On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s learn how to think critically!
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We now have access to more information than any other time in history. The internet and social media have allowed anyone, including myself, to express our opinions online. There is also an incredible amount of fake stories, misleading articles, and government propaganda out there.
In order to navigate this world of confusing and overloaded information, critical thinking has become increasingly important. The ability to evaluate arguments, examine evidence, and tell the difference between fact, opinion, and fiction is a vital skill. Critical thinking can help you both in work and in your professional life. I’m sure you’ve all seen friends or family share “clickbait,” sensationalist, or obviously fake articles online – critical thinking can help prevent this.
And, for English learners like most of you, learning to think critically in English is an urgent and important skill. It is not enough to just read and understand information, you also need to be able to consider whether that information is reliable!
In this episode of Thinking in English, I’m going to try and introduce you all to critical thinking! We will look at what critical thinking is, look at some examples of critical thinking, and highlight some tips and tricks you can all use to improve your CRITICAL THINKING!
What is Critical Thinking?
I think it is best off to start at the beginning – what is critical thinking? There are quite a few different definitions of critical thinking with many different aspects and intricacies. At the basic level, critical thinking could be defined as “the analysis of factual evidence to form a judgement.”
It is understanding and considering different pieces of evidence, determining which pieces of evidence are factual, and then coming to a judgement based on your analysis of that evidence. Today, far too many people make their judgements on politics, social issues, culture, and much more based on their pre-existing opinion and biases – not on evidence. People don’t think critically enough!
However, there is more to critical thinking than this simple definition. Some people, including many native English speakers, misunderstand the concept of critical thinking due to the word “critical.” “Critical” has more than one meaning in English – and this is where the confusion often comes in.
“Critical” can mean the analysis of the merits and faults, or good and bad, of something such as literature, food, or any issue you can have an opinion about. However, perhaps the more common meaning of “critical” is “expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements.” In this sense, “critical” means negative.
But this is not what critical thinking is. If you think critically, it doesn’t mean you completely criticise something – instead you evaluate the thing’s worth based on evidence. A food critic critically reviews restaurant food – depending on the evidence, they write positive or negative reviews.
Another good definition of critical thinking is this…
“Good critical thinking includes recognising good arguments even when we disagree with them, and poor arguments even when these support our own point of view.”
Just because you disagree with something does not mean it is bad, without value , or incorrect. I often share articles on my social media from sources I enjoy reading (usually the Economist, Guardian, Financial Times, BBC, Foreign Policy magazine for example) – and I always get messages from followers saying I shouldn’t share these articles because they are opinion or biased or wrong. Remember – just because you disagree with something doesn’t mean you can’t read and appreciate the arguments.
This is the principle of debating – I debated a few times at high school and university. In a debate, the two teams are assigned a question to debate but don’t get to choose their own sides. I remember my first debate at high school – “should prisoners be allowed to vote?” I believe that prisoners should be allowed to vote, but I had to argue the opposite. I had to understand and recognise the good arguments even when I disagreed with the overall position!
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Why is Critical Thinking Important?
As I already mentioned, our world today is full of constant information, news, opinions, facts, and assertions from across the internet. How do we know what to believe? Recently, I had a few clients from China who wanted to study for a Masters degree in Europe or the USA. They used an agent to apply, and the agent had recommended certain universities.
My Chinese clients trusted what the agents told them – and believed these were good and prestigious universities. I had to tell them that they were not – they were low ranked poor quality schools. If my clients had thought critically about the information provided by the agents, they would have saved some time and probably money.
Critical thinking helps us make the correct decisions, the right choices, and understand the world. Whether you are a worker or a student, critical thinking is a desirable skill! Employers want critical thinkers – people who are curious, make better decisions, and reflect on their actions. And students who think critically are the ones who get the best grades!
Characteristics of Critical Thinking
So, based on the definitions I’ve introduced, let’s think of a few characteristics of critical thinking! To be a good critical thinker, there are certain skills and traits that come in handy.
First, you need to be able to analyse and weigh up arguments. This doesn’t just mean whether you agree or disagree, but whether the argument is relevant, based on evidence, and how important it is. You also should be able to evaluate the evidence that you see!
Something that is becoming increasingly important is the ability to distinguish between fact, opinion, and fiction. Often people present their opinion as fact (this is known as assertion) and sometimes just make things up. To be a critical thinker, you need to understand the difference between these. HOWEVER, it doesn’t mean opinion articles are bad –and often we mix opinion and fact together to make our arguments!
How can we distinguish between fact and opinion, and evaluate the evidence? Good characteristics of critical thinkers include checking the research methods of evidence and considering bias. Let’s say you see an article that says 70% of British people are religious.
To review the research method, you need to look at the question (did they ask “are you religious,” “are you Christian/Muslim/Hindu etc,” “do you believe in God ”). There was a famous statistic in a book published a few years ago that a lot of British people who say they are “religious” also say they don’t believe in “God” – the question is important. Also, who did they ask? How many people – was it 10 people from the same school, or 1000 people across the country?
Is there bias in the article? A few weeks ago I was reading articles about climate change – one was relatively positive about the future, but when I checked the author I realised he was an employee of a major oil company. For years, the tobacco industry funded articles that said cigarettes were not bad for your health. And recent articles defending British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been written by his friends, colleagues, and supporters. It doesn’t mean we should read these articles or look at the evidence, but we need to think critically about it.
In essence, a critical thinker needs to understand and analyse the different viewpoints, perspectives, and interpretations people have. As a former history student and current political researcher, my time at university has been based on thinking critically. And sometimes, as a critical thinker, you can reach a conclusion that you don’t like.
For example, last week’s episode of nuclear weapons was based on a paper I wrote 5 or 6 years ago. Before I wrote it, I was firmly against nuclear weapons and believed it would be easy to get rid of them! However, after reading 20 books and articles, and 8 or 9 government reports, I realised that the opposite argument was better. I thought critically about that issue.
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Why is Critical Thinking Difficult?
If critical thinking is such an important skill, then why don’t more people do it? And why can it be so difficult?
There are some common obstacles, or blocks, that stop us thinking critically. The most famous is confirmation bias. We tend to consider or read things that already agree with what we believe – if you are conservative you probably read conservative newspapers, if you are religious you probably follow religious people on twitter. It is easy to trust articles that simply back up what we already believe – and really difficult to believe articles that go against our opinions.
Other problems that stop us critically thinking include “mental shortcuts” – rather than thinking fully we make guesses or similar decisions to before because it is easy. The context of information is also really important – let’s say you love to read the Guardian newspaper and hate the Times. If the exact same article was published in both papers, you would probably agree with the Guardian and disagree with the Times – even though they are the same. This has been shown countless times in studies.
And there are also common fallacies. A fallacy is like a mistake – and when talking about critical thinking it refers to reasoning that is not critical. This was one of the major problems with articles that criticised Donald Trump when he was president – they described him as an idiot, orange, fat, racist… but they didn’t really present much critical commentary about his policies. They started with insults!
How Can You Think Critically?
There are a few different tips and tricks you can use to start thinking critically! Think about different arguments, including ones that you disagree with. This is why I always introduce different sides of the argument when recording “debate” episodes. Even if you disagree, you need to understand the other side.
Make sure you understand the facts. Learn the difference between fact, opinion, and fiction.. As I said earlier, facts and opinions are always mixed together – but you need to accurately and carefully separate them. I see people on Twitter and social media constantly posting things that are not true – a simple google search will show that it is not fact, but most people are too lazy.
Once you find the facts, decide what evidence is the most important and which evidence is significant. Evidence is not always equal, and not always relevant. Think about Russia’s war in Ukraine. Do we trust the millions of photos showing war crimes in Ukraine? Or do we trust a speech from Putin saying Russia is not committing war crimes? Both are evidence, but which is more relevant and more significant?
At the same time, you need to be challenging your own biases. Think about your own opinions, background, education, beliefs – are these affecting your judgements? Why do you believe what you believe? Are you making assumptions based on your bias? Or based on real evidence?
And once you’ve done all of this, make your judgments. Decide what is the most accurate argument, the best option, or the most convincing side of a debate!
How to Improve Your Critical Thinking?
- Be sceptical! Don’t believe everything you read – instead question why it was written, who wrote it, whether the information is accurate, and if it is trustworthy
- Stop reading trash! There are a lot of trash websites and sources out there. Once you decide something is unreliable – don’t read it anymore. I never read conservative papers/sites like the Daily Mail and Fox News, and I also never read “liberal” sites like Vox or MSNBC. I try to stick to more reliable sources.
- Be detailed! When you read an article or listen to a news report, make sure you are concentrating. If you listen actively and read carefully, you will be able to fully understand what is being said. Too often people just read the headline, but don’t read the whole article.
- Understand other people. Try to imagine yourself as someone with different opinions to you. Think about their point of view, why they believe certain things, and what they want. This can help you think critically about your own beliefs.
On today’s episode of Thinking in English I have tried to introduce the concept of critical thinking. I described what critical thinking is, some of the characteristics of a critical thinker, why it is difficult, how you can do it, and how you can get better at critical thinking.
Critical thinking is incredibly important and is something I try to do everyday. I also try to incorporate it into my podcasts. But I’m not perfect, I make mistakes, and I am constantly trying to become a better critical thinker!
How about you? Do you have any tips on how to think critically?
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