Sometimes It Pays to Be Critical

Note before reading this article: Depending on your educational background, you may have taken a “Critical Thinking in Psychology” course, or a similar course that encompasses some of the same ideas at some point. If that is the case, you can disregard this article if you like or use this as a refresher if you’ve forgotten some of the nature of what you learned in that course. I am just going to attempt to explain “critical thinking” in my own words, so that we can refer back to this practice throughout the duration of this project, “The Enthusiastic Agnostic”.

Sometimes It Pays to Be Critical

A friend, lets call her Sally, tells you that if you go outside with wet hair you will catch a cold. She backs her story up with some anecdotal evidence, “Once, I went outside with wet hair and the next day I caught a cold that lasted three weeks”. Now let’s pretend that you hear this information and, believing that Sally is a smart and trustworthy person, you come to the conclusion that what Sally has told you is true. You then pass on this information as fact, and thus a wives’ tale or myth is born.

Here is another hypothetical: Instead of hearing Sally’s hypothesis and deciding that it is the truth, you think critically about what she has told you, you consider alternate possibilities and explanations for her experience, and weigh the evidence to reach the best possible conclusion.

Critical thinking is a more efficient way to discover what is true. While myths can be entertaining and in a lot of cases unharmful, it is counterproductive when we apply concepts to our lives that are not based on accurate information.

Critical thinking is not the same thing as criticizing (the title of this article is just an attempt at wittiness). We may not want to say to our friend, “Sally, you fricken moron, you lack critical thinking skills!” That is also counterproductive.

To use and develop critical thinking skills, it helps to utilize curiosity, skepticism, and humility. We want to ask ourselves, “What are the possible variables that could have affected the outcome?” So, sticking with our previous hypothetical we could ask, “What could have been the cause of Sally’s cold? Are the two events (Sally going outside with wet hair, and Sally coming down with a cold) actually connected? How do we best explore the facts and make inferences, rather than jumping to irrational conclusions?”

We regularly make errors in an attempt to interpret the information available to us, which is why humanity has a long history of superstitions, false rumors, and distortions (and in modern times people pass on “life hacks” before actually checking to see if they work). Keeping this in mind is helpful when examining our own beliefs, actions, and mental process. In future articles I am going to discuss more critical thinking tools and refer back to this process when it is beneficial for this project.

This is a part of a series of Keynote Articles that are revolved around ideas involving self-reflection and observation of our surroundings. These articles are a part of a project called “The Enthusiastic Agnostic”; the objective of this project is to explore important issues in spirituality and science and create awareness about them, you know, for fun. I also make Youtube videos for this project, which you can find here.


Image courtesy of Lauren Larsen 16thandmarket