Archive for March, 2012

How to be critical; strategies and ideas to critically challenge information

 The definition of critical thinking is currently changing. Under the likes of Garfield Gini-Newman and the Critical Thinking Consortium, critical thinking is being redefined as a kind of criteria based thinking. I’m not overly concerned by such a revision; it happens in education all the time, and I find the skill they are advocating good as a teaching strategy and useful as a learning strategy. I think that to include their version of critical thinking in our practice is a useful and powerful tool; however, I consider it to be criteria based thinking or analytical thinking—of which critical thinking is a subset.

When it comes to critical thinking, I prefer the older definition(s): reductio ad absurdum; Occam’s razor; pointing out or challenging the weak points; looking for fallacy or other logical error; challenging the validity of the argument, or the soundness of the conclusion. I like the seemingly adversarial process that is the backbone of our legal system, academic process, the scientific method, and auto mechanics. Critical thinking is hard to do and isn’t popular (just ask Socrates) but is essential—I want my mechanic to look for weakness, to doubt, to check, test, and expose every assumption—I want my students to do that too.

In class, my students were recently presented with an engaging and persuasive presentation. We then deconstructed it looking for weaknesses and trying to generalize what we did into strategies. We also played Noreena Hertz presentation on “How to use Experts” from to help give us ideas of how to be critical or questioning. Below is the list of strategies that we came up and discussed in class. Its not a complete list; it doesn’t discuss fallacies or other strategies, but it does present some readily available ways to challenge presented information. We haven’t finished of course, and there are many possible strategies and tools that are missing (like logical fallacies) but it was a very good start.

Also missing below, was our attempt to take Noreena Hertz’s advice and pre-arm ourselves with predetermined questions that can challenge an expert even in fields where we might know little (like our doctor, teacher, or mechanic); hopefully, one of my students will add such a list in the comments.

Our handout:

How to be Critical:

Described in class were several related strategies to help guide your critical analysis when confronted by new information/presentations/articles/experts/life. As Noreena Hertz indicates, the best way is not to surrender your capacity to think; don’t surrender your obligation to figure out and understand; don’t surrender uncertainty for the allure of false certainty. As Voltaire might say, “be the Good Brahman not the Old Woman.” Basically, it requires work on your part.


  1. Apply what you know: While it is desirable to be open to new information, that does not mean we should ignore what we already know/think. We should use it to weigh new information and ideas. How do they stack up to what we already know? Which is more reliable? Should I reject what I already believed, should I reject what I am being presented, or should I combine the 2 perspectives into a more robust understanding?
  1. Analyze dichotomies: When presented with a black and white picture or a dichotomous analysis (you’re either with us or against us), challenge it! It is usually used as a simplification and you might understand it differently. Is there another way to characterize the disagreement or schema?
  1. Fact check: When you are given factual information, it can be falsified or verified. Check the Net; check another expert or article or presentation; ask other people like parents or teachers; dig deep! You might find that people misrepresent facts; you might find that “facts” are often conclusions—there might be other ways to conclude that disagree with the source you are analyzing.
  1. Use analytic tools: When confronted with information in fields you don’t know much about, apply universal tools. Data management skills help. Remember the bell curve—valid data (good source, valid test, well plotted) always produces a bell curve. Look for the standard deviation—how correlated is the data? Are they talking about a correlation or causality? Do they confuse the 2? Do they use an anecdote or analogy instead of data?
  1. Explore other possibilities: What did they do? What else could they have done? Why didn’t they?
  1. When given an invitation to think, do it! When a presentation offers you a rhetorical question, take them up on it. Take the opportunity to think! What are they saying-how else might you answer that question besides the way they want you to?
  1. Be willing to take them on: Take the time to pause and consider. Without this, you won’t be able to apply the strategies. Make them explain; make them take the time to answer your questions: push them to be clearer. Be willing to come back with more questions later.
  1. Be ready! Have a ready bank of questions that you can ask in a variety of situations to use when they are needed: