Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Critical thinking: things to avoid doing

We can all learn how to think more effectively. Most of the time, we make mistakes more or less without thinking, which seems a strange thing to say. Nevertheless, we do make fundamental errors in thinking, and here are some of the things we do. This list is obviously too long to remember, but if you recognize some of your own faults, you would do well to make a shorter, more personal list and then remember the points on it and then take care to avoid them. Being aware of any sloppiness in your thinking is half way to avoiding them.

• Jumping to conclusions
In our rush to draw conclusions from what we find out, we often miss out vital steps; this is called jumping to conclusions. It is something we all do; sometimes we get away with it and sometimes we don’t. Jumping to conclusions in written work is usually easily spotted, though it can sometimes take another reader to see the mistakes we have made.

• Failing to think through implications
Every decision we make, every path we take in our thought processes has implications that may not always be evident. It is therefore vital to think everything through, as we say, in order to avoid surprises later.

• Losing track of our goal
Losing track of what we want to achieve is a common fault in thinking; we might get distracted by something that we find particularly interesting, or we might just forget where we are going. Writing down stated goals is one way of avoiding losing sight of a goal.

• Being unrealistic
Keeping to the plausible and the possible is vital, but using your imagination to think of alternative possibilities should not be avoided merely because it sometimes yields unrealistic notions.

• Focusing on the trivial
Ignoring what is important and concentrating on what might turn out to be trivial or unimportant can sometimes happen. It is sometimes good to step back from an issue to get some perspective.

• Failing to notice contradictions
If we invest time and effort in our thinking, it is understandable that we fail to notice things that cancel each other out.

• Accepting inaccurate information
The trouble with information is that it is sometimes wrong, but sounds right. Checking things out is one way of avoiding accepting information at face value without checking into it. Never taking things for granted is the way forward.

• Asking questions that are too vague
The wording of the questions you ask is important, both to yourself and to those you ask. If you are formulating questions to ask when reading, be careful to modify them when further information requires you to change direction.

• Giving answers that are too vague
Being vague can sometimes be used to avoid certain issues. Doing this in writing is soon noticed by others, and you should beware of doing it yourself. Rereading something you have written can help you to notice something that is too vague before another reader notices it.

• Asking loaded questions
The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. Asking loaded questions means seeking out answers you want to hear rather than truthful ones. The questions you ask can indicate your prejudices.

• Asking irrelevant questions
Similarly, asking questions that have little bearing on the things that matter is equally futile. Ask pertinent questions and you will get answers that you can work with and that push your thoughts forward.

• Confusing questions of different types
Some questions elicit Yes/No responses, while others elicit informative answers. If your questions are clearly stated, your answers will also be clear.

• Answering questions we are not competent to answer
Realising the limits of our knowledge is a useful thing to be able to do, and the willingness to admit it is also valuable. Don’t stretch the credibility of your work by using information in ways that aren’t logical or lead from the quality of information you are using.

• Coming to conclusions based upon inaccurate or irrelevant information
Another way of saying the same thing as the previous point is that you shouldn’t take up positions or stances in arguments that are not supported by accurate and relevant information. Doing so makes an argument crumble under examination.

• Ignoring information that does not support our view
Only using information that supports your views is tantamount to being biased, and while being extremely tempting, should be avoided at all costs; be truthful and have the courage to confront your own bias.

• Making inferences not supported by our experience
Similarly, inferring things that are not supported, either by experience or evidence or both is illogical and will distort other claims in your work.

• Distorting data and state it inaccurately
It goes without saying that one should never alter data or change it in any way. To do so is to risk making your whole argument, once it has been discovered that the data you used was altered. There was a very famous case recently, of a learned expert in genetics changing the data to suit his preferred outcome. He was found out and did irreparable harm to his reputation.

• Failing to notice the inferences we do make
Inferring is not the same as proving. In fact, it is using data to make suppositions, but these should be based upon logic and be entirely open and capable of being explained rationally.

• Coming to unreasonable conclusions
Reaching conclusions that are not reasonable – based upon reason – is bound to make the whole of your work insupportable and indefensible.

• Failing to notice our assumptions
Similarly, the assumptions – the things you take for granted, almost – should be able to stand up to questioning. Being unaware that you are making assumptions is a major error and should be avoided. The way to do this is to ask yourself why you think what you do. If the reasons are not based upon clear evidence, you should re-examine your thinking.

• Making unjustified assumptions
Whilst making assumptions is something that we all do, the ones we make must be entirely rational and open to observation and scrutiny. Assumptions that are not based upon rational and open factors are merely bias or worse, prejudice.

• Missing key ideas
Using all the information at your disposal, all that is relevant, is vital. Missing out key ideas means that your points are invalid and as such worthless.

• Using irrelevant ideas
Again using anything that is irrelevant is futile. The difficulty is deciding what it relevant and what is not; relevant ideas will help to further your arguments, irrelevant ideas will only confuse, distort and mask logical progression in an argument.

• Forming confused ideas
Ideas that are confused tend to be more easily detected by voicing them to others. Attentive listeners will usually pick up on ideas that are confused or unclear.

• Forming superficial concepts
Concepts that do not stand up to logical scrutiny are worse than useless; they can confound your thinking. Again, voicing ideas helps to cancel those that do not ‘hold water’, as we say.

• Misusing words
In academic writing, using the right words is vital; using words that have even only a fine difference in meaning to the ones that fit the context will mean that your writing is misinterpreted, which will mean you will not get credit for it, even though you know in your own mind what you mean. The ability to express yourself precisely and concisely is everything.

• Ignoring relevant viewpoints
In our drive to prove a point we have set out to make, we can sometimes ignore viewpoints that, while going against our own, are nevertheless valid and useful to us. Being open-minded is the way to avoid ignoring views that could help to make an argument stronger.

• Not seeing issues from points of view other than our own
Egocentric thinking leads us to come to conclusions that are insupportable, or worse, make us look foolish and self-centred.

• Being unaware of our prejudices
Confronting our prejudices can only happen when we are aware of their existence, and since some of our prejudices are fundamental to our sense of worth, who we are and how we see ourselves, becoming aware of them can be painful. Nevertheless, all prejudice is detrimental to a wholesome, balanced point of view.

Put another way, the points made above can be expressed more simply and comprehensibly in the following ways:-

We also do the following:
• Think narrowly
• Think imprecisely
• Think illogically
• Think one-sidedly
• Think simplistically
• Think hypocritically
• Think superficially
• Think egocentrically
• Think irrationally
• Do poor problem solving
• Make poor decisions
• Communicate poorly
• Have little insight into our own ignorance

Robert L. Fielding


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