In this article I interview an expert on Critical Thinking, Dr. Gerald Nosich from the Foundation for Critical Thinking, who has been teaching Critical Thinking since 1977 to find out how we can improve our Critical Thinking skills.
In this article you will learn:
- What is Critical thinking
- How to improve your Critical thinking skills
- Critical thinking questions to ask yourself when you’re reading a book or a blog, listening to an audiobook or a podcast, or watching the news
- Why you shouldn’t have sacred cows
- The habits of the best Critical thinkers
Let’s start at the beginning…
What is Critical thinking?
Michael Frank: What is Critical thinking?
Dr. Nosich: There are three major earmarks of critical thinking:
One it’s reflective. The technical word for that is “metacognitive”. What that means is that when I have a decision to make, I’m not just thinking about my decision, I’m also thinking about how I’m making the decision. I’m thinking about my thinking. I’m thinking about my assumptions.
So if I’m making a decision I can ask myself :
“What assumptions am I making about this?”
Or I can ask myself about the implications:
“Well, if I make this decision, what’s likely to happen?”
“And if I make this other decision, what’s likely to happen?”
Notice I’m not just thinking about the decision I have to make, but I’m also reflecting on how I’m going about making the decision, that is I’m reflecting on my thinking about the decision.
Now reflectiveness is a major part of critical thinking, but reflective all by itself does not make something “critical thinking”. I mean, I live in the United States, and we have someone who reflects on his thinking all the time, and finds it always to be perfect. So reflecting isn’t enough.
In addition to reflecting on my thinking, the second factor is that critical thinking embodies standards. These are concepts like clear and accurate and relevant to the issue at hand, and important rather than trivial. So if I’m going to think about something, then I want to think in a way that’s as accurate as possible, and I want to consider factors that are relevant to the issue at hand, and I want to think about it as clearly as I can. So clear, accurate, and relevant, those are three of the standards of critical thinking, and when you engage in critical thinking, what you do is you consciously, reflectively, pay attention to those standards.
And the third one, which is related to the other two, is that critical thinking by and large needs to be explicit. By that I mean, it’s not just making assumptions, because we’re always making assumptions, accurate or inaccurate, it’s that I need to explicitly focus on what assumptions am I making and what questions should I be asking? Or if I’m using a particular concept like is this fair? I can ask myself, what do I mean by ‘fair’ in this particular circumstance?
Why Critical thinking is important
Michael Frank: We’re thinking about our thinking, we’re reflecting upon our thinking, we’re using standards to apply that thinking. Let’s state the obvious: Why is critical thinking important?
Dr. Nosich: It’s important because it’s essential for just about everything we do. Just think about being a parent. You can be a parent on autopilot, but by and large you’re going to be better off if you’re asking yourself:
“What assumptions am I making about how my child is doing in school?”
It would be good for me to check out what are the questions I should ask him or her when my child comes home or when they’re engaged in something that I consider risky.
So I’m going to be asking those questions and it will tend to, I’d say strongly, to make me a better parent or a better nurse or a better doctor or a better teacher or a better student. I can say it a slightly different way. Thinking, just thinking, underlies virtually everything we do. And so there’s a question of whether the thinking that we engage in is critical thinking, or uncritical thinking, and we’re better off if we think things through. Thinking things through by the way, seems to me to be a pretty good synonym for critical thinking. Thinking things through.
How to improve your critical thinking skills
Michael Frank: How do we become better critical thinkers?
Dr. Nosich: Well, it’s a big time question, but I can give you a fairly straightforward answer. So at the foundation for Critical Thinking for instance, we work on what we call the elements of reasoning and these are just eight categories.
I’ve mentioned some of them already. They’re categories such as assumptions or questions at issue, or concepts or implications and consequences or information, eight of them. These are arranged in a circle. And so one way I can get to be a better critical thinker is when I’m thinking through something important, something that matters to me, what I can do is I can go around that circle of elements and ask myself:
What are the major assumptions I’m making?
Or if I’m dealing with someone else:
What are some of the major assumptions these other people are making?
Or if I’m watching the news:
What are the major assumptions that the newscaster is making?
And I can tell you that when I myself fail to think critically, this is one of the ways in which I most often fail. I’m engaged in some decision, and there’s some question I should be asking, and it’s kind of staring me in the face, and I don’t notice it. I don’t ask the question at all. So it would help me if I paused for a moment and asked:
“What questions should I be asking?”
When I think through something I’m always doing so from some point of view, so I can ask myself:
“Well, from what point of view am I reasoning this through, am I thinking about it?”
Another good question to ask myself is:
“Which points of view are relevant to this particular situation or this decision I’m making?”
That is, I’m using point of view in the plural. So if I’m a doctor, I’m going to be thinking from a medical point of view, but I also have to think about the patient’s point of view. I may also have to think about it from the point of view of the patient’s culture, because lots of times cultural beliefs get in the way of people receiving good medical care. I also may have to think about it from a hospital’s point of view, and I have to think about it from the insurance company’s point of view, and from the point of view of how affordable this is for my patients in question.
So virtually everything we do involves multiple points of view, and typically we don’t consult them, we don’t look for the other points of view explicitly. Sometimes we do this naturally, but it’s also good to do it when it doesn’t come naturally, to ask myself:
“So how does this look from the point of view of my child?”
I’m not saying I’ve got to heed, or just go blindly along with how the child is thinking about it, but I do want to be familiar, to understand, how the child might be looking at it, or how the child’s peers might be looking at it. Why do I want to understand that? Well, because peers have a great deal of influence on how my child acts, and by understanding that, I have a better insight into what’s going on, and that gives me better ways of addressing questions and issues that might come up with respect to my child.
Michael Frank: You raise a number of excellent points and it’s something that I think a lot of us, we hear a lot, “Try to see things from the other person’s perspective”, but I don’t think that many people do try to see things from the other person’s perspective. I believe that a lot of people, they consider their own perspective to be synonymous with objective reality. And so if you don’t see it the way that they see it, well then you’re just wrong!
Dr. Nosich: Well, let me say something about that, by another person’s point of view, I’m not necessarily meaning that the other person’s point of view is accurate. So it’s not really a question of whether my point of view is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, that’s kind of a second level. The first level is that I just want to understand the other person’s point of view. So, here’s the thing that I’ve tried out often and I recommend to others, you say something, and somebody you know disagrees angrily or gets angry at you. And then I ask:
“Well what is it you think I said that you’ve gotten angry with?”
And here’s what the person almost always says:
“Oh, maybe I misunderstood you!”
That is they’re ready to admit that there’s a very good chance they’ve misunderstood. So when I say consult other people’s point of view, I mean look at how they’re thinking it through, and then afterwards, once I’ve understood it, afterwards, I can evaluate to see the extent to which it holds weight or not. Now suppose I’m considering a far out point of view, like whether or not there are abductions by space aliens. I think it’s very clear that there aren’t, but if I’m really going to be thinking about that issue, and I may or may not be writing about it, my writing would be much clearer and much more to the point, if I thought hard about:
“Well why is it that seemingly reasonable people, many of them, come to the conclusion that they have been abducted by space aliens? What’s going on in their experience or in their lives or in how they’re thinking about it, that’s led them to that belief?”
Notice that doesn’t mean I’m agreeing with them at all. It means I’m considering how that other person is thinking through the issue and that aids in understanding.
Michael Frank: Seek to understand before being understood. I agree.
Dr. Nosich: Yeah. Especially before disagreeing.
Critical thinking questions
Michael Frank: What kind of questions should we be asking ourselves when we’re reading/watching/listening to the news, reading a book, listening to a podcast, watching TV etc. just to make sure that we’re not being misled?
Dr. Nosich: So let me first say that in my experience, questions don’t come very naturally to us. It takes some work and a good deal of practice to ask questions, and it also takes some familiarity with the kinds of questions that would be beneficial to ask.
So you’ve seen these movies, usually there a crime movie about the police, or it’s a military movie where the captain is addressing a group of 30 people, and he says:
“Okay, we’re going to go into this operation and your group are going to go into this from the left, and you’re going to go in from the right, and the others are going to parachute in, and then we’re going to do X, and then you’re going to do Y. Are there any questions?”
And in the movies, nobody asks a damn question! I’m just, I’m just flabbergasted! And I’m convinced in real life people tend not to answer questions. They say: “Oh yeah, okay, we’ll do that.” But me, I would be flooded with questions like, “What happens if it goes wrong?” or “What if they already know that we’re going to be trying to do this?” Or “What’s our plan b? What’s our plan c? What’s our plan d?” I have a whole host of questions that come up to the forefront of my mind automatically, but they didn’t always come to the forefront in my mind. I have to practice getting familiar with the kinds of questions.
Secondly though, it takes a certain kind of intellectual courage to ask the question. Sometimes you can’t ask the question out loud because the authority figure is going to hurt you if you ask the question, but I’m not even talking about those situations. Just it takes a certain amount of courage for you in a middle of a crowded room to say: “Well, I just don’t understand how this part’s going to work” or “What will happen if we do this?”
It’s difficult to ask such questions.
What are some other very specific kinds of questions we’re going to be asking?
I can ask you: “So how do you know that?” “How did you learn that?” I’m not saying it confrontational, I’m just saying, “What makes you think that? “What’s your evidence for it?” Really I just want to know, “Why do you think it’s accurate?” “How do you know that’s true?” “What makes you think that’s true?” “How did you learn that?”
We have a process called by the abbreviation S.E.E.I.
So I’m going to try to say something that’s clear. I’m going to try to state it in maybe a single sentence, concise, clear to the point sentence. Then I’m going to elaborate on it, spell it out, explain it at greater length in my own words for a paragraph or two, and then I might exemplify it. Meaning you have an example, not just any old example, but a good example, and I might illustrate it by drawing a comparison to something else.
Other questions I might ask:
“Can you restate that for me?” In other words, “Can you elaborate on that?” Those are good questions to ask. “Can you give me an example of that?” “Can you give me a comparison that will help me understand it?”
Here’s another question I can ask: “So can you give me some of the details?”
So I’ve gone through some questions with respect to accuracy, clarity, precision. Here’s one about importance, so I will ask my students, “So there’s a lot of information in chapter three. What would you say is the most important information in that chapter?” And my students dislike the question. They want all the information to be equally important so that they can just study it all for the exam they think they’re going to have. But of course you’ve got to weigh, whenever you hear information or views or opinions or anything else, you have to weigh what’s the most important part of this?
So that’s a good question I can ask of you, or of anyone.
If I’m going to meet my doctor:
“What’s the most important thing for me to understand here?”
“What’s the second most important thing?”
My doctor just talked to me for 20 minutes and I’m kind of overwhelmed by the amount of information that I’m being told. I would like to ask him what’s the most important thing? So that’s the standard of importance.
Here’s another one, “Is what you’re saying logical?” “Does it make sense? I’m hearing you say one thing over here, but now the second time I’m hearing you say something somewhat different. Do these make sense? Do they fit together?” That’s a question about the logic of what we’re saying.
Here’s another one: “Do you have any vested interest in the answer you’re giving? Do you stand to gain?” And just because you stand to gain, doesn’t mean that your answer is biased or wrong or anything like that, but it would be information that I’d like to know. “Might you have a hidden agenda here?” Or, “if you had a hidden agenda, what might it be?”
Should you examine the statement or the source?
Michael Frank: A quick question around this. Probably my favorite critical thinking statement, and the one that frustrates me the most when it’s violated, almost as if it were an irrefutable law is: “Examine the statement, not the speaker”. And I absolutely love that, and it really annoys me when I see people violating it. If Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking says something it’s just automatically accepted (by most people) as true, but if Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden etc. says it then it’s just automatically rejected as evil and wrong. But that’s not true. I mean, Gandhi can tell a lie, and Hitler can tell the truth. Do you feel that I might be oversimplifying and that we should also be examining the speaker in addition to the statement, or should we let the words of someone stand apart from the person itself?
Dr. Nosich: Oh, that’s a very interesting question. There’s actually a complexity to it. So first of all, it seems to be quite clear, that we should be examining and evaluating the statement, not the speaker. That is, there’s a very real sense in which, who says it doesn’t have any effect on whether what’s being said is true or not. So that’s number one. But second, going a little bit against that, is a matter of trustworthiness, that is, to the extent that a particular speaker, say someone I know, has been shown to be trustworthy over a long period of time, it would be reasonable for me, to trust the validity of what the person is saying, other things being equal.
So a reputation for trustworthiness is something that is relevant to evaluating the statement, and the reputation for trustworthiness isn’t just about sincerity, or about personal beliefs, but if Stephen Hawking is saying something about physics, and the guy who lives next door to me says something about physics, it would not seem to me to be reasonable to evaluate each on their own merits, often because I’m not in a position to examine each, and I trust that Stephen Hawking has, and he could of course make a mistake, he could of course lie, but I can trust that he has studied this for a great deal of time, and that lends some credibility to what he says. I’m still evaluating the statement, but the likelihood of the statements being true or false, is somewhat dependent on the record or the knowledge that that person conveys.
Michael Frank: So the source is relevant. I agree with you. I think that you certainly must factor in the person’s track record, their knowledge or experience within the field, and the probability of them being right. I’ll give you an example. I really like and respect Sam Harris a lot, but he doesn’t get a free pass from me, no one gets a free pass, everything is still critically evaluated, and I think that sacred cows are one of the biggest problems because if we look at some of the sacred cows, I mean obviously the Prophet Muhammad for Muslims, Jesus for Christians, the “Me too” movement in the United States, I guess race in America is a huge one, these are things where you’re just not allowed to ask questions or to apply critical thinking, well at least not publicly, or to express your opinion, without facing a severe backlash.
So personally, I don’t like sacred cows and I don’t think that they’re helpful. I think critical thinking is just a tool to just stop falsehoods getting in. It doesn’t stop the truth getting in. I’m not sure who said it, but the truth doesn’t need defending, the truth fears no questions, and if it can be destroyed by the truth, then it deserves to be destroyed by the truth. If what you believe is true, whether it’s a conspiracy theory, a religion, or anything, then it will easily pass analysis, questioning, scrutiny, critical thinking etc. it just won’t make it through if it’s false. So that’s why I don’t think that anything needs to have any special treatment.
Dr. Nosich: Well, I agree with you.
Critical thinking questions
Michael Frank: I want to come back to some of these questions. What are some questions that we should be asking ourselves when we’re reading, watching or listening to the news?
Dr. Nosich: So here’s a good multiple choice quiz that I’d like them (newsreaders) to actually put on the television right at the end of the news:
Is the proceeding broadcast:
a) completely biased
b) partly biased
c) partly unbiased
…and so forth.
I can also ask questions like:
“What’s the other side of the issue?”
“What does it look like from the other side?”
“How oversimplified is this?”
It’s not just a question about bias. It’s a question of oversimplification. So often newscasters are very limited in the amount of time they can spend, and therefore there’s only so much they can say. It’s almost built-in that they have to oversimplify.
Here’s one that applies to newspapers: One thing I can do with regard to things that are in print or at least newspapers, I don’t know that anyone reads newspapers anymore though, but with headlines for instance, the people who write the stories, don’t write the headlines. So that means that the heading maybe only tangentially related to what the actual reporting is. So that means if you glance at the paper and all you see is the headlines for the various stories, you can get a very distorted picture where no one is actually trying to distort things for you.
Here’s another one: Oftentimes a print media needs fillers and a place they often go to fillers is they look in science and they report on scientific findings, but since they have only a limited amount of space in the paper for these fillers, they cut part of the scientific findings. Why do they do that? Well, they do it not because they’re biased liberal or conservative, they do it because they’ve got only 10 lines, so they cut off the ending, or they cut out the data, or they cut out something or another.
Critical thinking habits
Michael Frank: What are the habits of the best critical thinkers? How does one go from being a good critical thinker, to a world class critical thinker?
Dr. Nosich: Sometimes people say critical thinking is problem solving, or is something like problem solving, and I’m fairly sure that’s incorrect. Critical thinking doesn’t involve just skills or abilities, it also involves certain traits of mind or habits such as developing intellectual courage and intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is knowing what I don’t know, and being willing to own what it is I don’t know. Being willing to own up to the fact that I don’t know certain things. Intellectual Courage is reasoning something out to the best of my ability, and then sticking with my conclusions, despite pressure from other people. It doesn’t mean being stubborn, it means I’m willing to change my mind, but in order for me to change my mind, I need to have good reasons, I need evidence, and I’m not willing to change my mind just because people talk louder or push me in one direction or another. Another one is intellectual empathy which is being able to put myself in someone else’s mind, and think things through the way they would. That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with them. So no matter what their views are, I can put myself in their mind and think things through the way they do.
So with my students I will ask them to pick a point of view that they disagree with very strongly, and then write a page explicating an issue from the other person’s point of view. So that’s a good way to read for instance, right? I can read something, and as part of the reading enterprise, I put myself in the point of the view of the author, I try to get the logic of how he or she is seeing things, how he or she is thinking their way through it, and then after that’s done, I can now evaluate it as fairly and as accurately as I can. But developing a habit of intellectual empathy is a major part of being a critical thinker. And it’s really, I think, a major part of the answer to what I can do with respect to fake news, or alien points of view.
Here’s another one, intellectual integrity. And that means that I hold myself to the same standards I hold you to. It means that I’m looking for my own biases as much as I’m looking for yours. I’m not trying to pin you to the wall. I’m giving you the same honor, the same fairness, that I’m according to myself.
Here’s another habit that sometimes neglected. It’s intellectual perseverance. It means that in many cases it’s hard to think things through critically. It takes some time. I need to work at it. I need to spend some time considering other points of view, not just for ten seconds. I might take some time to see other points of view, to examine what my assumptions really are, and what are the implications of it.
A question I can ask myself with regard to these habits of mind or intellectual traits is:
“What are the situations in my life where I most often think critically?”
I work a lot with college professors and within their field, within their discipline, they’re typically very good critical thinkers. But it’s striking to me that many of them, when they go home to their families, they’re not particularly good critical thinkers. They don’t think about how to make things better off for the people in their family. They just kind of do their usual routine. So part of making myself better as a thinker, from being a good thinker in one area, to being a good thinker in another area, and thus to fit your question, a better thinker overall, is consciously taking the skills and the habits of mind that I use in one area of my life and applying them in other areas of my life.
Michael Frank: Final question: In order to be a critical thinker presupposes in my mind that you must be a truth seeker to begin with, but in my opinion, very few people are truth seekers. Most people believe whatever they want to believe. I think that most people’s beliefs are based not on logic and evidence, but on convenience and preference. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Nosich: Well, I agree with you Michael. I think that’s so. A real question is how deep do we go in order to find out why that takes place? I do think it’s true that people believe things that are convenient for them to believe. I think there are a lot of deeper roots in it. I know that your podcast also addresses personal development and I think a lot of personal development issues come up with respect to sticking with your beliefs, regardless of the evidence. I think a lot of people are not truth seekers because it feels dangerous to them to be a truth seeker. So here’s an analogy. One of the things I work with with my students is the willingness for them to make mistakes and the willingness for them to own up to it.
So often I’ll say to my students: “So can I get somebody who wrote an essay where you really missed the point of this, can I get somebody to volunteer to do that?” And after a week or two, I start getting a volunteer who’s willing to do that. And I commend the intellectual courage it takes to do that, to stand up in front of your peers and say, well, I wrote this essay that really missed the point entirely.
But I find that a lot more learning takes place from wrong answers, or partly wrong answers, or answers that are off center, then takes place from the answers that are exactly right. But second of all, I want my students to come away with a feeling that there’s no particular sting in being mistaken, that unless you let your ego enter into it a lot, you can find that what you’ve said is mistaken in this way, or off center, or not quite right, or that you got a mistaken assumption, and you can find that that’s not only okay, but it’s actually enlightening. It often can feel good.
Michael Frank: Dr. Nosich it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. Would you like to plug your book in closing?
Dr. Nosich: Well it’s called Learning to think things through. It’s a guide to critical thinking across the curriculum. And I have a new one coming out on critical writing, how to write a paper textbook for students, how to write a paper using the concepts and processes of critical thinking. So thank you.
Dr. Gerald Nosich is Senior Fellow and Bertrand Russell Chair at the Foundation for Critical Thinking. He has been working in critical thinking since 1977. Since the mid-1980s he has become committed to teaching critical thinking across the curriculum. He is convinced that the only way for students to learn a subject matter is to think their way through it. He is the author of Reasons and Arguments (Wadsworth, 1982). His second book, Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum (Prentice Hall, 2009, 2012) has been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Turkish and Arabic.
He has given more than 250 workshops on all aspects of teaching for critical thinking. These have been given for instructors at colleges, universities, secondary schools and governmental agencies in the United States, Canada, Thailand, Lithuania, Austria, Germany, Singapore and England. He has worked with the U.S. Department of Education on a project for a National Assessment of Higher Order Thinking Skills; given teleconferences sponsored by PBS and Starlink on teaching for critical thinking within subject-matter courses; served as a consultant for ACT in Critical Thinking and Language Arts assessment; and been featured as a Noted Scholar at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of numerous articles, audio- and videotapes on critical thinking and is Professor Emeritus at both The State University of New York and at the University of New Orleans.
(On a more personal note, he has at times exercised and not exercised good judgment: he has ridden a motorcycle alone to the ziggurat of Ur in Iraq; has worked as an immigrant ditch-digger in Switzerland; been imprisoned by Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia; stowed away on a Sicilian ship to Algeria, sailed up the Nile with his family in a felucca; lived with Maasai warriors in Central Africa; and traveled across the Sahara to Timbuktu. He is a Hurricane Katrina refugee living near San Francisco, far (he hopes) from the path of future hurricanes.)
Save the date! The foundation for Critical Thinking invites you to the 39th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking in Leuven, Belgium from June 4-7, 2019. The conference counts toward fulfilling the Internalization prerequisite for certification in the Paul-Elder Approach to Critical Thinking.
If you liked this article on Critical thinking you’ll also like: How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies
Footnote: Thank you to the Foundation for Critical Thinking for the use of diagrams in this article