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6.2: Critical Thinking

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  • Critical thinking has been defined in numerous ways. At its most basic, we can think of critical thinking as active thinking in which we evaluate and analyze information in order to determine the best course of action. We will look at more expansive definitions of critical thinking and its components in the following pages. Before we get there, though, let's consider a hypothetical example of critical thinking in action. 

    We are approaching a new age of synthesis. Knowledge cannot be merely a degree or a skill... it demands a broader vision, capabilities in critical thinking and logical deduction, without which we cannot have constructive progress. ~ Li Ka Shing

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    Shonda was researching information for her upcoming persuasive speech. Her goal with the speech was to persuade her classmates to drink a glass of red wine every day. Her argument revolved around the health benefits one can derive from the antioxidants found in red wine. Shonda found an article reporting the results of a study conducted by a Dr. Gray. According to Dr. Gray’s study, drinking four or more glasses of wine a day will help reduce the chances of heart attack, increase levels of good cholesterol, and help in reducing unwanted fat. Without conducting further research, Shonda changed her speech to persuade her classmates to drink four or more glasses of red wine per day. She used Dr. Gray’s study as her primary support. Shonda presented her speech in class to waves of applause and support from her classmates. She was shocked when, a few weeks later, she received a grade of “D”. Shonda’s teacher had also found Dr. Gray’s study and learned it was sponsored by a multi- national distributor of wine. In fact, the study in question was published in a trade journal targeted to wine and alcohol retailers. If Shonda had taken a few extra minutes to critically examine the study, she may have been able to avoid the dreaded “D.”

    Shonda’s story is just one of many ways that critical thinking impacts our lives. Throughout this chapter we will consider the importance of critical thinking in all areas of communication, especially public speaking. We will first take a more in-depth look at what critical thinking is – and isn’t.

    Before we get too far into the specifics of what critical thinking is and how we can do it, it’s important to clear up a common misconception. Even though the phrase critical thinking uses the word “critical,” it is not a negative thing. Being critical is not the same thing as criticizing. When we criticize something, we point out the flaws and errors in it, exercising a negative value judgment on it. Our goal with criticizing is less about understanding than about negatively evaluating. It’s important to remember that critical thinking is not just criticizing. While the process may involve examining flaws and errors, it is much more.

    critical thinking defined

    Just what is critical thinking then? To help us understand, let’s consider a common definition of critical thinking. The philosopher John Dewey, often considered the father of modern day critical thinking, defines critical thinking as:

    “Active, persistent, careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey, 1933, p. 9).

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    The first key component of Dewey’s definition is that critical thinking is active. Critical thinking must be done by choice. As we continue to delve deeper into the various facets of critical thinking, we will learn how to engage as critical thinkers.

    Probably one of the most concise and easiest to understand definitions is that offered by Barry Beyer: "Critical thinking... means making reasoned judgments" (Beyer, 1995, p. 8). In other words, we don’t just jump to a conclusion or a judgment. We rationalize and justify our conclusions. A second primary component of critical thinking, then, involves questioning. As critical thinkers, we need to question everything that confronts us. Equally important, we need to question ourselves and ask how our own biases or assumptions influence how we judge something.

    In the following sections we will explore how to do critical thinking more in depth. As you read through this material, reflect back on Dewey’s and Beyer’s definitions of critical thinking. 

    critical thinking traits and skills

    Critical thinkers tend to exhibit certain traits that are common to them. These traits are summarized in Table 6.1 (adapted from Facione, 1990, p. 6):

    Recall that critical thinking is an active mode of thinking. Instead of just receiving messages and accepting them as is, we consider what they are saying. We ask if messages are well-supported. We determine if their logic is sound or slightly flawed. In other words, we act on the messages before we take action based on them. When we enact critical thinking on a message, we engage a variety of skills including: listening, analysis, evaluation, inference and interpretation or explanation, and self- regulation (adapted from Facione, 1990, p. 6)

    Next, we will examine each of these skills and their role in critical thinking in greater detail. As you read through the explanation of and examples for each skill, think about how it works in conjunction with the others. It’s important to note that while our discussion of the skills is presented in a linear manner, in practice our use of each skill is not so straightforward. We may exercise different skills simultaneously or jump forward and backward.

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    Without an open-minded mind, you can never be a great success. ~ Martha Stewart

    listening

    In order to understand listening, we must first understand the difference between listening and hearing. At its most basic, hearing refers to the physiological process of receiving sounds, while listening refers to the psychological process of interpreting or making sense of those sounds.

    Every minute of every day we are surrounded by hundreds of different noises and sounds. If we were to try to make sense of each different sound we would probably spend our day just doing this. While we may hear all of the noises, we filter out many of them. They pass through our lives without further notice. Certain noises, however, jump to the forefront of our consciousness. As we listen to them, we make sense of these sounds. We do this every day without necessarily thinking about the process. Like many other bodily functions, it happens without our willing it to happen.

    Critical thinking requires that we consciously listen to messages. We must focus on what is being said – and not said. We must strive not to be distracted by other outside noises or the internal noise of our own preconceived ideas. For the moment we only need to take in the message.

    Listening becomes especially difficult when the message contains highly charged information. Think about what happens when you try to discuss a controversial issue such as abortion. As the other person speaks, you may have every good intention of listening to the entire argument.

    However, when the person says something you feel strongly about you start formulating a counter-argument in your head. The end result is that both sides end up talking past each other without ever really listening to what the other says.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) Traits of Critical Thinkers
    Open-Mindedness Critical thinkers are open and receptive to all ideas and arguments, even those with which they may disagree. Critical thinkers reserve judgment on a message until they have examined the claims, logic, reasoning, and evidence used. Critical thinkers are fair-minded and understand that a message is not inherently wrong or flawed if it differs from their own thoughts. Critical thinkers remain open to the possibility of changing their view on an issue when logic and evidence supports doing so.
    Analytic Nature

    Critical thinkers are interested in understanding what is happening in a message. Critical thinkers ask questions of the message, breaking it into its individual components and examining each in turn. Critical thinkers dissect these components looking for sound logic and reasoning.

    Systematic by Method

    Critical thinkers avoid jumping to conclusions. Critical thinkers take the time to systematically examine a message. Critical thinkers apply accepted criteria or conditions to their analyzes.
    Inquisitive

    Critical thinkers are curious by nature. Critical thinkers ask questions of what is going on around them and in a message.

    Critical thinkers want to know more and take action to learn more.

    Judicious

    Critical thinkers are prudent in acting and making judgments.Critical thinkers are sensible in their actions. That is, they don’tjust jump on the bandwagon of common thought because it looks good or everyone else is doing it.

    Truth-Seeking

    Critical thinkers exercise an ethical foundation based in Ethos searching for the truth. Critical thinkers understand that even the wisest people may be wrong at times.

    Confident in Reasoning

    Critical thinkers have faith in the power of logic and sound reasoning. Critical thinkers understand that it is in everyone’sbest interest to encourage and develop sound logic. More importantly, critical thinkers value the power of letting others draw their own conclusions.

    analysis

    Once we have listened to a message, we can begin to analyze it. In practice we often begin analyzing messages while still listening to them. When we analyze something, we consider it in greater detail, separating out the main components of the message. In a sense, we are acting like a surgeon on the message, carving out all of the different elements and laying them out for further consideration and possible action.

    Let’s return to Shonda’s persuasive speech to see analysis in action. As part of the needs section of her speech, Shonda makes the following remarks:

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    Americans today are some of the unhealthiest people on Earth. It seems like not a week goes by without some news story relating how we are the fattest country in the world. In addition to being overweight, we suffer from a number of other health problems. When I was conducting research for my speech, I read somewhere that heart attacks are the number one killer of men and the number two killer of women. Think about that. My uncle had a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital. They hooked him up to a bunch of different machines to keep him alive. We all thought he was going to die. He’s ok now, but he has to take a bunch of pills every day and eat a special diet. Plus he had to pay thousands of dollars in medical bills. Wouldn’t you like to know how to prevent this from happening to you?

    If we were to analyze this part of Shonda’s speech (see Table \(\PageIndex{2}\)), we could begin by looking at the claims she makes. We could then look at the evidence she presents in support of these claims. Having parsed out the various elements, we are then ready to evaluate them and by extension the message as a whole.

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\) Analysis of Shonda’s Speech 

    Claims

    Evidence

      Americans are unhealthy

      America is the fattest country

      Americans suffer from many health problems

      Heart attacks are the number one killer of men

      Heart attacks are the number two killer of women

      Some news stories about America as the fattest country

      Research about heart attacks

      Story of her uncle’s heart attack

    evaluation

    When we evaluate something we continue the process of analysis by assessing the various claims and arguments for validity. One way we evaluate a message is to ask questions about what is being said and who is saying it. The following is a list of typical questions we may ask, along with an evaluation of the ideas in Shonda’s speech.

    Is the speaker credible?

    Yes. While Shonda may not be an expert per se on the issue of health benefits related to wine, she has made herself a mini-expert through conducting research.

    Does the statement ring true or false based on common sense?

    It sounds kind of fishy. Four or more glasses of wine in one sitting doesn’t seem right. In fact, it seems like it might be bordering on binge drinking.

    Does the logic employed hold up to scrutiny?

    Based on the little bit of Shonda’s speech we see here, her logic does seem to be sound. As we will see later on, she actually commits a few fallacies.

    What questions or objections are raised by the message?

    In addition to the possibility of Shonda’s proposal being binge drinking, it also raises the possibility of creating alcoholism or causing other long term health problems.

    How will further information affect the message?

    More information will probably contradict her claims. In fact, most medical research in this area contradicts the claim that drinking 4 or more glasses of wine a day is a good thing.

    Will further information strengthen or weaken the claims?

    Most likely Shonda’s claims will be weakened.

    What questions or objections are raised by the claims?

    In addition to the objections we’ve already discussed, there is also the problem of the credibility of Shonda’s expert “doctor.”

    A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. ~ David Hume

    inference and interpretation or explanation

    The next step in critically examining a message is to interpret or explain the conclusions that we draw from it. At this phase we consider the evidence and the claims together. In effect we are reassembling the components that we parsed out during analysis. We are continuing our evaluation by looking at the evidence, alternatives, and possible conclusions.

    Before we draw any inferences or attempt any explanations, we should look at the evidence provided. When we consider evidence we must first determine what, if any, kind of support is provided. Of the evidence we then ask:

    1. Is the evidence sound?

    2. Does the evidence say what the speaker says it does?

    3. Does contradictory evidence exist?

    4. Is the evidence from a valid credible source?

    Even though these are set up as yes or no questions, you’ll probably find in practice that your answers are a bit more complex. For example, let’s say you’re writing a speech on why we should wear our seatbelts at all times while driving. You’ve researched the topic and found solid, credible information setting forth the numerous reasons why wearing a seatbelt can help save your life and decrease the number of injuries experienced during a motor vehicle accident. Certainly, there exists contradictory evidence arguing seat belts can cause more injuries. For example, if you’re in an accident where your car is partially submerged in water, wearing a seatbelt may impede your ability to quickly exit the vehicle. Does the fact that this evidence exists negate your claims? Probably not, but you need to be thorough in evaluating and considering how you use your evidence.

    “Imply” or “Infer”?

    For two relatively small words, imply and infer seem to generate an inordinately large amount of confusion. Understanding the difference between the two and knowing when to use the right one is not only a useful skill, but it also makes you sound a lot smarter!

    Let’s begin with imply. Imply means to suggest or convey an idea. A speaker or a piece of writing implies things. For example, in Shonda’sspeech, she implies it is better to drink more red wine. In other words, she never directly says that we need to drink more red wine, but she clearly hints at it when she suggests that drinking four or more glasses a day will provide us with health benefits.

    Now let’s consider infer. Infer means that something in a speaker’swords or a piece of writing helps us to draw a conclusion outside of his/her words. We infer a conclusion. Returning to Shonda’s speech, we can infer she would want us to drink more red wine rather than less. She never comes right out and says this. However, by considering her overall message, we can draw this conclusion.

    Another way to think of the difference between imply and infer is:

    A speaker (or writer for that matter) implies.

    The audience infers.

    Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that Shonda infers we should drink more rather than less wine. She implies this. To help you differentiate between the two, remember that an inference is something that comes from outside the spoken or written text.

    A man who does not think for himself does not think at all. ~ Oscar Wilde

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    self-regulation

    The final step in critically examining a message is actually a skill we should exercise throughout the entire process. With self-regulation, we consider our pre-existing thoughts on the subject and any biases we may have. We examine how what we think on an issue may have influenced the way we understand (or think we understand) the message and any conclusions we have drawn. Just as contradictory evidence doesn’t automatically negate our claims or invalidate our arguments, our biases don’t necessarily make our conclusions wrong. The goal of practicing self- regulation is not to disavow or deny our opinions. The goal is to create distance between our opinions and the messages we evaluate.

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    the value of critical thinking

    In public speaking, the value of being a critical thinker cannot be overstressed. Critical thinking helps us to determine the truth or validity of arguments. However, it also helps us to formulate strong arguments for our speeches. Exercising critical thinking at all steps of the speech writing and delivering process can help us avoid situations like Shonda found herself in. Critical thinking is not a magical panacea that will make us super speakers. However, it is another tool that we can add to our speech toolbox.

    As we will learn in the following pages, we construct arguments based on logic. Understanding the ways logic can be used and possibly misused is a vital skill. To help stress the importance of it, the Foundation for Critical Thinking has set forth universal standards of reasoning. These standards can be found in Table \(\PageIndex{3}\).

    When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself. ~ Plato

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\) Universal Standards of Reasoning

    All reasoning has a purpose.

    All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, to solve some problem.

    All reasoning is based on assumptions.

    All reasoning is done from some point of view.

    All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.

    All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.

    All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.

    All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.