NOTE: Much work to do on this page! My intent is to outline, and suggest by example, the ‘gist’ of critical questioning and critical thinking. I believe we’re each ‘hard-wired’ with the essentials needed. I also believe our world needs deliberate, imaginative, solution-creation. Critical thinking keeps us honest along the way as we create solutions.
My rationale is that even though we’re born with hard-wired reasoning ability; we can get away with being pretty sloppy about it most of the time. Trying to select which toaster to buy, or problem solving to fix the old broken one, are not big deals. We use ‘analysis’ naturally, without noticing, when we ‘solve’ these ‘problems’. But other issues in the world need for us to be more alert to critical thinking practice. Without skill development in critical thinking, (in some sense just greater discipline in normal thinking), we cannot demonstrate our best human promise to ourselves, nor can we do our best in earth stewardship.
So far, this page has 3 Sections:
Section 1 – A description of the 5 steps for critical thinking offered by Socrates. This is the section likely most worth your while.
Section 2 – A re-post of the first article I wrote to promote interest in critical thinking – needs serious revision but you’re welcome to check it out.
Section 3 – has one ‘critical thinking’ link entered some time ago. I hope to find additional links that might appeal to people of many ages.
Socrates 5-Step System for Examining Beliefs, Thoughts, and Truths:
Below, I’ve summarized 5 steps from a BBC documentary, Alain Botton: “Socrates on Self-Confidence”. I strongly recommend viewing the video for more complete understanding of Socrates as a questioning person in an ancient society that had its own ‘sheeple’!
“Many people imagine you can come up with an ethical idea, and ideas about how to live your life, without thinking too hard about it” (Botton, video paraphrase).
I don’t intend to break copyright on the 25 minute Botton BBC documentary but my summary is a blend of partial direct quote, partial paraphrase of Botton’s words, with a brief added explanatory comments of my own. To avoid ‘cluttering’ the steps, I’ve not used direct quotes to show which precise words are Botton’s or to make clear which are mine.
Following the 5 steps, are a few additional thoughts and reminders in my own words.
- 1-Listen for ‘common sense’ popular ‘truth’ statements. You’ll find these in your own thoughts, in media, in social conversation:
Hint – where to find ‘tons and tons’ of popular truth statements: Humans especially use lots of popular ‘truth’ statements about other people! Gender, ethnic, and nationality ‘truth statements’ make up a large part of our social and political chatter. Media often promotes ideas or judgements in ‘popular truth statements’ – and so do politicians! We also do this within our families and other social groups. Members of a group may frequently say and agree that “Susie” (a group member) is always … (fill in blank)”. Another common truth statement about another individual is “… (fill in name) can never change.”
Here are two popular “common sense” truth statements given the ‘Socrates treatment’: “Happiness comes with marriage.” and “The best jobs are those most highly paid.”
- 2-Look for exceptions known to be true. (There are unhappy marriages. There are well-paid people miserable with their work. There are people who don’t earn a lot but enjoy their work.)
- 3-If you can find even one exception, to any statement, the statement is false – or is imprecise.
Because it’s possible to know or imagine true real-life exceptions to the original statements in item #1, – they are proven false.
- 4-Try to ‘nuance’ or ‘fix’ a false or imprecise statement with qualifiers that might make it more true:
“A marriage can be happy if someone marries the right person.”
“It is possible to be happy in highly paid work if the work is also personally fulfilling.”
Test your improvements. Can you imagine a real life situation where the ‘fixed’ sentences could never, ever, turn out to be true? The two sample ‘qualified’ statements are true.
Qualified statements nearly always include words that allow for other possibilities. “Can be” and “if” are examples.
The false statement about marriage might also be ‘fixed’ by making it more precise. “My happiness came with my marriage”. The statement is very specific about ‘who’, there is no guess about the speaker’s feelings. The speaker makes a precise statement that the speaker knows to be true.
The ‘improved’ sentences may not give full understanding about marriage and work happiness, but at least they aren’t iron clad simple statements of ‘truth’ that overlook larger reality.
- 5-Continue the process. Whenever you hear or read a ‘popular truth statement’, give it the Socrates treatment – try to imagine at least one exception when the statement would not be true. Try to find words to improve or ‘fix’ the statement to make it more true. Test the improvement. Keep trying to find exceptions, keep it up.
THE TRUTH LIES ONLY IN ANY STATEMENT THAT CANNOT BE DIS-PROVED. (There aren’t very many of these in the whole of history!)
Nearly every ‘simple statement’ that ‘X is …’ can be disproved by thinking of at least one exception.
- One clue of false statements is use of the words ‘is’ and ‘are’.
“She is mean.” is unlikely to be true because some moments she may not be mean. Or maybe she is nearly always kind to kittens.
“People of that town (or nation, or age, gender, occupation, race, ethnicity) cause all our trouble” is unlikely to be true because it’s unlikely that all people of the group named are the cause of all ‘our’ trouble.
(And it’s unclear who ‘our’ happens to represent. A group identified as ‘our’ is not explained.)
Other word clues of statements that probably aren’t true:
- When ‘always’ and ‘never’ are part of a statement – or are ‘suggested’ by the way the statement is worded, the statement is seldom true. (Exceptions would probably be some math or science facts such as “In arithmetic, 2 + 1 always = 3.” and “It never snows here when the temperature is above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.”). (Note re “It never snows …”, the word ‘here’ is important. It is possible for it to be 75 degrees Fahrenheit one place, at the same time there’s a snowstorm somewhere else! The word ‘here’ makes the sentence precise enough to be true.)
**Essential ‘starter’ question: Can I think of one proof that this statement is sometimes not true?”
**You may discover others don’t want to join you in examination of popular beliefs for their possible un-truth, or incomplete truth. You will “sort this out” – sometimes ‘backing off’ for the sake of social comfort is needed.
Sometimes you can find new connections that give you opportunity to share these ‘language/thinking’ questions, such as an intentional discussion group, or perhaps a community college social science course.
As I understand it, Socrates was primarily interested in us reviewing our own thinking individually. It was his belief that if nearly all people were shown the steps and encouraged to use them, the entire society would benefit.
I agree with him, completely! Every child born without rare ‘brain issues’ is hard-wired to be a problem-solving, creative thinker. Someone who practices ‘critical thinking’ is simply a person who pays more attention to accuracy and who has developed the conscious practice of ‘checking themselves’ (and others) for tendency to over-simplify.
The most highly disciplined version of critical thinking is what scientists are supposed to do – they are supposed to be able to identify and account for every variable. But ‘social sciences’ – the study of people’s needs, behaviors, beliefs, and so on – is very similar. Sometimes we have to plan action or policy without being able to cover each and every of thousands of possibilities involved in ‘the truth’, but we need at least to be aware that we’ve not arrived at ‘the truth’.
And when policy makers come up with policy that is short of ‘reality’ – we need to clear in our own thinking what important factors have been overlooked. It is part of our job as members of community, and as citizens, to ‘examine’ what’s going on and to speak up as need be.
Article: Corporate Interest, Swine Flu Marketing, Ethics and Scandals
The Essential Need to Apply Critical Thinking** to Human Self-Governance
(This page is also posted as a ‘main page’ article, June 4, 2010. At this time, both posts, other than titles, are identical.)
How, when, does innocence become entangled with justifiable, intelligent, critical condemnation?
Details revealed in “Report condemns swine flu experts ties to big pharma”, may demonstrate such an entanglement.
“… An investigation by the British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the not-for-profit reporting unit, shows that WHO guidance issued in 2004 was authored by three scientists who had previously received payment for other work from Roche, which makes Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), manufacturer of Relenza. …”(See article by Randeep Ramesh, social affairs editor, The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/jun/04/swine-flu-experts-big-pharmaceutical).
Three experts who had worked on behalf of Roche, and received payment for that work, also “…drew up the key World Health Organisation guidelines advising governments to stockpile drugs in the event of a flu pandemic ..”
Given only the quoted information, it seems the three scientists were clearly in cahoots with Big Pharma to create “need” for huge purchases of Roche’s products, at taxpayer expense, across the globe.
(As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, manipulation that plays on fears for the sake of persuading others to shell out dollars or put their soldier bodies on the line, is so classic, origins of the practice cannot likely be traced. “Con,” as strategy to persuade, is thoroughly documented in history.)
Behaviors of BP leaders in the Gulf of Mexico disaster, as well as history of national and global corporate oil industry giants, rightly lead to justifiable, intelligent, critical condemnation.
Key words for the public and their legislators: “intelligent” and “critical”. Combine these into the phrase “critical intelligence”, and change the phrase into “critical thinking” – shift this to “thinking like a critic”.
Thinking like a critic is essential to successful human self-governance. Lack of critical thinking by general populations and their legislators leads to outrageous ‘con’ behavior such as BP demonstrates on behalf of its entire industry.
“Late in the day” critical thinking develops when monumental size disasters in human self-governance occur. We often observe this about individuals and their personal self-governance. We like to say: “When someone hits bottom, they often wake up to need to change their behavior.” There is fundamentally not one whit of difference between individual self-governance, and citizen-body self-governance, in “hitting bottom” and “waking up”.
Late in the day critical thinking is not nearly as useful to successful self-governance as is consistent critical thinking.The goal is to avoid the monumental size, to keep self and citizen created crises of “more manageable size”. Consistent critical thinking, as a way of going about self-governance, is required if we are to minimize the scale of any eventual crisis of our own making.
When we practice consistent critical thinking, we become aware: “If I (we) do X, problems could develop because ….” We can then reject idea X, or decide to “regulate” X to keep it manageable. An individual might think: “If I go to the pub for several hours I could drink too much alcohol” and either decide not to go to the pub or decide to regulate alcohol consumption.
When a citizen body practices consistent critical thinking, it accepts excess as possible outcome of any popular practice, and may wisely decide to self-regulate (to use legislative policy to create effective regulation). Intelligent critical thinking also recognizes that any organization made up of humans has potential for excess. No organization is given a “free pass” to operate without effective regulation.
Lack of consistent critical thinking as a “way of going about citizen business” leads to events like the BP Gulf of Mexico disaster. And we’ve been practicing a lot of lack! We’ve been pretty empty-headed! Like the individual deciding “a few more beers” would be a good idea when hre has consumed to the point of mild intoxication – we have been quite enjoying ourselves, without the ‘sobering’ bother of consistent critical thinking.
Consistent critical thinking is the proverbial “eternal vigilance” that we are told is mandatory if we are to enjoy a successful society, in these days “global” must be drawn into our definition of success. (“Success” = all family members (right through to global) have close to equal access to quality food, water, shelter, health service, and employment or business opportunity. Improved success is when we approach actual equality, not likely but ever the goal. This definition of success carries with it a call to ethics – a requirement that individuals and organizations be aware of their potential to do good or harm within the human family and toward all that supports us through life on this globe.)
As said above, critical thinking, consistent critical awareness, consistent “thinking like a critic” is well-advised – both individually and collectively, in our self-governance. This includes recognizing human capacity for helpful and unhelpful behavior, and makes obvious the need for “regulation”.
Consistent critical thinking means learning (through consistent practice) to identify potential excess. It means stopping to examine a current ‘in place’ or ‘developing’ situation and making a thoughtful, “critic style” assessment of what is actually going on.
Critical thinking cannot happen without information. The first ‘urge’ of a helpful critic is to gather as many relevant details as can be found. Which leads back to the article on flu vaccine with which I began this post. The article provides information. The information comes from agencies already designated as “watch dogs” – agencies given the task to ‘bark’ when something might need attention.
These watch-dog agencies themselves, please note, are made up of humans, so watch dog needs some critical monitoring also to establish a level of trust. I’m assuming for now the British Medical Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are trustworthy in this report. As I read the linked article (the report on the report) I discover the three experts claim to have revealed their paid associations with Roche, claim to have followed all disclosure regulations accurately and honestly. Also, they were not directly involved with Roche at the time they advised WHO. Sometimes it may it turn out the dog barks, we check, and maybe discover the ‘event’ that made the dog bark does not need corrective action.
Or maybe it does! Further investigation may reveal disclosure regulations are inadequate, or may reveal ‘con’ behaviors in the three experts. Maybe their own biases, even without intention, without their own self-regulatory critical thinking, created thoughts for them that said ‘It’s OK to stretch the truth a little here and help Roche make some big sales.”.
The point is : we need proven trustworthy watch-dogs to gather information and present it to us. We need to take the information into our critical thinking process. (The watchdog agencies are themselves to be engaged in critical thinking – these are not actual doggies – they are humans with human level cognitive capacity! This is why it’s a good idea to keep a watch on the behavior of watch dogs!)
Critical thinking includes recognizing the need for critical thinking — consistent critical thinking. **(see below my ‘sign off’)
Critical thinking cannot be what it needs to be unless we are willing to consider human psychology as it affects decisions at every level, in individual choice and in organizational policy and practice – organization within government and within the un-critically worshiped corporation, most particularly mega-corporation.
Critical thinking, consistent and thorough critical thinking, is a discipline based on in-born capacity for logical thinking. Logical thinking must be nurtured, trained, to become disciplined. The young, whether in formal schooling or not, need to understand the need for this discipline – which means all adults, (we all serve in parenting and teaching moments, we all serve as role models) must practice it themselves and must offer encouragement and coaching. (As adults practice critical thinking, they also function as encouragement models for one another!)
Ethics is mentioned only once outside the title, (in the definition of “success” above), but is also essential. Ethical considerations might have resulted in the three Roche-linked experts giving different, perhaps more balanced, guidance to WHO.
And the rest … might have been a different history! This is ALWAYS the case! Whatever unfolds grows out of our sowed seeds.
The beauty, the immense gift, of our capacity for imagining the future, is that we are born with capacity to apply critical thought as we develop ourselves. Human potential is not necessarily best oriented toward grand expensive show or grand con-scheme.
We’ve got the gift, are born with it. We can make consistent, ethical and disciplined, use of it if we choose. Psychology offers insight in our time that was not available when a lot of our governing and corporate bodies were “born”. The main “new” awareness, (that we have capacity to be rascals through and through), is not new, but modern psychology gives clear articulate explanation of why this is so.
It seems to me we’ve got everything we need in our ‘known’ condition to make considerable improvement toward success!
My Best! –MaggieAnn
**Professional Educators and others interested: For excellent article exploring philosophical history of, current need for, and professional attention to, “critical thinking,” see: http://www.humansfuture.org/methodology_critical_thinking..php.htm)
By browsing the web, you might find much on “critical thinking”. You might want to look at educator websites geared for teaching and learning in middle and secondary schools. As a teacher, I found many websites geared for students of all ages, on nearly any learning interest, including inter-active programming.
**If you check my ‘categories’ drop down list you will find additional thoughts I’ve posted that touch on critical thinking.