Friday, 8 June 2012

Good thinking

Some people are careful to note that critical thinking isn’t anything negative or mean and that there is no predisposition to finding flaws. This is nonsense.

A strong part of it is subjecting ideas to focused and savage criticism.
Criticism gets a bad press. Criticism is constructive; nothing ever improves or evolves without criticism.
The etymological roots of ‘critical’ - kriticos and kriterion - allude to discerning judgement and standards*. What on earth does this mean?!
Likewise, ask people what critical thinking is and few can explicitly delineate anything of substance or meaningful consequence.
Yet it is held to be the key skill that education develops. Unsettling...
Let’s lose the ambiguous and obfuscating phrase critical thinking.
It could be called ‘How to think, not what to think’.
It is a set of intellectual virtues and mental habits.
Essentially, it is Good Thinking.
The Ten Commandments of Good Thinking
1.      Always be able to change your mind.
On anything.
2.      Seek out criticism and counterarguments to your views.
Subject your beliefs to vicious and relentless attack.
Be curious how you might be wrong - there may be something you haven’t thought of.
3.      Strength of opinion should be proportional to your investigation and understanding of its criticisms, counterarguments and alternatives.
Mild unless you consider yourself an expert.
Especially beware certainty.
4.      Doubt everything. Challenge. Criticise.
Question what you are told. Ask ‘why?’ Demand evidence.
5.      Go to the primary source.
To avoid second-hand distortions. Use language precisely.
6.      Beware being emotionally infused with and attached to an idea.
For meaning, purpose, identity, pride, self-worth or in-group belonging.
Cultism and attachment make it harder to change your mind in the face of reason.
7.      Beware knee-jerk reactions and opinion formations.
Be thorough, hesitant and deliberative.
Analyse soberly with thought and reason over gut feeling.
8.      Beware logical fallacies.
Particularly the trinity of appeal to tradition, authority and popularity.
9.      Beware cognitive biases.
Particularly reasoning under uncertainty, groupthink and in-group/out-group tribalism.
The hardest test is resistance to conformity with the prevailing opinion in one’s own in-group.
10.  Details matter.
Appreciate context, complexity and nuance.


  1. Frankly, an entirely more useful and worthwhile set of commandments than the ones in the Torah.

  2. love it-as soon as you ditch the word 'critical' defensiveness drops

  3. Hmm. I like it but I can imagine a bullshitters reaction to the first one: "Anything?... Are you now ready to reconsider the value of this 'critical thinking' lark? Aha!! You see? You're argument eats itself. I win!!"

    1. A little laughter, a little more oxygen to the brain while considering critical thinking. Let the bullshitters give you a little humor. But, I admit it was easier to get a little friendly laugh the way you did it. Thanks. (not sarcasm, I am sometimes mistaken that way.)

    2. Oops, I also meant to say "excellent list" as well. Thank you @kungfuhobbit. A great list to discuss in High School to prepare for adulthood.

  4. fyi,
    AQA 'A' Level in Critical Thinking

  5. @ShahHussainKCL
    argh it's dangerous writing that - some people will read and think that argument makes sense!

    @Chris Street
    What do you think of the A level critical thinking?
    Everything Ive seen of it seems very underwhelming.
    Bloated and waffle-laden for what it does.
    I think my 10 point list would be a better use of time, no?!

  6. Good list of practical errors made in reasoning by humans, when humans try to apply reasoning under the strict definition of eliminating the impossible by logic until we are left with something more reliable. Only Sherlock Holmes could do that without reference to your list, but I am reliably informed he does not exist.

  7. How about just "thinking"? The argument could be made that what passes for "bad" thinking isn't thinking at all. I do like "good thinking"; however, it will instantly put others on the defensive. It seems to me that "critical" is somewhat less laden with value judgement than "good", "correct" or other words with more comparative connotations.

    1. brilliant :D totally agree with the sentiment :)
      see my comments towards end of

  8. good article :) i was just saying this yesterday exactly about questioning, context and offering opinions after a concerted effort was made at a rational line of thinking. but, that doesn't make for very good rock :)

  9. What do you think of these people:

    1. I love their mission statement to focus more on critical thinking explicitly in education (they are linked in my article for etymology btw).

      while some articles are good, most exemplify the general problem in delineating critical thinking - content is waffley, bloated and with heavy use of vague wording.
      It lacks concision, directness and useable explicit content.

      I think bringing to people's attention some concrete rules of thumb - a concise list like Ive attempted to do perhaps- would be immensely beneficial to their goal.

      What do you think of the foundation?

  10. I agree with those, especially 4 and Steve's comment. What are the blue stars for? What do you think of this website? Got some strange names for them.

    Critical thinking A-level...that was fun. I did find it useful as well, we agreed it was by far the most challenging A-level we took. I did the syllabus.

    1. is great. Ive seen it used in rather barbed fashion in internet discussions, not sure always constructively

  11. from

    interesting point on neurosis and psychological health
    "Heh, obviously I agree that it can be good to challenge your views. But I think that you can't actually live your life if you're also persistently challenging the ideas that give your life coherent sense and ground your identity. (Which will take us on to a later point). As a matter of find I do find myself able to persistently do that and it is more a neurosis that wreaks havok in any part of my life I actually care about. An occassional challenge is healthy? Developing a character that seeks it out everywhere is not."

    and on emotional attachment
    "...On my view of selfhood, (basically, Charles Taylor's) one cannot really have a stable identity without being anchored to certain values. Values relate to (or simply are) ideas. You thus cannot help being emotionally attached to certain ideas. It is a normal and constitutive feature of being a human self."

  12. On the other hand - if your brain hurts, just have another beer!
    In my long experience of the after effects of exposure to critical thinking.. this often protects one from some of the unpleasant mental consequences!
    Of course, you are free to think otherwise - but don't repeatedly tell me so or I may run out of beer before you fall asleep!
    Pracman the Excommunicator

  13. I think you missed one "Cui Bono" or who benefits?

    That's particularly important with regards thinking on politics.

  14. Scoozie.....what are the asterisks for on 8 and 9 ? (Am I being dim ? It's late here).

    1. sorry about that, it was a link- amended now, thanks for visiting :)

  15. Great ideas!

    Potentially with point 4, some might argue that some assumptions of uncertain basics are neccesary in order that knowledge can be built upon these ideas - otherwise no knowledge can ever be gained. That school of thought would cite the paradigms of science for example (Einstein, Newton etc.) as those basic ideas on which we build knowledge. Naturally they go out of fashion/ are made superfluous because those ideas are challenged but I suppose the point I am trying to make is that for an individual, some assumptions need to be made at least for a time in order for constructive living to go on. That's just another angle that could come in but is little more than a nitpicking point!

    More importantly, in relation to point 6, I would place myself in the same camp as what you seem to be in that reason is more highly regarded than emotion. But considering the clear division of philosophers (and others) throughout time who would either side with reason or side with pleasure (or emotion) how can a universal guideline be made that would favour reason? Other than personal leaning I have little evidence to support reason over emotion. Can such bold claims as reason over emotion justifiably be made?

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      Indeed the epistemology of 4 is problematic (evidentialism, reliabilism etc)
      Id say reason is defined as something that is never wrong, whereas our esoteric sixth sense of 'intuition' is demonstrably more fallible?

    2. Certainly within a Kantian model reason is what should guide us, and is to an extent (fairly close to) infallible but there are many voices out there that a) suggest that reason is not only fallible and subjective, but also in some cases pointless (Including Rorty, Nietzche.) and b) that if we cannot know absolute truths, then pleasure and self-fulfillment is a preferable way to live. (Epicurus.)