Our minds are flooded with information on a daily basis. The ability to think critically is crucial for sorting through this and deciding what information is truthful and what is deceitful; what is useful and what is garbage. Critical thinking is the ability to examine and reason through any claims, assertions, premises, and conclusions, and arrive at a decision regarding its truthfulness. Often tied in with formal logic and reasoning, the methodology and process can become very detailed, breaking down syllogisms and arguments into categories of valid, invalid, modus ponens, modus tollens, etc. However, you don’t need to go through a whole course on critical thinking to possess the ability detect fallacies in everyday life. Here are nine practical ways to train your mind to think critically:
1. The Use of Metaphors and Illustrations.
Giving great examples and illustrations is a powerful way to sway someone, even when the illustration has nothing to do with the point in question. For example, using the metaphor of, “A seed needs to die in order for new life to come,” to argue for inhabiting protected land may sound good, but the illustration does not correspond to the desired means or end.
2. The False Dilemma.
This is a classic fallacy that finds its way into many conversations and discussions. It involves narrowing down the possible conclusion to any argument to an either/or form. Of course, the reality is that there may be multiple conclusions available. Next time you are pressured into choosing between two options, choose both—and then throw in a few more possibilities to bend their cookie cutter.
3. Motives and Biases.
In any dialogue, be sure to consider which angle the person presenting the argument is coming from. Almost always, they have a position that they are trying to prove and will bend all information toward supporting their agenda. Mentally acknowledging this to yourself will allow you to filter out any statements that simply serve to support their point.
4. Personal Pride.
Step back from the need to be right. This can be very crippling for clear and critical thinking. A one-sided perspective will always search for information that bolsters your views and you become blind to what is really true or useful. Instead of wanting to be right, shift your mindset to wanting to understand more.
5. Question the Source.
Do not be fooled when people use phrases such as, “Doctor so and so says…,” or, “Experts tell us…” It should not be a surprise that even people with PhDs can be very illogical. Check the source. Then ask about the credibility of that source: Are they a respected person in their particular field? Has their research proven to be accurate?
6. Avoid the Rabbit Hole.
It is very easy to go down a rabbit hole and get completely off topic from the original point of the conversation. This happens the longer a conversation progresses. Place a mental marker in your mind about what the initial point of the conversation was—have this as the anchor to keep from getting off track. Continue to string together the conversation mentally in your mind to keep from going off on tangents.
7. Time Out.
Cognitive scientists will explain that the brain typically holds between five to seven pieces of information at a time. Confusion happens when your mind has to start juggling too many pieces of information. Rather than having to come up with an answer or a conclusion, it is absolutely okay to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I need more time to think about that.” Give your mind a little more time to sort through what it has just heard and piece things together.
8. Play the Devil’s Advocate
Before becoming dogmatic on any of your own beliefs, it is helpful to reason and argue with yourself. Take the oppositional view to your own beliefs and see whether your position would stand up against your own barrage of attacks.
9. Beware the Straw Man
A straw man is a fallacy that pops up a tremendous amount in monologues, such as in political speeches, for example. It involves taking an argument and erroneously rephrasing it or tweaking so that it easily torn apart by the person making the argument. This can also happen in general conversations when people take what you say and twist it. The way to deal with this is to restate and rephrase not only what you say, but also what the other person has said.
So the next conversation you have, or the next time you hear someone make an argument, begin using these different techniques to become a critical and effective thinker!