A couple years ago, I decided I would pay more attention to my thinking. While I count myself lucky for my parents homeschooling me and teaching me critical thinking, I felt like I had stagnated. I felt dull, slower than I remembered, and 23 seemed a little young for that sort of feeling.
So I decided to work on my intellectual growth, and began reading again. I’ve found some fantastic books and writers who added a depth to my thinking I never had before. And as I focused on developing my mind to be more critical and less ideologically dogmatic, I began to ask myself, what do I need to become a “master” of critical thinking? (I use quotation marks because human weaknesses dictate I will always have bias and fallacies in my thinking. Nobody achieves true mastery.)I began by reading books and looking at other people’s rules for critical thinking. But as I looked at other people’s rules for critical thinking, I presumptuously felt that they missed important principles or had redundant rules. Leading me to wonder if I could synthesize my own principles for critical thinking. True, this is an arrogant undertaking for someone with no academic credentials to speak of.
These principles are my beliefs. Not the end all be all. Someone may have a better set of rules out there that I haven’t found. I may change or modify them at some point. But I believe each one captures an important lesson or intellectual virtue that we can all use to improve our critical thinking. I did not develop these in a vacuum, nor did I copy anyone else. These are a combination of my own thoughts, the books I have read, and other assorted thoughts I found while grazing on the internet.
1. Be Humble
Humility is both an intellectual and moral virtue. For that reason, I believe it deserves its place as number one. We won’t always be right, and when that happens, we need to have the ability to check ourselves and our ideas. It’s very easy to criticize the thoughts of someone else, especially when we disagree. The mark of a great critical thinker is the ability to query our own thoughts, checking for bias, fallacies, emotions, assumptions and other potential errors. Opposite humility is ego. Our egos will tempt us to believe that we are above the common errors that we see others make. Ego encourages dogmatism and alienates those who disagree. Humility allows for the possibility of error, allowing us to be critical of our own thinking.
2. Look out for Bias, Feelings, and Fallacies
Our minds are capable of critical thinking, but it is not our default. Our minds are full of pitfalls that cause us to take shortcuts and jump to conclusions. While bias and heuristics can be useful for the quick decision making necessary for survival, these tendencies do not lend themselves to critical thinking. It’s also very easy to get emotionally attached to certain arguments or ideas, disbarring anything to the contrary (confirmation bias). Having strong feelings or bias on a particular topic does not make us wrong, but it is a red flag for potential error. And be aware that the evidence and arguments of other people can be tainted by bias and fallacies as well. We must constantly be on the lookout for errors that can infect our critical thinking.
The title of this rule is taken straight from Superforecasters, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. They exquisitely point out the value of prioritizing problem solving based on importance, urgency, and solvability. My concept of triage is focused differently, but a similar principle. Not all thinking needs to be critical. If you decide to go through a drive through and run a cost benefit analysis on every item, you better not do it in front of me. Arguably, the attention necessary for critical thinking requires effort, and it certainly requires time. Both of these are limited resources, and we must use them wisely based on our other priorities. Sometimes, the time required to make a “perfect” decision costs more than a wrong decision (a $5 bamboo spatula vs a $4.75 bamboo spatula). Triage is a limiting principle for this list: use critical thinking wisely.
4. Check Assumptions
Our minds like to jump to conclusions, then unconsciously backfill our reasoning. In some ways, we control our minds less than we would like to believe. Unwittingly assumed premises are often the meat and potatoes of an argument. Another type of assumption is a presupposition: the assumptions most of us make unconsciously that we use to function. Our beliefs about god, man, the nature of the universe, and morality are presuppositions: we often assume them unconsciously or instinctively in the course of our regular reasoning. Regardless of the type or nature of an assumption, critical thinking prohibits blind assumptions: they must be examined. Otherwise, our conclusions are the fruit of the poisonous tree, leaving us none the wiser.
5. Be Precise, Nuanced, and Truthful
This seems to be an enormous problem whenever “sides” are involved. Politics is a great example. People tend to favor one side of an argument and then distort the other side. This is a great way to “win” a verbal confrontation, it’s a terrible way to think. Critical thinking requires even handed examination of ideas, but we are constantly tempted to twist words and arguments, making them easier to “defeat”. This might help our egos, but it hamstrings the pursuit of truth. Critical thinking requires a level of honesty that might be damaging to our ideas or our feelings. We can’t be critical thinkers if we cherry-pick, over generalize, or distort arguments.
6. Break Problems Down
This is another principle recycled from Superforecasters (which I highly recommend) that I’verepurposed for my list. Much of their book is geared towards predictions and problem solving; I think this approach can also be applied to political, ideological, and personal arguments. Oftentimes, issues are far more complex than we would like them to be, because they subsume other, smaller problems. Our minds yearn for simple problem solving and one dimensional analysis that does not fare well in the real world. It’s a trap. You have to break down disagreements, arguments, and ideas into subcomponents. Some disagreements boil down to equivocated terms. Other times, exposing the presuppositions or articulating values cracks the code. Regardless of the application of thinking, it’s always important to break down issues into the smallest, still useful part. Naturally, breaking problems down is still subject to diminishing returns. It takes practice and discretion to determine where that line is.
7. Support Your Arguments Properly
This is a big one, especially these days. We consistently use terrible reasoning and back it up with terrible evidence. I’ll do my best to sum up the proper use of evidence in one paragraph. There are many types of evidence: anecdotal, statistical, personal, expert opinion, etc. All are useful tools. Just like any other set of tools, we must use the appropriate tools for the task. Using an anecdote as absolute proof of a societal trend is just as silly as sawing a screw. The type of argument being made will determine the proper evidentiary tool.
8. Be Constructive and Solutions Oriented
Epistemic agnosticism has a certain cool factor. Take Jeff (Joel McHale) in Community: he would frequently force his opponent to take a stance and then point out exceptions and hypocrisy. You may have noticed that his arguments were almost always focused on tearing down other people’s case, rather than building his own. I would argue some people use critical thinking as a form of “intellect signaling”, similar to virtue signaling. Aggressively drilling into arguments is incredibly useful, but solutions require more than critical thinking. Creating and refining ideas is the hard part. This is intended as another limiting principle for critical thinking: direct your critique towards something useful. The world is full of issues and problems, and we are all surrounded by our fair share, sometimes more. Ideally, creativity should be used to generate ideas and hypotheses, and critical thinking should be used to test and hone them. They are powerful forces when combined.
9. Use Other Perspectives
More often than not, we tend to get locked into a particular perspective. This can be due to a host of different factors, including ideology, presuppositions, life experience, bias, job, family role, and ignorance. Analysis of public policy often requires an interdisciplinary approach using fields of study like economics and psychology, each of which is an academic perspective. Disagreements with the opposite sex famously break down over a failure to communicate and understand each other’s perspectives. And we’ve all been in what we thought was an actual disagreement, but eventually we discovered there was no substantive disagreement. It was just approaching the issue from different perspectives. Changing points of view opens our mind, and lets us see things we could not before. So before we carve our opinions into stone, let’s try out a few different ideological, academic, and other types of perspectives. Even if our minds remain unchanged, a shift in perspective can refine our opinions and add depth.
10. Seek out Productive Disagreement
Good faith disagreements are a natural product of quality critical thinking. They are also an opportunity to think out loud, and test our ideas against others. Arguing is to thinking, what sparring is to martial arts training. Imagining fighting will not prepare anyone to fight, you have to experience it to know what it is like and how you will react. This can get messy and difficult at times. Productive does the heavy lifting in this rule. Not every battle is worth fighting. Not every person is worth talking to, especially in a world where other priorities are competing for our time. Focus on conversations that are mutually beneficial, or at least beneficial to someone. Real world exposure is the best test and teaching for critical thinking.
Please do not interpret this list of principles as though I’m lecturing you as superior. I am not. My failures inform these principles more than my successes. These principles are not who I am, they are what I aspire to be, and I hope you find them aspirational as well. But this is just an overview. Ultimately, I’ll be making videos and more content arguing for each of these rules and why they matter, and I hope you’ll benefit from this content. Stay tuned for Principles for Persuasion!
More reading on rules for critical thinking: