Critical Thinking… Take 2

I have written about critical thinking before but despite 'thinking' I had improved in this skill, I still find myself being accused of failing as a critical thinker, of building straw man arguments and falling foul of other logical fallacies when I critique stuff, usually by manual therapists, and usually about manual therapy.

I know that I have made plenty of mistakes in the past in my critical thinking and debates, letting my own biases and strong emotions take control, and I am sure I will make some more in the future! However, I also have seen some try and make out that you are failing at critical thinking, when in fact they have very sneakily, very cleverly snuck in and built up a straw man argument up against you, without you realising it. This is has happened to me a number of times, and I have noticed it happens when the other party feels the debate has swayed against them, and you really have to keep your wits about you to spot and notice it, and more importantly call it out when you do see it.

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

So what is critical thinking?

In a nut shell, critical thinking simply means keeping an open mind, being skeptical and not taking anything at face value or true just because someone say so. It also refers to a number of skills concerned with evaluating information in a disciplined way. Things such as conceptualising, examining, inferring, questioning and reasoning. When we are willing and able to examine our own capability as thinkers, recognising our own weaknesses, critical thinking can help us enormously, and allow us to refine and improve our own thought processes, allowing us to think and assess information in a more logical and comprehensive way and improves our ability to identify and reject false ideas and ideologies. That's nonsense, bullshit, woo and quackary to you and me!

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, such as trigger points. If we don't examine the flaws and biases behind our own approach or thinking, of which there will be many, no matter how much you think there is no way you will progress very far, very fast, any time soon.

To start, we must want to be better at thinking.

We must be able to identify and minimise the biasing influences on our thought processes that naturally occur and that arise from our culture, upbringing, environment, peers and previous experiences. We 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 our deeply held beliefs.

If we think critically, our 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 is not a sign of weakness, nor an admission of fault, failure or defeat. A good critical thinker doesn't mind admitting his thinking was flawed or incorrect when appropriate.

Critical Thinking is... Francis Bacon

Critical thinkers tend to be seen as disruptive radicals or mavericks.

When following the rules and with a balanced approach critical thinkers create a culture of curiosity and eagerness, keen to widen their own and others perspectives and knowledge. They are willing to ask the difficult and awkward questions. They don't mind sticking their heads above the parapet, to dodge the arrows and bullets of wrath and angst. Critical thinkers are hard workers, and are prepared to do the work required to keep themselves properly informed about a particular topic.

Critical thinkers will always insist of those who make claims that they are able to explain fully and clearly, and that their claims be testable to be worthy of consideration. Critical thinkers embrace skepticism, a trait that I have often been accused of having too much of. Skepticism is NOT a negative trait. Skepticism is not the indiscriminate rejection of ideas. It simply means you doubt, that you are reserving your judgement about claims made by others, not just accepting things on face value, no matter the source. Skepticism is about taking the time to examine claims and to understand the reasoning and possible assumptions and biases behind them. Calling some me a skeptic is a compliment, not an insult.

The biggest barrier to critical thinking is an unwillingness to see complex issues in anything other than black or white.

If you only see two options when actually more exist this develops false dichotomies. This 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 want to fix their thinking on to something solid and reassuring no matter what.

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, and doesn't jump onto bandwagons, follow the populous blindly or partake in gimmicky fads.

Critical thinking provides us all with an ability to improve our own intellectual independence.

It allows us to be able to seek out and solve problems independently. Critical thinking moves us away from making rash conclusions, it allows us to question perceived wisdom, authority and tradition. It moves us towards the clear expression of ideas and develops an acceptance of the responsibility for our own thinking.

If we are 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 perceived wisdom, and not as quick to chastise or lambaste those that do. If we are all a little more willing to acknowledge and correct our flaws in our own thinking, then there is hope for this profession of ours.

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