Getting Started: Some Good Thinking Habits
Let's just define a few terms to get started.
"Critical thinking" is not the same as criticizing. It means the ability to think clearly: to look at a situation, see all its components clearly and from different perspectives, and analyze what we are seeing.
Critical thinking is a skill that can be learned. We are all born with some critical thinking capabilities, and some develop their abilities more than others. But we are not limited to the abilities we were born with or have accidentally acquired. Thinking is a skill that can be improved, like any other skill.
So in this class, you'll take part in activities that will help you develop your critical thinking skills. In order to do that, we're going to look at a lot of controversial issues, and also at problems that need to be solved.
Problem-solving is harder than it looks. Most people agree on the basic things: we all want the best for our friends and families, we all want everyone to have their basic needs met, we want the world to be a good, safe place where people get along in peace and harmony.
But how do we accomplish that? That's where we run into trouble. Everyone has a different idea of how this "good" world will look, and everyone has a different solution to the problem of how to make it happen.
So we have to work it out. That's where "Argument" comes in. "Argument" in this class is not the kind of argument you see on talk shows or on the streets where angry people just try to shout each other down. "Argument" is a rational, ordered method of presenting a case for a solution to a problem or one side of a controversial issue. A formal argument has rules and structure, and is governed by logic. There is a form to it that goes back to the Ancient Greeks, which I'll show you in next week's lecture.
Now, even these kinds of arguments can get heated, because they often involve issues which arouse strong emotions. But infused into the process and the structure is a need to listen to the other person's argument, respect it, and evaluate it fairly.
The Difference Between Knowing a Lot and Thinking Well
Knowing a lot of factual information is not the same as thinking well. Factual information is everywhere, and multiplies at an incomprehensible rate. It is easy to be overwhelmed with information.
The key is thinking: knowing what to do with all of that information: how to sort out what is important from what is not, how to figure out which information is reliable and credible and which is not, how to draw inferences and conclusions, how to use the information to create solutions to problems.
As information multiplies, and as it becomes outdated, one of your most important skills will be learning to find the correct information. What we know now, in some fields, will be completely outdated in 10 years-even less, in some fields. The most important skill you can acquire in college will be learning how to learn--and that involves critical thinking. If you can do that, you will have a tremendous advantage in all areas of your life.
Learning to think critically is not based on IQ. Critical thinking is a set of skills that can be isolated and practiced and can be learned by anyone.
Developing and improving critical thinking habits involves work, of course, and sometimes it involves discomfort. It is a skill, and like any skill requires time, effort, practice, and persistence. As with all things, the more you put in, the more you get out. You don't expect to take one piano lesson and play like Mozart; you don't expect to take one math class and think like Einstein. The same is true of critical thinking. But what does happen is this: you begin with small exercises, and as you do them more and more, they become second nature, and you no longer have to think about them. One day, you look back and realize with surprise that something that once seemed so weird and difficult is now easy and natural. It's you.
How to Get the Most out of Your Efforts
Work hard, yes. But take some time to think about how to work effectively, too:
- What time of day do you feel your best? When do you have the most energy? Some people are morning people: they wake up full of vim and vigor, and get a dozen tasks done before breakfast. Other people are best at night: they wake up when the rest of the world is winding down. Know yourself, acknowledge your biorhythms, and save your most difficult work for the time when you are at your peak of mental awareness and energy. In other words, if you're a morning person, don't wait until 10 p.m. to start your homework. By the same token, if you're a night person, do your best to keep your difficult work for later in the day.
- Environment matters. People work better in different places. Some people need a quiet library where there is no noise. Others work better in a coffee shop where there is activity and movement. Some like to sit still; others take long walks to think things through. Some prefer to work indoors; others prefer to work outside. Get to know what conditions and what places allow you to think most clearly. There is no right answer for this: everyone is different. I prefer a quiet place where everything is quiet. My husband works best in coffee shops. My daughter puts on headphones and thinks best when listening to music. The writer Ernest Hemingway used to write standing up; he said the discomfort made him write faster. Annie Proulx (another writer) drives out into the country and then writes in her car. She likes to park next to cemeteries; she says it inspires her. Marcel Proust filled his bottom desk drawer with rotten apples. He said the aroma inspired him. Other people work best at the beach; some have to be next to a window; there are any number of variations. Discover your own and then use it to your advantage.
We want thought and argument to be rational. But do not ignore your feelings. Use them. What do you feel passionate about? That is what drives most people. Some have an issue they care about. Some just want to rise above their circumstances. Some work for their families. Figure out what motivates you, and you will achieve more insight into your values. That's important, since your values will determine the direction of your arguments.
Values are what you consider important: good or bad, moral or immoral, necessary or unnecessary. Your values are the bedrock of your identity and they determine your opinions and your actions. We'll discuss values more in later lectures. Once you identify the values underlying any argument, you can understand the argument much more clearly.
Your feelings are important in other ways, as well. Some people dismiss hunches and intuition as irrational. But often, what we call "intuition" is a distillation of many pieces of information that happens so quickly that we may not be aware of it. Listen to your feelings. Feelings shouldn't rule you, but they shouldn't be ignored, either. Like any other piece of information, they need to be weighed and considered in any issue.
Concentration and Frustration
Whenever you are trying to learn a new skill or develop one you already have, there are going to be moments of frustration. Some things will come easily, while others will require more work.
Concentration is one skill we all possess, but which we can develop much more. There is a popular opinion floating around that young people have lost their ability to concentrate because of the Internet. This opinion (mostly expressed by older people) holds that young people have the attention span of a gnat on crack. They get frustrated and give up. What is the world coming to? How can we turn the world over to these young people when they can't read, can't think, can't solve problems?
This is silly. Concentration is a skill. We all use it all the time. People concentrate on the things they care about. My daughter, who is a teenager, has difficulty concentrating on her history homework, but she has no trouble focusing for hours to write a song or a story. Think about the things you concentrate on, and about the things you have difficulty concentrating on. The things you can concentrate on, I'm betting, are things you like and are already good at. Maybe the things you have trouble concentrating on are things that are difficult.
But concentration skills, like thinking skills--like any kind of skill--can be improved over time with practice; you can acquire a greater tolerance and improve your stamina for concentrating on things that are difficult.
And this is important, because it helps reduce frustration, another impediment to thinking clearly and solving problems. We feel frustration when we are trying to perform a task or figure out a solution to a problem and we keep running up against obstacles. Sometimes we can overcome them; sometimes we can't. Sometimes, we just give up in frustration.
As with concentration, you can learn how to improve your tolerance for frustration, and you can also learn how to reduce it. Some people are defeated by the smallest amount of frustration, while others are able to push through it--and some lucky devils seem not to feel it at all!
If you haven't seen the movie Joy, I strongly recommend it--this woman knew how to deal with frustration, and it's pretty inspiring!
But even if you can't be Joy, you can still use specific techniques to reduce or mitigate frustration. Here are just a few:
- When you are presented with a problem, decide how to address it. Make a plan. Settle on a way to begin. Some people can't settle on a way to begin, because they are so afraid of being wrong. But if your approach is wrong, you'll find out soon enough and can go back and take a different approach. When you do, you will know more and will be able to move forward in a better way.
- Apply your knowledge. Don't assume you don't have any. That's probably not true. And even if it is true, you can always get knowledge; the Internet is full of it. Google it.
- Solve the puzzle systematically: break it down into smaller parts, get definitions, and get background information, rather than jumping haphazardly from aspect to aspect and never digging in.
- Question everything, rather than accepting what you are told at face value.
Here's an example: you go to your American History class. Your teacher says, "At the end of the semester, you will have to turn in a 20 page research paper on the causes of World War II."
20 pages?! The causes of World War II? I can't write 20 pages! I don't know anything about World War II!
Some people drop the class immediately. Some put the assignment away and forget about it, hoping it will magically disappear--or better yet, write itself, there in the dark between the pages inside your folder.
Neither of these is very effective. But that's because the assignment is too big, and even if you're not feeling frustration yet, you know you will be, and you can't tolerate it.
So try some of the approaches I listed above:
- Don't assume you don't know anything! Have some confidence in yourself. What do you already know about World War II? Maybe you know a lot--you watch the History Channel a lot. But maybe you know very little. It was something about Nazis, right? Let's say you really don't know anything. Where can you go? The Internet, of course. Google "causes of world war II." I just did that, and got 43,400,000 results. Any of the results of the first page will probably give you a great overview of the causes.
- Break the problem down into smaller parts: you aren't going to write the whole paper in 1 day. So what are some smaller parts?
- Well, there's the research. Your teacher says you have to use information from scholarly journals and databases as well as books and the Internet. So let's just start there. You already have a lot from the internet. But what are scholarly journals? Databases?? What are those? I don't know anything about technology!
- Calm yourself. Don't panic. One thing at a time. Find out what he means by "databases." Ask your teacher. That's allowed. You don't have to do this on your own. Your teachers are there to help.
- Once you find out that "databases" are just collections of articles and e-books, stored online in digital form, it doesn't sound so scary. Your teacher tells you you can access these databases through the library.
- Okay, you try that: go to the library website, click on the link to the databases, choose one that sounds logical, do a search, and voila! Hundreds of articles on the causes of World War II! You tried something new and it worked and now you're smarter and more capable.
Get the idea? There will be many more steps. But once you break the task down into small, manageable steps, and start getting some successes, your confidence will build, and it will seem much easier.
"Truth" is what is so, rather than what we believe or want to think.
There is a good deal of debate about the nature of truth. But it's always good to remember that there's a difference between what is, and what should be. It's pointless to argue with facts: they will be facts whether we like it or not. If it's 90 degrees on a February day, we can say, "It shouldn't be this hot in February!" But it is--that's a fact, and no amount of griping or arguing will change that. Don't waste time on "shoulds."
The other problem is that "truth" changes from day to day, year to year, century to century. Once, the truth was that the world was flat. Now we know that's not accurate. Our "truth" is always based on our knowledge, which is incomplete and often flawed. Therefore, it's best to avoid talking about "truth" except in most basic cases. Be ready for "truth" to change.
One popular attitude is "All opinions have equal value."
No, they don't.
Opinions are cheap--everyone has them. But not all opinions are equal. Opinions that are based on unsupported statements, superstitions, incomplete evidence, and unquestioned beliefs are valueless. You have to take facts into account; you have to be able to support your statements with evidence; and you have to consider all sides of the issue fairly before your opinion means anything.
And your evidence needs to be GOOD evidence. More on that in later lectures where we discuss quality of evidence.
In this class, I will often ask your opinion. But I will also ask you to support it, and explain why you believe that.
There is one type of opinion I will not ask you to support: taste. Different people like different things. I like tangerines, and I hate spinach. I like Fallout Boy and Andy Black and Charlie Hickey, and I'm not wild about Steely Dan or Steve Miller or Linkin Park (there are some exceptions). Those are just matters of taste. You don't have to defend what you like or don't like--it just is that way.
But if you're going to argue that Steve Miller was the most important musician of the twentieth century, that's a different argument, and you're going to have to work pretty hard to make me believe it!
Habits that Hinder Thinking
In his book, The Art of Thinking, Vincent Ryan Ruggiero says there are 6 habits that keep us from thinking clearly. If we can be aware of those and avoid them, we will have a better chance of thinking effectively.
- Mine is Better: we all think that what we do is better, because it's what we're used to. Our food is better; our traditions are better; our laws are better; and so on. "Mine is better than yours" is as old as time. But saying "Mine is better than yours" implies also that "Yours is inferior" and it's a short step to "You are inferior as a human being." This kind of thinking is not about objective facts but about ego and insecurity. It destroys good thinking.
- Face Saving: "It wasn't my fault." How many times have we said this or heard it? It's a defense mechanism we use to protect our pride and self-image and avoid feeling guilt or shame or embarrassment, which are uncomfortable emotions. Another form of face-saving is "rationalization." We do this when we want to justify an idea or action after the fact, or to make it okay to do something we know is wrong: "It was okay for me to cut that driver off; after all, I had to get to that exit!" Or "It's okay for our country to take their land; after all, they're not using it the right way, and we need it." This is dangerous and destroys objective thinking.
- Stereotyping: We all know what stereotyping is, but we are often unaware that we're doing it. Stereotyping is a natural tendency of our brains, left over from the days when survival was a daily battle: "John ate a red berry and died, so all red berries are bad." Who wants to take the chance? Plus, our brains can be lazy, and stereotyping, which is a form of overgeneralization, makes "thinking" easier. We've all heard the stereotypes: "Blondes are stupid," "Asians are bad drivers," "Black men are violent," and so on. Maybe we know these things are false, but they are insidious, and require conscious effort to eradicate.
Here's an example: You have in your head the stereotype that all Asians are bad drivers. You are driving on the freeway one day and see two cars pulled over on the shoulder; they have been involved in a fender-bender. One driver is white; the other is Asian. Without really thinking about it, you immediately assume that the Asian driver was at fault. Then you have "evidence" that reinforces your stereotype. It's a vicious circle, and they only way to break it is to be aware of what you think and why you think that, so you can recognize the errors.
- Resistance to Change: Human beings have a tendency to reject new ideas and changes without looking at them fairly. Again, this comes from habits engrained in us in times when survival was an everyday battle and change was a threat to life. Fear is powerful, and if we see change as dangerous, then we don't think: we simply react and resist. Some people also have a hard time letting go of traditions or customs, no matter how harmful, because it seems disrespectful to ancestors or religions. But if we resist change, we lose the opportunity to see things, do things, or act on things in better, more interesting, more valuable and productive ways. We do not need to embrace every change; but we do need to examine it closely and think about it objectively.
- Conformity: Conformity is not all bad. After all, if we didn't have some established procedures, policies, and habits, all would be chaos. We have to agree to stop at red lights. We have to agree to drive on the right (in this country, anyway). We have to agree to say "please" and "thank you" and observe common courtesies.
But some conformity is not good. The urge to fit in is very powerful, and it's sometimes tempting to let others do our thinking for us. It's easier to believe what others around us believe, do what they do, think what they think. But that's lazy and disrespectful to ourselves. It's giving up our power to parents, teachers, politicians, advertisers, con artists--everyone who wants you to think like they think to "fit in." Our unthinking conformity is very convenient for everyone around us, but it's harmful to us.
- Self-Deception: We all do it: "That teacher gave me a bad grade because she doesn't like me." "The coach plays favorites; that's why I sat on the bench all season." "That girl is mean; she thinks her fancy clothes make her a queen." We want to blame everyone else for our problems. We also don't want to see things that are unpleasant: think of people who don't want to admit that they are sick, so they don't go to the doctor; or alcoholics who say, "I can stop drinking any time I want"; or people who overeat and say, "I'll start my diet tomorrow."
But self-deception has a much darker side, too. Think of these statements: "Germany's problems are the fault of the Jews; if we get rid of the Jews, Germany will be prosperous again." "Unemployment is high because immigrants have taken all the jobs." "She was wearing a short skirt; she deserved to get raped; she was asking for it." Self-deception can be downright ugly and dangerous. It keeps us from seeing a problem clearly and objectively, and then fairly evaluating all of the evidence in order to come to a solution. You must learn to be honest with yourself in order to be a good thinker.
One of the most effective things you can do to become a good thinker is to be a good listener.
Many people don't listen well. Listening is a skill. It requires you to have the patience to wait for the other person to finish, and to really hear what they are saying, rather than just waiting for the sound to stop so you can talk.
Critical listening has several components:
- Keep an open mind. Don't reject what the other person is saying right away; listen for areas where you might agree, rather than for arguments you can knock down.
- At the same time, keep a healthy skepticism. Don't believe everything you hear until you can verify it. Some people will intentionally try to mislead or manipulate you. Others believe everything they are saying, but have incorrect or incomplete information.
- See other points of view and other possibilities. Everyone has a different perspective. Two different people can take the same facts and draw different conclusions, depending upon how they order them and assign importance to them. Listen to what they say and try to see it from their point of view. (This does not mean you have to change your mind; seeing from another's perspective simply allows you to understand them and their argument better, but doesn't require you to be converted.)
- Probe: Ask questions. Ask for more details. Do this in a way that conveys genuine interest in what they are saying; avoid being confrontational or contradicting them or arguing against them. Try not to be defensive if you feel your own argument is being attacked. At this point, you are simply trying to understand the person fully.
- Discriminate/Evaluate: Once you are sure you understand what the other person is saying, make sure to discriminate between what is fact and what is feeling, opinion, or belief. Evaluate their arguments to see where they make sense and where they don't. Most arguments have some truth to them, or they wouldn't still exist. Where is that truth? Where does it fall apart?
All of this is hard to do; it's a skill that requires practice. It's hard to detach from your own feelings--especially strong feelings--enough to listen to what the other person is saying. It's hard to look for points of agreement when you hate their ideas. It's hard not to feel threatened when you are sitting back, letting them talk, and not defending your position.
But this is an important skill if you plan to think well and argue well in your turn. You cannot persuade someone to change his mind if you don't understand what beliefs and values he holds, and if you don't understand how his thinking works.
And in these divisive times, it's good to remember not to demonize a person who disagrees with you. Demonizing not good thinking.
As we progress through the class, remember: prepare, contribute, listen, and keep an open mind. No one is right all of the time. Sometimes there are no right answers. Sometimes there are no wrong answers. Sometimes there are many right answers, and many wrong ones. Sometimes we don't know which are which until we try them.