The summer before my middle daughter got married, her future husband invited us to visit him at his home on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. We were there for the 4th of July and were invited to a private island for a parade and celebration of Independence Day. While there, I had an opportunity to meet a man named Tom Cameron. Tom was the former president of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. He had retired to South Carolina, started an investment company, and successfully run that organization until he was diagnosed with dementia in his late eighties. 

When I met Tom, he was 92. Although evidence of his dementia was present, he was still sharp and active. I asked Tom what a typical day was like for him. He told me that he got up early every morning. While having his morning coffee, he read 5 newspapers from cover to cover. Then, he said that he sat back and thought about everything for a couple of hours. His goal was to answer one question – How is what’s going on in the world today going to impact the financial markets tomorrow?

That is critical thinking! I asked Tom how long he had maintained this practice and he said that he had been doing it for over 60 years.

While we are in various stages of quarantine and working from home, now might just be the time to begin developing and honing our critical thinking skills – especially in light of the range of information on the Covid-19 pandemic that is being presented by the media.

So what is critical thinking and how do we become critical thinkers?

What is Critical Thinking?

According to The Foundation for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

When I first read this, I realized what a mouthful it is, so I decided to try to simplify it into my own definition:

Critical thinking is the process of gathering information from multiple sources, and then using our knowledge and experience to analyze this information so that we can come to a reasonable conclusion about what is going on in any situation. Our conclusions can then inform our actions.

The next question that naturally flows from this is, “How do we become critical thinkers?”

Consider the following:

  1. Learn to Ask Basic Questions. 
    1. What do you already know?
    2. How do you know it?
    3. What are you trying to prove, disprove, or learn?
    4. What are you overlooking?
  2. Question Basic Assumptions. We all know what happens when we assume. Sometimes we need to look at a situation and wonder if everyone’s general assumptions might be partially or completely wrong.
  3. Be Aware of Your Mental Processes. The speed with which we automatically think and come to conclusions can be a disadvantage when we’re trying to think critically. Critical thinkers are aware of their cognitive biases and personal prejudices and how they influence objective analysis and the outcome of the thinking process.
  4. Try Reversing Things. A great way to get unstuck is to try reversing things. It may seem obvious that A causes B – but what if B causes A? The “chicken and egg” problem is a classic example of this. At first, it seems obvious that the chicken had to come first. After all, the chicken lays the egg. But then we realize that the chicken had to come from somewhere, and since chickens come from eggs, the egg must have come first. Or did it?
  5. Evaluate the Existing Evidence. When you are trying to solve a problem, look at the work that has been done by others – but do so with an eye for:
    1. Who gathered the evidence?
    2. How did they gather it?
    3. Why did the gather it (i.e. what are their biases)?

    My oldest daughter is a physician, and during her training days, she was also a researcher. She was having a discussion with a friend who, based on an article he had read, had come to a conclusion about the negative impact of a particular medical procedure. He was adamant that he was right, until my daughter took him back and helped him look into the raw data behind the article. He then came to a different conclusion because the data told a different story than the article did.
  6. Remember to Think for Yourself. Don’t get so bogged down in research and reading that you forget to think for yourself. Don’t be overconfident but realize that thinking for yourself is essential.
  7. Understand That No One Thinks Critically 100% of the Time. Critical thinking is a tool that you use for making important decisions and solving challenging problems. Also recognize that, even in important matters, you will experience lapses in your reasoning. The key to success is to recognize these lapses and try to avoid them in the future.