Critical Thinking… Take 2

I wrote about critical thinking before and despite thinking I had improved at it I often find myself being accused of failing at it and falling for logical fallacies when I tend to critique things, usually manual therapy, and usually by the manual therapists.

I know I have made mistakes in the past in my critical thinking, letting my own biases and emotions take control, and I am sure I will make more in the future! However, some individuals try and make out that I am failing at critical thinking, when in fact they are using it to create a diversion and draw attention away from the point we are discussing.

This has happened to me a number of times recently and I notice it tends to happen when the other party feels the debate has swayed or moved against them and that they have nothing left to defend their position. Rather than admit this or god forbid change their opinion, they tend to accuse me of being too critical, too sceptical, or just arrogant and disrespectful.

So I thought it would be good to take another look at critical thinking and reflect once again on what it is, and what it is not, and also to consider some of the common pitfalls and traps that many fall into when they ‘think’ they are thinking critically.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking refers to a set of skills concerned with evaluating information in a disciplined way. Things such as conceptualising, examining, inferring, questioning and reasoning. In a nutshell, critical thinking simply means keeping an open mind, being sceptical and not accepting something is true just because someone or something says so. It also 

When you are willing and able to examine your own capability as a critical thinker, recognising your own weaknesses, it can help enormously, and allow you to refine and improve your thought processes. Allowing you to think and assess information in a more logical and comprehensive way and improve your ability to identify and reject false ideas and ideologies. This all basically means you can spot bullshit better.

Critical thinking isn’t just thinking a lot.

A person can spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about and defending a flawed position, or even pursuing a question that is incorrect to start with, things such as trigger points, cupping is a worthwhile treatment, or Tottenham Hotspur is a good football club. If you don’t examine the possible and potential flaws and biases behind your own ideas and beliefs, of which there will be many, then no matter how much you critically think there is no way you will progress very far, very fast, any time soon.

First, you must want to be better at thinking.

To be able to think critically you must first be able to identify and minimise the biasing influences on your thought processes that naturally occur and that arise from your culture, upbringing, environment, peers and previous experiences. You need to be able to seek out and be guided by knowledge and evidence that fits with reality, even if it challenges, rocks or refutes your deeply held beliefs.

If you think critically, beliefs will not be held deeply.

A good critical thinker is willing to change their position if a previously held belief is shown to be unfounded or erroneous. They recognise that this is the most appropriate response and not a sign of failure, weakness, or an admission of fault or defeat. A good critical thinker doesn’t mind admitting his thinking was flawed or incorrect when appropriate.

Critical Thinking is... Francis Bacon

Critical thinking isn’t disruptive or maverick.

When following the rules critical thinkers create a culture of curiosity and eagerness, keen to widen their own and others perspectives and knowledge. They are willing to ask difficult and awkward questions. They don’t mind sticking their heads above the parapet, dodging the arrows and bullets of others angst, vitriol and cognitive dissonance. 

Critical thinkers will insist on those who make claims that they are able to explain them fully, clearly and their claims are testable to be worthy of consideration. Critical thinkers embrace scepticism, a trait I have often been accused of having too much.

Scepticism is good

To put this as clearly as I can you can’t have too much scepticism and it’s NOT a negative trait. Despite claims, scepticism is not the indiscriminate rejection of ideas, that’s nihilism. Scepticism simply means you doubt and reserve your judgement about claims made by others, no matter the source. Scepticism is about taking the time to examine claims and to understand the reasoning and possible assumptions and biases behind them. Calling me a sceptic is a huge compliment, not an insult.

Critical thinking is NOT black or white.

If you only see two options, you’re not thinking hard enough. Only having two options when more most likely exist creates false dichotomies, which leads to drawing false conclusions. This type of thinking often reflects an underlying reluctance or refusal to deal with the uncertainty that results from complexity, and the absence of definite answers, of which there are many in this profession.

Many physios, however, like to fix their thinking on to something solid and reassuring, it gives them a sense of comfort and security. Not to mention being the easier, simpler, and often the more profitable path to take.

I have said on numerous occasions in a few of my other blogs, and podcasts, that if you want to be a good therapist, get comfortable feeling uncomfortable! A good critical thinker is able to handle uncertainty, is aware of their own areas of ignorance, is willing to wait for valid evidence and evidence-based answers before having a guess or a go at something, and doesn’t jump onto bandwagons, or partake in gimmicky fads.

Critical thinking improves your intellectual independence.

Critical thinking allows you to be able to seek out and solve problems independently, it moves you away from making rash conclusions, allowing you to question perceived wisdom, authority and tradition. Critical thinking moves you towards the clearer, less wrong expression of ideas and develops an acceptance of the responsibility for your own thinking.

If we were all a little more eager to acquire and apply the best knowledge and reasoning, a little braver to question those in positions of authority, and not so quick to chastise or lambaste those that do, then there may be hope for this profession of ours.

Simply put, if we were to all apply a little more critical thinking, not only will it empower and improve you as a professional, but more importantly it will benefit those who really matter, your patients.

As always, thanks for reading, and keep thinking…



4 thoughts on “Critical Thinking… Take 2

  1. Well said, explaining in everyday terms what the empirical psychologist Daniel Kahneman, 2002 Nobel Prize, analyzed in more depth in his magnum opus “THINKING, FAST and SLOW” (2011) as two distinct functions of the brain during thinking:
    – System 1 is the immediate way the brain thinks, using its stock of habitual and spontaneous knowledge. Fast thinking.
    – System 2 is the reflective analytical and CRITICAL function of the brain in reviewing and evaluating the immediate data of System 1. Slow, excruciatingly slow thinking.

  2. Adam,

    Nice summary on the necessity and mechanics of critical thinking. You’ve outlined a nice foundation. I can agree that this is a must have, complicated, difficulty skill that requires practice, practice, reflection, practice, learning, and practice. It’s theoretically simple; we need to improve our thinking. But, it’s a complicated construct and process. I’ve written about this topic as well. The following posts contain resources to keep one busy for months:


    • Thanks Kyle for the great resources

      As you say critical thinking sounds easy but as I have found it can be difficult to do as cognitive dissonance can be really hard at times

      Making errors in critical thinking is natural, but the first challenge is being able to recognise your error, not so easy

      Thanks again


  3. Great post, as usual. I think of the first step of improving your critical thinking skills in AA-terms: “Hello, my name is Hannes, and I am biased.”
    We are not all the same, some just drink to much in the weekends, some can´t get trough breakfast without one, to take the analogy further. And you can be a sober alcoholic and a skeptical biased thinker. It’ll never go away, just get better with time.

    Do you get my gist, or did I just go all hippie on you? 😉

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