How Can We Build Our Critical Thinking Skills?

I’ve noticed something about this pandemic. The data we get doesn’t help me make good decisions.

My reaction when I view the data? Dismay, sadness, and some horror around the total number of deaths. However, without sufficient trend data, we can’t make good decisions. (I happen to like the US COVID-19 Tracker to see a variety of trends.)

Every time someone says, “We’ve conducted x tests today,” a little part of me sighs. Point-in-time data can help us see where we might have problems. But trend data helps us see the magnitude of the problem.

That’s a critical thinking skill. (Realizing that point-in-time data is not sufficient to decide or act. We need trend data to see a total picture.)

I’m not going to rant about who should teach us critical thinking skills. Yes, we should teach these skills starting as soon as we talk to our children. Yes, teachers at all levels should teach these skills. Let’s stop with the shoulds and see how we can educate ourselves.)

Especially with the pandemic, we have several problems that battle our critical thinking skills:

  • News and social media love soundbites. In fact, the more the soundbite can grab us emotionally, the better.
  • Most juicy problems, such as this pandemic, have delays in the system. How long are we infectious before we show symptoms? When are we done being infectious? There’s no one definite answer to those questions. Instead, we have a range of days for each question. Those ranges create various length delays in our system. We, humans, have to work hard to see delays in our systems and see the various feedback loops.
  • We love the very first solution, even if it’s not a full solution. Even if we don’t know the consequences.
  • We want everything now: to stay safe, to reopen the schools, and to reopen the economy.

Why do we forget our critical thinking skills? We’re human. We use Kahnemann’s System 1 thinking. (See a little here: Which Inconsistencies Do You Notice?)

We all have trouble with critical thinking. I try to notice when I default to not-thinking. That’s because critical thinking requires awareness via observations, questions, and experiments.

Define Critical Thinking

I discovered the Critical Thinking Organization in preparation for this post. They have a definition that is way too wordy for me to comprehend. So, here’s my definition of critical thinking:

  • Collect various ideas about the issue at hand.
  • Reason about those ideas. Possibly test those ideas.
  • Develop your conclusions about the issue at hand.

Here’s an example about Question 1 from my ballot this year. We already have a right-to-repair law in Massachusetts. Why do we need this?

I explained this to my niece in this way.

“Apple has a closed ecosystem. That means that while everything might cost more, we have to trust that Apple will offer us good products. Apple has a monopoly on its ecosystem. In contrast, Android/Google has an open ecosystem. Phones and apps often cost less. However, the buyer must beware. For cars, I want more options, not fewer. I don’t want to have to bring my car to a dealer for an oil change or to change the tires because they can’t clear a flag.”

How did I decide how to vote? Here’s what I did:

  • Read all I could on neutral sites.
  • Read the entire proposal.
  • Ignored the blatant lies from the television ads.
  • Watched who suggested we vote Yes or No on this question. Who did I believe?

Then, I used similar ideas in a different domain to reason about this particular question. (The idea about the Apple and Android ecosystems.)

Only then did I decide.

Did I spend enough time critically thinking about this problem? I hope so. Do I spend enough time reasoning about the pandemic? I’ve been writing, testing my ideas since it started.

We now realize this pandemic is with us at least for the next 8-10 months. How can we use our critical thinking skills to adapt and build anew?

That’s the question this week: How do we build our critical thinking skills?

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