22 votes

What are some ways in which I could further develop my critical thinking skills?

I have accomplished 188 university credit hours in the US (I make this geographic point because I have reason to believe that academic standards differentiate between countries).

I'm almost fifty years old and I don't believe that I have honed critical thinking as much as I'd like to.

I've asked the ~humanities group because it is a subject matter that I'm more familiar with and I believe that people engaged in it care about people.

28 comments

  1. [14]
    thundergolfer
    Link
    After reading Why Knowledge Matters I'm solidly in the camp that maintains it's practically not possible to develop general critical thinking skills divorced from some specific domain. The author...

    After reading Why Knowledge Matters I'm solidly in the camp that maintains it's practically not possible to develop general critical thinking skills divorced from some specific domain.

    The author makes a persuasive case, and cites strong academic research on critical thinking skill acquisition amongst experts. The TLDR is that domain-specific critical thinking skill is not transferrable between domains.

    I feel I have pretty good critical thinking skills in the domain on mainstream media consumption, and that's because I've acquired the relevant domain knowledge. I've read Bernays. I've read Chomsky. I know roughly the history of COINTELPRO, I know the history of how the labour-based newspapers were destroyed by the capitalisation and corporatisation of news media.

    So my advice is reading dozens of books in specific, important domains. To acquire useful critical thinking skills in finance, learn about finance. For media, learn about media and journalism. Etc, etc.

    14 votes
    1. [2]
      culturedleftfoot
      Link Parent
      Hmm... this doesn't sound right to me. Would it not be that you apply the same critical-thinking skills across the board, but domain-specific knowledge may not always necessarily contribute to...

      Hmm... this doesn't sound right to me. Would it not be that you apply the same critical-thinking skills across the board, but domain-specific knowledge may not always necessarily contribute to cross-contextual understanding?

      Not trying to have you give a summary of the book here, I'm just saying. I looked up reviews to better understand and this one seems to say Hirsch refers to reading comprehension rather than critical-thinking skills.

      7 votes
      1. thundergolfer
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        In my understanding Hirsch's thesis is that this is not how education works, or how "critical thinking" works. In the context of reading comprehension testing, he calls out tests that ask students...

        Would it not be that you apply the same critical-thinking skills across the board, but domain-specific knowledge may not always necessarily contribute to cross-contextual understanding?

        In my understanding Hirsch's thesis is that this is not how education works, or how "critical thinking" works.

        In the context of reading comprehension testing, he calls out tests that ask students to generically deconstruct a text to find 'key sentences', claiming that this is a nonsense way to test reading comprehension, as reading comprehension is fundamentally requiring of domain-knowledge.

        Perhaps the knockout example in the book, which was from a study, is that college-graduates scored worse on reading comprehension texts about baseball than did people with low education (eg. didn't even finish high school). That's quite illustrative I think of his thesis. I can understand football not because I'm an educated person who finished high school and multiple college degrees, but because I have acquired domain-specific knowledge of football.

        11 votes
    2. [4]
      archevel
      Link Parent
      This sounds a bit similar to the anecdote by a physicist (not sure who) reading a newspaper article about something related to their study and noticing a lot of inaccuracies. Then turning to...

      This sounds a bit similar to the anecdote by a physicist (not sure who) reading a newspaper article about something related to their study and noticing a lot of inaccuracies. Then turning to another page reading an unrelated article and then noticing that they easily rejected the first article, but still for some reason trusted the second.

      If the first one was inaccurate about physics why should the second be any different just because it is on a separate subject?

      6 votes
      1. [3]
        thundergolfer
        Link Parent
        Murray Gell-Man. That effect does illustrate the reality of domain-specific critical thinking.

        Murray Gell-Man. That effect does illustrate the reality of domain-specific critical thinking.

        4 votes
        1. [2]
          Deimos
          Link Parent
          Right, that's called the "Gell-Man Amnesia effect". Michael Crichton's description of it: "Knoll's Law of Media Accuracy" is very similar (that linked article talks about both): @archevel

          Right, that's called the "Gell-Man Amnesia effect". Michael Crichton's description of it:

          Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

          "Knoll's Law of Media Accuracy" is very similar (that linked article talks about both):

          Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true, except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.

          @archevel

          4 votes
    3. [6]
      Wulfsta
      Link Parent
      I'm not familiar with the work you're citing, but I would be willing to bet you can build a reasonable foundation for study into any less general topic by studying some set of general ones. For...

      I'm not familiar with the work you're citing, but I would be willing to bet you can build a reasonable foundation for study into any less general topic by studying some set of general ones. For instance, mathematics is used to model all of the hard sciences, and is so useful in this sense that you can be hired into other fields with just a mathematics degree.

      1 vote
      1. [5]
        thundergolfer
        Link Parent
        I would agree about "reasonable foundation" (I wish I just did mathematics as my undergrad), but building competency in mathematics is not traditionally considered "critical thinking skills"...

        I would agree about "reasonable foundation" (I wish I just did mathematics as my undergrad), but building competency in mathematics is not traditionally considered "critical thinking skills" training. Mathematics is a specific domain, and only applies in specific contexts. It's not going to make you a good media critic or help you understand literature.

        4 votes
        1. Wulfsta
          Link Parent
          Yes, I agree. My point about mathematics was to demonstrate that a particular field can broadly assist studies in other, closely related fields. I'm not sure what would be a good set of general...

          Yes, I agree. My point about mathematics was to demonstrate that a particular field can broadly assist studies in other, closely related fields. I'm not sure what would be a good set of general topics to create this foundation, simply because I'm lacking the amount of study into other fields to say.

          Arguably, critical thinking is largely dependent on someone's ability to perform and recognize deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning, and mathematics can serve as a tool for honing deductive reasoning (arguments can easily be made for the other two as well, if we turn towards statistics). Of course, this doesn't give any insight into understanding a specific topic, but constructing an understanding is easier with these skills in place.

          3 votes
        2. [3]
          bloup
          Link Parent
          Maybe not, but a decent understanding of mathematics (and I mean real math, not crunching numbers) is 100% necessary if you want to present literally any kind of thesis.

          It's not going to make you a good media critic or help you understand literature.

          Maybe not, but a decent understanding of mathematics (and I mean real math, not crunching numbers) is 100% necessary if you want to present literally any kind of thesis.

          1. [2]
            thundergolfer
            Link Parent
            Is it? What level of maths is required to present a literature, history, or philosophy thesis?

            necessary if you want to present literally any kind of thesis.

            Is it? What level of maths is required to present a literature, history, or philosophy thesis?

            1. bloup
              Link Parent
              There is not a “level that is required”. Mathematics is just literally what you are doing whenever you present a thesis and reason your way to conclusions. And learning how to hone that skill in...

              There is not a “level that is required”. Mathematics is just literally what you are doing whenever you present a thesis and reason your way to conclusions. And learning how to hone that skill in an abstract manner will naturally make you better at it.

  2. [4]
    Autoxidation
    Link
    Good critical thinking comes from 2 main parts: education and applied skepticism. For critical thinking to be effective, the two go hand in hand. On education, you need to know enough about a...

    Good critical thinking comes from 2 main parts: education and applied skepticism. For critical thinking to be effective, the two go hand in hand. On education, you need to know enough about a topic to be able to ask good questions, when to raise a red flag at spurious information, and when to recognize reliable sources. On skepticism, you need to be willing to seek out good evidence, weigh its validity, and be willing to follow where the evidence leads on any topic being discussed or researched.

    There are many people who can do one of these things well, but we see plenty of well educated people fall for scams, or who believe really questionable narratives or information. We can see some people who are really good at asking questions, but don't know enough to parse good information from bad, and it leads them to wrong conclusions and beliefs. Starting from the right foundation, but not asking the right questions (or questions at all!) leads to the wrong conclusion. Starting from the wrong place, asking the right questions, and not accepting good answers also leads to the wrong conclusion.

    I would recommend reading about scams and conspiracy theories. Find websites with authors that seem to have some expertise and are willing to break down and explain why parts of a conspiracy theory are wrong and why those believers are incorrect. I would consider starting with something obvious, like Flat Earth. To me, once the system was exposed, it was much easier to see that same system in other topics and areas, and apply similar questions about those areas to better understand topics.

    I don't know what your religious beliefs are, but an increasingly common method of discussion called street epistemology is being used to engage believers and ultimately seeks to ask questions to get people to be critical of their own belief system and arrive at their own conclusions from those questions. It's ultimately based on the Socratic method. Street epistemology gained traction there but it isn't relegated to just the beliefs of the religious and is effective when discussing other topics, such as politics, conspiracy theories, or any kind of belief structure.

    9 votes
    1. [3]
      suspended
      Link Parent
      Thank you.

      Thank you.

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        Staross
        Link Parent
        I've been watching some street epistemology videos lately and there's some really good ones, e.g. : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp2KEcPq_ls It's a bit sad to see what horrible things people...

        I've been watching some street epistemology videos lately and there's some really good ones, e.g. :

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp2KEcPq_ls

        It's a bit sad to see what horrible things people are made to believe, but in case of honest people like here you can still see some hope.

        1 vote
  3. [4]
    patience_limited
    (edited )
    Link
    I don't think you can effectively improve your critical thinking skills without a considered effort to understand cognitive biases. We've all got a suite of evolved and learned heuristic shortcuts...

    I don't think you can effectively improve your critical thinking skills without a considered effort to understand cognitive biases.

    We've all got a suite of evolved and learned heuristic shortcuts that affect the way we perceive, understand, and decide. We're constantly testing the truth or falsity of incoming information whether we're aware of it or not. The choice of information we seek or accept is also affected, as are what we recall and act on.

    Unfortunately, "critical thinking" as taught embodies its own cognitive bias - the overconfidence bias. As /u/thundergolfer indicates, it assumes that general learning is sufficient to make judgments about truth or likelihood in subject areas which require deep knowledge and experience. When tested in the domain of medicine, for example, this appears to be incorrect. Experts can ask a broader range of questions, analyse results more accurately, and apply information with greater efficacy than those with generalized skills.

    It's my experience that there's an intrinsic bias among those who've completed "hard" science training or programming to assume that skills of formal reasoning and understanding of universal principles of physics or mathematics are generalizable to all domains. This is true only in the most limited sense - we're endlessly fooled by randomness in the successive iterations of complex circumstances which we abstract as "history", "engineering", "politics", etc.

    Likewise, there's bias among humanities experts towards the assumption that a sound formal argument is a sufficient proof, regardless of linguistic fuzziness ("words mean what I say they mean"), evidence cherry-picking, or untestability.

    Finally, we have very sound evidence that there are whole professions based on intentional distortion and misrepresentation which leverages our cognitive biases. I can personally recommend the paper, "On Bullshit" and the book of the same title, as well as Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" columns and books.

    This is by no means a complete answer to your question, just a dimension which may have been overlooked.

    7 votes
    1. [3]
      suspended
      Link Parent
      Thank you. Would you mind fixing the link to the PDF?

      Thank you. Would you mind fixing the link to the PDF?

      1. [2]
        patience_limited
        Link Parent
        Done, my apologies. I shouldn't post in the middle of a house move!

        Done, my apologies. I shouldn't post in the middle of a house move!

        1 vote
        1. suspended
          Link Parent
          No worries and thank you. I hope you enjoy your new home.

          No worries and thank you. I hope you enjoy your new home.

  4. [6]
    Amarok
    Link
    Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote a rather tongue-in-cheek answer to this question called Twelve Virtues of Rationality. As primers for critical thinking go it covers the basics with some humor. He also...

    Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote a rather tongue-in-cheek answer to this question called Twelve Virtues of Rationality. As primers for critical thinking go it covers the basics with some humor. He also wrote, of all random things, a massive harry potter fanfic based on the same concept.

    4 votes
    1. [2]
      thundergolfer
      Link Parent
      Jesus, that fanfic is large. Is it something that regarded as worth reading?

      Jesus, that fanfic is large. Is it something that regarded as worth reading?

      3 votes
      1. Amarok
        Link Parent
        I haven't read it myself so I can't answer that question. I just found its existence amusing. :P

        I haven't read it myself so I can't answer that question. I just found its existence amusing. :P

        3 votes
    2. [2]
      Eric_the_Cerise
      Link Parent
      I've read the first 1/3rd of his Harry Potter fanfic, before it was complete. It is good, and not just for "the laws of rationality". Reading it finally got me motivated to start reading the...

      I've read the first 1/3rd of his Harry Potter fanfic, before it was complete. It is good, and not just for "the laws of rationality". Reading it finally got me motivated to start reading the actual Harry Potter books.

      3 votes
      1. Amarok
        Link Parent
        I went through El's reading recommendations at one point, lead me to Greg Egan, Vernor Vinge, and Ian Banks. He has solid taste in scifi. I also busted a gut laughing at his 'simple truth' as will...

        I went through El's reading recommendations at one point, lead me to Greg Egan, Vernor Vinge, and Ian Banks. He has solid taste in scifi. I also busted a gut laughing at his 'simple truth' as will anyone who has ever witnessed pointless internet arguments. If you've been a moderator long it'll probably make you laugh in equal measure to how much those arguments normally tick you off.