The science of critical thinking explained

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Thad Hunkins
  • 459th Airlift Squadron commander

Did you think there was a science to thinking? I sure didn't. A couple years back I read a book called "The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking" by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder. It changed my entire view of how we humans use our nuggets. The book is only 19 pages long.

My Cro-Magnon method seemed pretty straightforward: There's a problem, you consider the solutions, you solve the problem. No problem. That works if you're trying to get a lid off a pickle jar, but our complex environment often requires some more in-depth analysis. And it turns out that critical thinking can be pretty complex.

It all starts with the different elements pertaining to thinking
- What is the question?
- What do I want to attain?
- What points of view are there?
- Are there consequences...intended or unintended?
- What are the assumptions?
- Are there any concepts or natural laws that apply?
- What information must be gathered?
- What solutions are there?

Now very seldom do we have the time to sit down and make a checklist when presented with a given problem, but certainly anyone can see how they've been "tripped up" by having made a "faulty assumption" or not adequately considering someone else's point of view. This is the first time I'd ever thought about the discipline of thinking ... and now I see its value every day of my life.

The book's real magic for me though, can be summed up in one phrase--"the battle for total objectivity." And it is a battle. They devote 4 of their 19 pages talking about "The Problem of Egocentric Thinking" and its relationship to "Intellectual Virtues."

I challenge you to read any of them and not think "Yup, I did that." Selfishness ... self-validation ... wish fulfillment--these are all things that throw our analytical skills off-kilter. It is very hard to think of all angles to a problem since we all have a natural proclivity toward thinking about ourselves all the time.

Fortunately, the authors give a good template for passing from "unreflective thinker" to "master thinker." Hey, who doesn't want to be a Master thinker. And it really is a discipline. So here is there path to becoming Yoda:

- Define exactly what the issue is and relate it to the goal. In our business, that's why it's so critical to know what the mission is.
- Ask probing, evaluative questions. This is tough for many folks ... they just don't want to come across as the bad guy ... but again, it's the push for total truth and objectivity that should drive the train.
- Figure out what information you need and collect it.
- Reflect. Wow ... the big daddy of all "failed-to-do" lists. I'm guilty, how 'bout you?
- Consider all implications. This is tough because it requires all of the previously mentioned elements. This is the "walk-a-mile-in-his-moccasins" test. Take the time for this because your logic will be severely tested by an injured party.
- Implement and review

Dr. Paul and Dr. Elder state that "Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking." There is a lot to think about in that statement.