Sunday, 24 May 2015

How to do critical thinking

Regular readers of this blog will recall my repeated exhortations for critical thinking. But I think I've left a couple of gaps.

1. What is critical thinking?

2. How do you do it?

3. Why is it important?

Maybe I can explain it by talking about what it isn't. Critical thinking isn't accepting things without evidence, it isn't taking things on faith, and it isn't believing things because someone told you.

The key to "what is critical thinking" lies in the two words. It's about thinking, first of all, and thinking is something most of us don't do, most of the time. Me too. Most of the time, I'm on autopilot. When I eat my lunch, when I walk down the road, when I get dressed. I'm not really thinking about what I'm doing, and there's probably no great loss there. But sometimes, you do actually need to think. For example, when I'm programming, I absolutely *have* to think about what I'm doing, and that's possibly where I got the habit of thinking about what I'm doing. But it does require an effort. When I'm doing a tricky bit of programming (not the sort that I can do in my sleep), I turn off the radio, ignore the outside world, and really think about what I'm doing. It's a conscious effort. Thinking.

The other important word, is "critical". This has the same root as the words "critic" amd "criticise". It means that you don't just accept what is handed to you, you try to evaluate it, pass judgement on it (and I have very little time for people who tell me not to be judgemental, to me, you should only be non-judgemental if you lack judgement).

So how do you do it?

One of the methods I use, is to ask myself the Three Questions.  "Is this really true? Does it make sense? And what's the evidence for it?" For example, I recently made a blog post in "jihadi brides", where it seemed to me that the information being offered to me didn't look right. I couldn't see where the information could have come from, and when I looked more carefully at the newspaper, it all seemed to be based on one blogger's assertion, and I couldn't see how that blogger could have known what he asserted. So I don't say it isn't true, but I'm very sceptical about that report.

I see this again and again. Facts are asserted where either I can't see how they can possibly be true, or how they could possibly be known, or where they consist of a rumour splashing around the internet. I'm not saying that you should doubt all facts and ask yourself the Three Questions about everything; life's too short to investigate every piece of gossip. But I do believe that everyone should do it sometimes, in order to stay in practice.

The Red Queen claimed "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." I'm guessing that this is a lot more common than you might have thought, especially if you read the newspapers before you eat. But here's a good plan - disbelieve at least one impossible thing per day.

Here's one for you for free. "This is a new innovation from Facebook..Have you been informed about your winning prize from the ongoing Facebook Online Lottery Promo ?" Yes, right. It's a spam I just got. I'm guessing it's an "advance fee fraud", you have to send them $29 to "release the funds" or something like that. My point is, it must be working on at least some people, or they wouldn't be doing it.

"Please note that this Facebook Online Lottery Promo is no Joke or a Scam, and i also want you to know that this Promotion is 100% Real and Legit,So you have nothing to worry yourself about your winnings..Is that understood?
Also note that,the Internet Crime Complaint Center is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center are aware about the promo.So let your mind be at rest,okay?"

Understood. My mind is at rest. And that's one more impossible thing that I don't believe.

So let's use the Three Questions. "Is this really true?" Well, my guess is that a communication from Facebook would have better grammar. And it wouldn't be "From: James Adam <> Reply-To:".

 "Does it make sense?" No, Why would Facebook decide to send me money?

 "And what's the evidence for it?" The only evidence is the email itself, which is kind of circular. You'd trust the email if you trusted the email. Oh no I don't.

So this is a simple example of the application of critical thinking. In the real world, of course, I don't think about such an email, I just delete it on autopilot. But I wanted an example to show about how to actually do critical thinking, and why it's important.

Why it's important, is that by applying critical thinking, I've saved myself from sending $29 (or whatever it would be) to a scammer.

But sometimes, critical thinking can save you from a far, far worse mistake.

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