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What is Critical Thinking?

The simplest way to understand Critical Thinking is to see it as being concerned with the possible significance of claims. When a claim is made (say a piece of evidence or a prediction), then we need to ask ‘what does this mean?’ or ‘what significance does it have?’

Here’s an example.

Light-fingered Britain?

In the UK ‘Sunday Times’ of 24 October 2010, there was a short report which claimed that ‘Britain is one of the most light-fingered nations in the world’. This claim was based on evidence that ‘Goods worth £4.4 billion were stolen from British shops last year’.

The Critical Thinker will puzzle over this.

There are at least two things that we would want to say.

First, we aren’t given any evidence on other countries. For the figure of £4.4 billion to have any meaning for an international comparison, we need to know how much is stolen in other countries. Of course, we also need to know how much this is per person. (It’s given as £181 being added to ‘the average shopper’s annual bill’ in the ‘Sunday Times’ report. What’s meant by ‘the average shopper’?)

Secondly, it could be that a relatively high proportion of the goods being stolen in shops is done by non-British tourists! With clothes being the most common item being stolen, this needs to be considered.

This example shows that, by examining the evidence, we can see that its significance isn’t necessarily as was presented in the article.

We always need to ask the question ‘What might this mean?’ In doing this, we ask further questions like ‘What else do we need to know?’ and ‘What other explanations are there?’

Here’s another.

In an article in the ‘New York Times’ of 25 October 2009, the issue was discussed as to whether photographs of children should be put by their parents on social networking sites such as Facebook and Flickr. One woman from Massachusetts said that she was happy to post pictures of her 2-year-old daughter on her own site because it’s a ‘matter of living with the reality of the Web’. Then she goes on to defend her decision by using an analogy.

An analogy is meant to support someone’s case by showing how, say, evidence from a different context can help us with the present one. So what do we make of this one?

‘Hundreds of kids die in swimming pools every year, but we don’t shut down all the pools. We teach kids how to swim.’

We’re back to significance. Are the possible dangers to children of having their photos on the internet the same (or sufficiently similar) to allowing children to swim in swimming pools?

What are the similarities?

What are the differences?

Is learning to swim the solution to children drowning in pools?

Is learning to swim sufficiently similar to teaching children to be careful of strangers?

Have a think about it.

As you can see, Critical Thinking is a questioning way of thinking. By asking questions, we try to make things clearer. By making things clearer, we can make judgements as to the quality of claims that are made and any judgements that are made from them.

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