Critical Thinking: An Extended Definition

By Petress, Ken | Education, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking: An Extended Definition


Petress, Ken, Education


One definition of critical thinking found in a general psychology text is: "Critical thinking examines assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions." This text also emphasizes recognizing fallacies in our thinking and listening. (2) This definition; however, omits explaining how to examine assumptions, discern hidden values, and to assess conclusions. Considering a conversant's/listener's or author's/reader's experiences; education; social, political, economic, and/or ideological proclivities; known or suspected biases and prejudices; and known or suspected motives might accomplish assessing assumptions, hidden values, and conclusions.

Warnick and Inch, communication scholars define critical thinking as "involving the ability to explore a problem, question, or situation; integrate all the available information about it; arrive a solution or hypothesis; and justify one's position." (3) This definition excludes specifying ways to explore problems, to raise good questions, to integrate available information, to arrive at solutions/hypotheses, and how to justify positions taken. Problems can be effectively explored by seeking parsimony, clarity, lower costs, and greater consensus for their solution. Good questions probe for more/better information and offer others awareness that the have been paid attention to. The scientific method is a good start in arriving at quality solutions/hypotheses. Positions should be justified on the basis of their cost, amount of collateral damage incurred, and analysis of the process taken to reach such positions.

Ken Petress, communication scholar and journalist, adds needed content characteristics to critical thinking; among these are:

   Evidence is rated, by the critical
   thinker, based on Sufficiency--is
   there an adequate amount of support
   for claims? Relevance--is the
   evidence presented pertinent to the
   issue at hand? Reliability--does the
   support for arguments have a good
   track record? Does evidence relied
   upon emanate from expert sources?
   Consistency--are supporting elements
   internally and externally
   consistent with each other and with
   what we know from other experiences,
   observations, and sources?
   Recency--is offered support current
   rather than being out-of-date?
   Access--are supporting materials
   open for receivers' verification? Are
   secret or anonymous sources avoided?
   Objectivity--are supporting
   materials fair and undistorted? Does
   support originate from expert
   sources? (4)

These six criteria limit themselves to the content of messages; other criteria need to be considered for message organization, ethicality, consequence forecasting/consideration, ands content completeness. Some additional factors influencing critical thinking and message reception/creation include: Are embedded terms clearly and completely defined? Are inferences labeled as such instead of being passed off as assertions of fact? Are ideas phrased concretely and clearly rather than vaguely, in abstract form, or with equivocation? Are messages coherent? Are discipline or situation dependencies explained when they occur? (5)

Philosopher Richard Paul and educational psychologists Linda Elder have written extensively on the subject of critical thinking. (6) Paul and Elder define critical thinking as: "That mode of thinking--about any subject, content, or problem--in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them." (7) Paul and Elder emphasize "asking vital questions," "gathering relevant information," "testing well reasoned conclusions and solutions," "thinking open mindedly," "recognizing and assessing" ... "their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences" and "communicating effectively." (8) Paul and Elder offer a list of what they call "elements of thought:" purpose, information, inferences/conclusions, concepts, assumptions, points of view, implications/consequences, and questions. …

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