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Have you ever felt you needed to hone your critical thinking skills, to enable you to master the logic of arguments and improve your critical skills as you read, write, speak, or listen? This Cheat Sheet is here to help.

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The ingredients of a good critical thinker

A good critical thinker is composed of many ingredients. If you were building a critical thinker, à la Dr. Frankenstein, the following abilities and attributes would be needed:

  • Tolerance: Critical thinkers delight in hearing divergent views and enjoy a real debate.

  • Analytical skills: Critical thinkers don’t accept just any kind of talking. They want properly constructed arguments that present reasons and draw sound conclusions.

  • Confidence: Critical thinkers have to be a little bit confident to be able to examine views that others present — often people in authority.

  • Curiosity: Critical thinkers need curiosity. It may have killed the cat, but curiosity is the essential ingredient for ideas and insights.

  • Truth-seeking: Critical thinkers are on mission of “objective truth” — even if it turns out to undermine their own previously held convictions and long-cherished beliefs, and is flat against their self-interest.

Critical thinkers check the methodology

A key critical thinking skill is to be able to understand, and criticize, a writer’s methodology. When authors write books, conduct studies, or investigate a topic, they operate within a research paradigm (a theoretical framework) that affects how they view and investigate the subject. In formal academic studies, authors discuss the research paradigm upfront, and so that’s straightforward.

But more often, they leave the nature of the chosen paradigm in the background – as a given. So, the critical reader has to make a specific effort to work it out — and consider how the choice may skew the information reported.

Here are some useful questions to ask when looking at reports and research findings in the broad area of social science:

  • Theoretical or empirical: Is the text primarily concerned with ideas and theories or primarily based on observations and measurements? Most texts mix the two approaches, but critical readers need to identify which element should be the primary focus — even if the author seems confused!

  • Nomothetic or idiographic: These grand terms originate from ancient Greek (nomos means law and idios means own or private) and refer to laws or rules that apply in general in contrast to ones that relate to individuals. Most social research is concerned with the nomothetic — the general case — because even when studying individuals, researchers usually hope to generalize the findings to everyone else. Always bear in mind the extent to which entirely valid observations about a particular case can safely be generalized.

  • Cause or correlation: So many people mix up these terms that the error has its own special name — cum hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”). In other words, putting things together whose connection is unproven. Take a medical example. A recent study of over a million women with breast cancer checked how many were cured by operations to remove suspected cancerous cells. It found that two-thirds were still alive ten years later.

    It might seem natural to assume that the survival was due to the treatment, but the study also found that a control group of women given a mock operation (involving no removal of any cells) had an identical survival rate — plus greatly reduced risks or ill-effects from the procedures. Be aware that in experimental studies, there is a built-in bias exists to see causation even when, maybe, none exists.

  • Statistical answers or ideological hypotheses: A lot of research is based on probabilities. But working them out is something that even experienced researchers get wrong — perhaps applying the wrong statistical procedure to their data and generally overestimating the significance of their findings. Statistics aren’t simple plain-as-a-pikestaff facts; they’re created, misunderstood, and manipulated, which is why politicians and businesses sometimes seize on them in order to present a partial picture.

Tackling the question of assertibility

How do critical thinkers separate out cranky views that aren’t supported by evidence from reasonable theories that maybe worth serious consideration? This problem is sometimes called the assertibility question, because you’re asking what evidence allows you to assert that the claim is true.

Here’s a useful checklist for testing scientific theories:

  • How well does the idea fit with common sense? Is the idea nutty?

  • Who proposed the idea, and does the person have a built-in bias towards it being true?

  • Do proposers use statistics in an honest way? Do they back it up with references to other work that supports the approach?

  • Does the idea explain too much — or too little — to be useful?

  • How open are the proponents of the idea about their methods and data?

  • How many free parameters exist? That is, how many artificially decided settings that constrain and affect the theory?

How critical thinkers understand audiences

Critical thinkers evaluate the audience intended for all types of writing. The following are some general critical thinking approaches for particular types of writing aimed at specific audiences:

  • Academic studies and report writing: A summary usually starts this kind of writing and the main body of the report usually follows a set pattern: a section outlining the problem, a section that explains what people have already said about it and the all-important research methods section. This latter section is where the author explains why they’ve chosen to go about exploring the issue, whatever it may be, in a certain way. The bulk of the report then concerns an account of “what was found out” using this method, and the final sections concern the conclusions being drawn from this research.

  • Journal articles: These usually begin with a separate summary called the synopsis and the main body starts off by looking at the context of the issue and examining several possible positions, all taken with very detailed referencing. The final paragraph may well be called “conclusion,” and that’s what it is — drawing together the threads of what has been discussed earlier. The synopsis and the conclusion of many academic journal articles are very similar.

  • Magazine article: This may well start with a little story, or a teasing question, which is followed by a discussion that gets more detailed as you read on — and may well end up with a surprise at the end!

  • Newspaper article: At least conventionally, these start off by stating all the key points in the first line. The second paragraph then expands on this opening, and the article itself consists of the same again in more detail. Newspaper articles don’t save the best bit until last, because for practical production reasons, the end of the article is the first bit cut if space is a bit tight. Old-school journalists used to be told always to structure stories the same way: to say who, what, when, where, why, and how, in that order.

    Don’t dismiss journalistic writing. It is structured, and it shares one important feature with academic writing – the search for impartiality.

“What you see is news, what you know is background, what you feel is opinion,” as American journalist Lester Markel said.

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