Critical Thinking

I’ve talked about critical thinking before and despite thinking I had improved at it I still find myself being accused of failing at it, and falling for common logical fallacies when I tend to critique things like manual therapy and other passive treatments.

I know that I have made many mistakes in my critical thinking, often letting my biases and emotions take control, and I know that I will make more in the future! However, when some try and accuse me of failing at critical thinking I also know that they are trying to create a diversion and draw attention away from the point or points I am making.

This happens a lot recently and often when the other party in the discussion feels it has swayed against them and they have nothing left to defend their position. Rather than admit this, or god forbid change their views or opinions, they tend to accuse me of being too critical, too sceptical, or just arrogant and disrespectful.

So I thought it would be good to take another look at critical thinking and reflect once again on what it is, and what it is not, and also to consider some of the common pitfalls and traps that we can fall into when we ‘think’ we are thinking critically.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking refers to a set of skills concerned with evaluating information in a skilled and disciplined way. It involves conceptualising, examining, inferring, questioning and reasoning information gathered from observations, experience, communication, or reflection to guide your beliefs and opinons.

In a nutshell, critical thinking means keeping an open mind, being analytical, sceptical and not accepting something is true just because someone or something says it is.

When you are willing to examine your own capability as a critical thinker, recognising your own weaknesses, it can help enormously allowing you to refine and improve your thinking processes. It allows you to assess information in a more logical and comprehensive way and improve your ability to identify and reject false ideas and ideologies. Basically meaning you can spot bullshit better.

It isn’t just thinking a lot!

A person can spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about and defending a flawed and faulty position, or pursue a question that is incorrect to start with. Things such as trigger points are knots in muscles, cupping releases fascial adhesions, or Tottenham Hotspur is a good football club.

If you don’t first examine the possible and potential flaws and biases behind your own ideas and beliefs first, then no matter how much you critically think there is no way you will progress very far, or very fast, any time soon.

So how can we all be better critical thinkers? Well below are a few simple ideas to begin with.

1: You must want to be better at thinking.

To be able to think critically you must first be able to identify and minimise the biasing influences on your thought processes that naturally occur and that arise from your culture, upbringing, environment, peers and previous experiences. You need to be able to seek out and be guided by knowledge and evidence that fits with reality, even if it challenges, rocks or refutes your deeply held beliefs.

2: Don’t hold your ideas or beliefs too deeply.

A good critical thinker is willing to change their position if a long-standing deep-rooted previously held belief is shown to be unfounded or erroneous. They recognise that this is the most appropriate response and not a sign of weakness, failure, or an admission of error, fault or defeat. A good critical thinker understands that information is constantly changing and doesn’t mind admitting his position is now incorrect when presented with new information and will change based on new data.

Critical Thinking is... Francis Bacon

3: Critical thinking isn’t disruptive!

Critical thinkers create a culture of curiosity and eagerness, keen to widen their own and others perspectives and knowledge. They are willing to ask difficult and awkward questions and don’t mind sticking their noses in places others don’t want them, and their heads above the parapet to face the wrath, angst, and vitriol of others. 

Critical thinkers will insist that those who make claims are able to explain and support them clearly and that their claims are testable to be worthy of consideration. Critical thinkers embrace scepticism, a trait I have often been accused of having too much off.

4: You can never be too sceptical!

To put this as clearly as I can you can’t have too much scepticism. Despite claims, scepticism is not a negative trait nor the indiscriminate rejection of everything and all ideas, that’s nihilism.

Scepticism means you doubt and reserve your judgement about claims made by others, no matter the source until adequate information and support has been found. Scepticism is about taking the time to examine claims and to understand the reasoning and possible assumptions and biases behind them. Calling me a sceptic is not an insult.

5: Critical thinking is NOT black or white.

If you only see two options to a debate, you’re not thinking hard enough. Having only two options, such as for or against, when more most likely exist creates false dichotomies, which leads to false conclusions.

This type of thinking often reflects an underlying reluctance or refusal to deal with the uncertainty that results from complexity, and the absence of definite answers, of which there are many in this profession.

However, many of us like to fix our thinking on to something solid and concrete as it gives is a sense of comfort and security. Not to mention being the easier, simpler, and often less exhausting path to take.

I have said many times in my blogs, podcasts, and on social media that if you want to be a good therapist, get comfortable feeling uncomfortable!

A good critical thinker is able to handle uncertainty and is willing to wait for valid information and evidence to appear before deciding on a position. A good critical thinker doesn’t jump onto bandwagons quickly or partake in the latest gimmicks or fads preferring to wait until more evidence presents itself.

Summary

Critical thinking improves your intellectual independence and allows you to be able to seek out and solve problems without the need or support of others. Critical thinking allows you to question perceived wisdom, authority, and tradition and not make rash conclusions or decisions.

Simply put, if we were all to apply a little more critical thinking it will empower and improve you as a professional, but more importantly, it will benefit those who really matter the most, your patients.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep thinking…

Adam

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  1. Well said, explaining in everyday terms what the empirical psychologist Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize, analyzed in more depth in his magnum opus “THINKING, FAST and SLOW” (2011) as two distinct functions of the brain during thinking:
    – System 1 is the immediate way the brain thinks, using its stock of habitual and spontaneous knowledge. Fast thinking.
    – System 2 is the reflective analytical and CRITICAL function of the brain in reviewing and evaluating the immediate data of System 1. Slow, excruciatingly slow thinking.

  2. Adam,
    Nice summary on the necessity and mechanics of critical thinking. You’ve outlined a nice foundation. I can agree that this is a must have, complicated, difficulty skill that requires practice, practice, reflection, practice, learning, and practice. It’s theoretically simple; we need to improve our thinking. But, it’s a complicated construct and process. I’ve written about this topic as well. The following posts contain resources to keep one busy for months:
    http://ptthinktank.com/2014/01/06/metacognition-critical-thinking-and-science-based-practice-dptstudent/
    http://ptthinktank.com/2014/05/04/dptstudent-you-dont-need-clinical-experience/
    http://ptthinktank.com/2013/11/05/agree-to-disagree-the-less-wrong-way/
    http://ptthinktank.com/2014/05/07/precision-in-language/
    http://ptthinktank.com/2014/05/15/data-quality-garbage-in-garbage-out/
    Cheers.

    • Thanks Kyle for the great resources
      As you say critical thinking sounds easy but as I have found it can be difficult to do as cognitive dissonance can be really hard at times
      Making errors in critical thinking is natural, but the first challenge is being able to recognise your error, not so easy
      Thanks again
      Adam

  3. Great post, as usual. I think of the first step of improving your critical thinking skills in AA-terms: “Hello, my name is Hannes, and I am biased.”
    We are not all the same, some just drink to much in the weekends, some can´t get trough breakfast without one, to take the analogy further. And you can be a sober alcoholic and a skeptical biased thinker. It’ll never go away, just get better with time.
    Do you get my gist, or did I just go all hippie on you? 😉