Thinking critically about critical thinking

After the first successful Critical Thinking Chat last Wednesday on Twitter (#CTchat) I  got pondering the nature of my ideas around thinking, and in particular critical thinking.  As we went through the hour long chat, I kept seeing that many folks had a different idea about what the definition of critical thinking than me. So in order to try and help organize my thoughts, I thought that I’d attempt to ouline some of my ideas here.

The Wikipedia article on critical thinking gives one definition as ‘reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do’. This is a good starting point, but it has one glaring issue that I see, and one that I think I kept seeing in the various definitions tossed out by people on Twitter.  What constitutes ‘reasonable’ for one person, might not be the same for me.  I think that’s what I was seeing the other night, and it occured to me that I have a different take on it.

I’m a fan of critical thinking as criterial thinking, and that in order to make judgements or decisions, that you have a set of criteria against which you judge evidence or situations.  The establishing of these criteria form the basis of your criticisms.  The Critical Thinking Consortium has decent workshops and training materials that might be helpful in your exploration of this.

Deeper than this, in my thinking, is my background in the skepticism movement. This is a way of thinking about the world that revolves around a questioning, or doubting of knowledge without an established body of evidence behind it. Even more so, I’ve realized that my own personal philosphy is deeply rooted in scientific skepticism. This is the stance that in order to make claims of truth, you need to have acceptable and tested empirical evidence.  I know that many people will argue that there are many things that are not subject to the test of empirical evidence, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I would argue that for everything we experience in our day to day lives, there is a reasonable expectation that we have some good quality evidence to back up any claim, stance or decision that we make.  I think that we live in an objective universe that is not subject to the whims of human desires. If we mis-interpret the evidence, it’s our mistakes, not the universe being subjective.

I don’t see the skills of critical thinking being only something we need to employ when we are watching advertising on television, but rather that we need to apply those skills to everything we encounter on a daily basis. This is not to say that we simply doubt everything, but rather, when a new idea is presented that is counter to the established body of knowledge, we require a quantity of good evidence, that is proportional to the claims being made.

As one of my heros Carl Sagan wrote in Cosmos, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Sagan’s books, especially Cosmon, Demon Haunted World, and Pale Blue Dot have shaped my thinking about critical thinking to an extraordinary degree.

I’m looking forward to other #ctchat evenings on Twitter to further delve into this topic.

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