye is a complex system. Its origins, Darwinian or otherwise, are not fully understood. But our ignorance is not evidence for God or anything else.”

  5. Know your purpose.
    What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the most important thing here? Distinguish your purpose from related purposes.
  6. Identify assumptions.
    All thinking is based on assumptions, however basic.

    Assumptions not identified: “Logically, God cannot exist.”

    Assumptions identified: “Logic is only a process applied to assumptions. If you apply logic to the assumption that ‘scientific evidence is the only reliable means of knowing something,’ then of course non-physical entities cannot be known using your assumptions.”

  7. Check your emotions.
    Emotions only confuse critical thinking. Notice how your emotions may be pushing your thinking in a certain direction.
  8. Empathize.
    Try to see things from your opponent’s perspective. Imagine how they feel. Imagine how you sound to them. Sympathize with the logic, emotion, and experience of their perspective.
  9. Know your own ignorance.
    Each person knows less than 0.0001% of the available knowledge in the world. Even if you know more about relevant issues than your opponent, you still might be wrong. Educate yourself as much as possible, but still: be humble.
  10. Be independent.
    Think critically about important issues for yourself. Don’t believe everything you read. Don’t conform to the priorities, values, and perspectives of others.
  11. Think through implications.
    Consider the consequences of your viewpoint.

    Not thinking through implications: “A fetus is biologically alive and mentally conscious. Therefore, killing a fetus is wrong.”

    Thinking through implications: “Monkeys, dogs, and many other animals are alive and almost certainly conscious. Is killing them always wrong, too? Why do they have less rights than a fetus? Let’s think about this.”

  12. Know your own biases.
    Your biases muddle your thinking. Notice how they might be pushing your thought toward a particular end, regardless of the logical steps it took to get there.

    Biased: “I’m not sure how to defeat the Kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence, but I know it’s flawed somewhere because God doesn’t exist.”

    Unbiased: “The Kalam cosmological argument is compelling. I’ll have to think it through before I can say whether or not it indicates God’s existence.”

  13. Suspend judgment.
    Critical thinking should produce judgments, not the other way around. Don’t make a decision and then use critical thinking to back it up. If anything, use the method of science: take a guess about how things are and then try to disprove it.

    Immediate judgment: “We’re here to promote Johnson’s plan for education reform. What logical arguments can we construct in its favor?”

    Suspended judgment: “What do we want from our educational system? Once we know, let’s use critical thinking to find the best ways to do those things.”

  14. Consider the opposition.
    Listen to other viewpoints in their own words. Seriously consider their most persuasive arguments. Don’t dismiss them.

    Narrow-minded: Reading an essay and letting it persuade you.

    Open-minded: Reading an essay, then reading an essay that argues the opposite point.

  15. Recognize cultural assumptions.
    People from different times and cultures thought much differently than you do. In fact, your ideas might have arrived only in the last 50 years of human history! Why is your perspective better than that of everyone else in the world today and throughout history?
  16. Be fair, not selfish.
    Each person’s most basic bias is for themselves.

    Selfish: “I can’t know everything. It’s not my fault I made that error.”

    Fair: “I can’t know everything, but I could easily have done some basic research before making such a bold statement.”

Of course, these are just the basics. You’ve got to actively practice these ways of thinking. Eventually, they will become second nature, though they will always require some effort. For more on critical thinking, see the resources listed at the end of this post.

Next, we start talking about logic!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk May 14, 2009 at 10:42 am

Each person knows less than 0.0001% of the available knowledge in the world.

Research shows that if you add another decimal point, 23.7% more people will believe your made-up statistics.


lukeprog May 14, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Yes, I hope nobody thought I meant that number literally!


Jason April 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm

I think Selkirk is getting at something very important. In media people are exposed to statistics so much that they give estimates (or guestimates) in percentages even when based on no real statistics. I saw a journalist grill a speaker on militant Islam on CNN. The speaker kept say “something like 30% of Muslims in America…” and the journalist, who was sharp, kept interrupting him by asking ‘based on WHAT?’ Of course in the end, what he really meant is ‘some Muslims based on my own experienced’. Just making up statistics to mean all, most, some, few, etc, can be misleading. Which brings us back to being ‘clear’, etc. ;-)


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