Monday, August 11, 2014

A thought about critical thinking

The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.
 I am no expert on "critical thinking" but I have tried to do it a lot. So I will share.

  • Choose your spots. Critical thinking is hard to do well. So save your energy to apply the process to tasks worthy of the effort. I spent a couple of years in the 1960s thinking about how to build a machine to demonstrate the value of neural networks; the machine was built, widely demonstrated, and was the basis of a major paper in the Proceedings of the IEEE. I also spent a year in the Carter White House thinking about U.S. strategy in international health, which led to a major report that defined that policy. Those were worth a lot of critical thinking. Don't waste your time figuring out why someone had merited his/her 15 minutes of fame.
  • Serious critical thinking requires the thinker to have a lot of information. Observation is important, but it takes a prepared mind to select the right things to observe and a lot of skill to observe well. So critical thinking about important things requires a lot of preparatory study (from books and in school usually). Before building my machine I had a MSEE and done a thesis on the topic; before working on U.S. national health policy I had obtained a PhD and written a dissertation on the topic, and worked for years as a health planner in WHO and the U.S. Office of International Health.
  • Serious critical thinking also benefits from previously acquired analytical skills such as computer programming, mathematical and statistical analysis, logic, and critical reading. Maybe Newton and Descartes could invent the calculus to conduct their analyses, but you will do a lot better by learning the tools these geniuses and others have already created for your use.
  • Almost all of us do critical thinking better if we do it as a member of a team. Find a team that includes the smartest people you can find -- those who do critical thinking well. In my experience it is better to have people working together who have different backgrounds, who can bring different skills and knowledge to the task, as long as all are relevant to the task. Members of a team should be sufficiently docile and reasonable to work together well, but not so docile that they will not go off and figure out what is wrong with what the others are saying and how to meet their arguments.
  • It doesn't matter how good your thinking unless you can express it. Writing and speaking skills are important, as are the skills to communicate in pictures. 

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