What Is Critical Thinking?

Based on our dysfunctional national dialogue, Hamilton College Professor Paul Gary Wyckoff articulates the critical thinking skills he wants his students to learn.

1. The ability to think empirically, not theoretically. By this I mean the habit of constantly checking one’s views against evidence from the real world, and the courage to change positions if better explanations come along. …

2. The ability to think in terms of multiple, rather than single, causes. When you drop a book, it will fall on the floor — a single-cause event. But most of the interesting things in the world have multiple causes; educational success, for example, is affected by a student’s aptitude, but also by the educational achievements of the student’s parents, the quality of the school he or she attends, and the attitudes and intelligence of the other students in that school. In such cases, simple comparisons become unreliable guides to action, because the effects of intervening variables haven’t been screened out. …

3. The ability to think in terms of the sizes of things, rather than only in terms of their direction. Our debates are largely magnitude-free, but decisions in a world with constrained resources always demand a sense of the sizes of various effects. …

4. The ability to think like foxes, not hedgehogs. In his seminal book, Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock followed Isaiah Berlin in distinguishing between hedgehogs, who know one big thing and apply that understanding to everything around them, and foxes, who know many small things and pragmatically apply a “grab bag” of knowledge to make modest predictions about the world. In his study of hundreds of foreign policy experts over 20 years, Tetlock showed that foxes outperform hedgehogs in making predictions, and hence tend to make better decisions. …

5. The ability to understand one’s own biases. An expanding literature in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that we are full of unconscious biases, and a failure to understand these biases contributes to poor decision-making. Perhaps the most common and dangerous of these is confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information in accordance with our previous views and ignore or dismiss information contrary to those views. …