Critical Thinking

We are becoming passive absorbers of information. Every day we are expected to process huge volumes of information and this daily consumption ensures that we accept information on face value without critically evaluating its validity. Compounding the problem of volume is the extraordinarily diverse sources and variety of mediums through which you are provided the information. Ironically this post is just another random source that you have fortunately fallen across.

The requirement to process large volumes of information is a common feature of the age we live in so why should this concern you? Simply – without critically examining the information you have at hand, you will be prone to making poor decisions. Poor thinking equals poor decisions. You make decisions, small and large, on a daily basis that are based on the information available to you. Conclusions based on bad information are inevitably weak, misaligned or plain wrong and your decision will negatively affect your live and fortune. Worse, if you are a leader or manager, your decision will affect the lives and fortunes of those you command and influence. Would you trust someone who’s decision making is uninformed, gullible and unreflective? Would you rather entrust you fortune to a critical thinker?

The habitual critical thinker is open minded, gathers and assesses relevant information and comes to well-reasoned conclusions.  I say habitual because critical thinking is not a specific technique (though there are many) and it can not be picked up in a single in-house training session. Critical thinking is the art of analysing and evaluating information and like any art form it requires practice. Thus I am not proposing a silver bullet, I am instead advocating that you examine how you process information. Understanding your natural biases and cognitive behaviours will assist you in bypassing those pitfalls that are so common. Where to start though?

I suggest you start simple. As I have already indicated there are a number of frameworks that can be used from De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats and Five Stages of Thinking to the Paul and Elder Model. My favourite that I recommend to you is Pearson’s RED Critical Thinking Model as it only involves three steps that concisely address our assumptions and the most common fallacies presented to us. These steps are:

  1. Recognise Assumptions – this is where you are separating facts from opinion;
  2. Evaluate Argument – question the quality of the supporting evidence; resist any confirmation biases; remove emotion so as to be objective; and identifying any fallacies presented (e.g. double talk, generalisation, misconstrued statistics, spin and false dilemma); and
  3. Draw Conclusions from a logical flow of evidence and resisting generalisation. It is also appropriate to change you position on the topic if the evidence warrants it.

Recognition of any underlying assumptions related to the information is important in allowing you to start with a clean foundation on which to evaluate the argument. This includes assumptions that you carry as baggage or within the presented information. For instance consider the statement:

“Irrational decisions lead to irrational lives. Rational decisions lead to rational lives. Rational lives maximise the quality of your life and leads to successful living”

This statement contains a raft of assumptions about successful living, including that successful living does not include spontaneous and emotional decisions. How often has the quality of your life improved with spontaneity. This then leads into the evaluation of the argument. You will notice that you are only presented with two options (rational or irrational life) and hence with the fallacy of a false dilemma. The statement fails to include the possibility of a mix of irrational and rational decisions that leads to a blended outcome. This example is pretty basic but I like it because it is a reduction of a lengthy statement posted on the Critical Thinkers Community webpage. It reminds me that everyone is vulnerable to accepting information on face value.

What are your assumptions and preconceptions and how does that affect your decision making? Do you believe every talking head, journalist and commentator on TV? Are you recognising the popularity of sound bites and simplistic arguments? Do you accept what you hear and see without asking the right questions?

I think Ron Burgendy summed up the quality of information today when he said in Anchorman 2 – “Why do we have to tell them what they need to hear? Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?”

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