What is Critical Thinking?

Of course every election season has me asking the above question, especially this one, but that is not why I am asking.

Several years ago I was asked to teach Critical Thinking at my college and I agreed to do so.  The textbook I was given looks at the subject from a philosophical standpoint.  It starts with “What is an argument” and includes things like Venn Diagrams, Truth Tables and several chapters on formal and informal logical fallacies.

The book touches on (very obliquely) Bayesian and other statistical reasoning which I expand on quite a bit.  It also touches (very obliquely, again) on some of the modern work in cognitive biases, which, again, I do expand on.

My question to all of you is: Is there other areas of Critical Thinking that you feel are important?

What have been your most important lessons in Critical Thinking?

What do you wish you knew about Critical Thinking?

Any and all responses would be most helpful to me and my students!



  1. Richard Simons says

    I don’t have experience of a ‘critical thinking’ course, but years ago I wrote an article for students in agriculture/natural resources to give advice on assessing the reliability of a scientific paper. It included things like ‘were they measuring what they thought they were measuring’, ‘is the statistical analysis appropriate’, ‘are their citations correct’ and so on, with real-life examples. It was accepted for publication, but the journal faded away and it was never published. Part of the difficulty was finding a journal that was appropriate in terms of audience and topics covered, but I moved to another position and it became very out-dated in terms of the citations included.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    I haven’t had formal training in Cee Tee, but I strongly recommend digging up examples in balloon-popping from the likes of Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ta-Nahisi Coates, et alia, to show how it can be fun as well as necessary..

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    What have been your most important lessons in Critical Thinking?

    I think the most important lesson is right there in the name: “thinking that is critical”. Critical of what? Myself. Critical thinking is all about asking the questions “Am I wrong? And how would I know if I’m wrong?”. It’s about being critical of oneself. It’s about being critical about all of your beliefs, and about everything. It’s about being a skeptic. (Of course, don’t tread too far into radical skepticism territory.)

    IMHO, if I wanted to teach such a course, offhand, I would probably try to frame everything in this context. All of the things that you mention in the OP would be included – they are great things – and I would also add how and why these are useful in the context “oneself might be wrong, and this is how you go about figuring out if oneself is wrong”.

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
    – Richard Feynman

    I would personally focus more on known cognitive biases, and especially basic statistics, common statistical fallacies, and common statistical mistakes / cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, sharpshooter fallacy, selection bias, publication bias, data mining and the odds of finding statistically significant results by change, etc. Knowledge of statistics is woefully lacking in the general public, and this lack of knowledge is so easily abused, and doing proper statistics is surprisingly hard.

  4. says

    The most important lesson for me in critical thinking is that any one can be fooled. If you can accept that, then I think you’re more likely to be open to the possibility that you made a mistake.

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