How can I learn critical thinking? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I learn critical thinking?
A: Don’t rely on other people for your answers. (Does that include me?)

I didn’t learn “critical thinking” when I was growing up. My high school would never have taught anything so pedestrian as that. No—but we did learn to think critically. I think the school probably saw that as its highest calling—far more important that stuffing our heads full of Shakespeare or frog-marching us through The Aeneid in Latin.

The school’s unofficial mantra, memorably drummed into us by one of our teachers, was:

“We worship at the Shrine of Text.”

Translation: Don’t believe what anyone else tells you. Go to the source—the primary source—and make up your own mind about it says.

What is a “primary source”? Thanks to the Ithaca College library for this definition:

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources.

The other kind of source we rely on in forming opinions is a “secondary source”—again, from Ithaca College, and again my own emphasis added:

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research.

The world is full of secondary sources these days, and very many of those sources are full of—what’s that technical term? oh yeah—shit. So the first thing we need to do is figure out if the secondary source has any motivation to lie. Or, conversely, any incentive to tell the truth.

learn critical thinking

from an infographic created by

Learn critical thinking: Who said it and why?

Imagine an academic who claims he has evidence that Shakespeare was an alien from another planet. We don’t just say, “Well, he’s got a Ph.D.—he must know what he’s talking about.” No—look into his motivations.

Did he just write a book called Shakespeare, Phone Home? Do spiking his book sales and goosing interest in a movie adaptation give him motivation to lie?

Or maybe he really believes it’s the truth. That brings up another set of maybes: Maybe he’s uncovered revolutionary information; maybe he’s a nut-job. Sorry—a “Dr.” Nut Job.

How do we figure that out? We see if other credentialed Shakespeare experts will back up his story (though you have to think that’s a long shot). More likely, they’ll either expose his financial motivation or convince us that he wears tinfoil hat under his mortarboard. At that point, it’s up to you, the consumer of this news: Does his profit motive cloud the facts? Do his delusions disqualify him as an expert?

The 24/7 news cycle has sparked an explosion of secondary sources. As my Texan granddaddy used to say, “There’s more shit in the air these days than a cow pasture in a tornado.”

Well…My granddaddies were both New Yorkers. One never traveled west of Ohio, as far as I know; the other never made it past Brooklyn. And they would never in a million years have said “shit.” But it’s a good line, isn’t it?—as long as you don’t look too closely into the backstory.

And that pretty much sums up the state of much of the “news” we receive these days.

Keep asking questions

We must all learn critical thinking. And that means we must all become experts at asking questions.

Question the information you receive until you find media outlets you trust: media outlets that rely, to the greatest extent possible, on primary sources.

Look at whether the outlet has a vested interest in the outcome of the story, whether it relies on credible, credentialed experts. Whether its journalists—and their experts—back up assertions with actual facts. And in case you’ve forgotten:

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality.”—Merriam-Webster

After the November election, U.S. News & World Report published a story headlined “Avoid These Fake News Sites at All Costs.” The first six on the list are satire-based sites—as I pointed out months ago, the absurdities being committed by our leaders do make it harder to tell satire from facts. But U.S. News & World Report labels the majority of the other outlets on the list as “propaganda”—including InfoWars, a site that our current Republican president is known to rely on.

It’s probably too late for him to learn critical thinking, but there’s still hope for the rest of us.

The Global Digital Citizen Foundation put together a handy infographic of questions to help us learn critical thinking skills. You can download it here. And if you want to teach critical thinking skills to your children—that seems to be the sweet spot of the Global Digital Citizen Foundation—check out their simplified infographic. It ends with a reminder that applies to people of any age:

Knowledge is a journey you do over and over again.

The need for critical thinking never ends. Bon voyage!

Beef up your writing skills by writing every day. My next 5×15 Writing Challenge starts March 13th. Join us.

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