Critical thinking skills are very important for getting along in life. They allow you to analyze problems or situations you find yourself involved in that don’t always have an easy or obvious answer. We all run into problems in relationships, work, school, etc. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could understand why things were happening around us and more easily see what we could do about them? That’s what critical thinking is all about. It’s not just for winning arguments!
A theme I’m going to return to again and again is that science is not just for scientists and it is not just about knowing obscure facts like how hot is the sun or what’s the Latin name for a black bear. Scientific literacy is about fine tuning your thinking so it is more precise and making decisions based more on facts and direct observation instead of how you feel emotionally or because some “authority” told you to do something.
Let’s Talk About Science
Science is very helpful in critical thinking, but let’s talk about science for just a second before we get into this. A common mistake that people make about science is that it’s trying to find ultimate truths, in other words, discover laws or facts that have no exceptions ever and are always true under any condition. That would be an ultimate truth. Science does not deal in that kind of truth, it deals in probabilities.
In fact, when you get into discussing or studying ultimate truths, you are in the realm of faith and philosphy, not science at all. And this is why the endless debates about science vs religion are never going to be fully resolved. It’s oil and water.
Despite all our technology and advances, we are still very limited in how we can perceive the universe and in how we think. The reason that I say that it’s not possible for us as human beings to discover ultimate truths is because there could always be, and usually are, exceptions to the rules and laws that scientists discover. Just because we can’t perceive or haven’t discovered an exception to a rule doesn’t mean that rule is absolutely true. There’s always a chance that the rule could be wrong.
So if you have the idea that science is about absolutes in anything, please erase that idea.
The Scientific Method
Now having stated that science is limited, I want to also say that science is extremely practical in anyone’s day-to-day life. It may not have access to absolute truths, but the methods and rules of science are among the best that we do have to figure things out.
There’s a thing called the scientific method, which really just means the steps any scientist takes to solve problems or discover new things. The good news is that just because it has the word “scientific” in it, doesn’t mean that it’s hard to understand or use. In fact, you most likely already use the scientific method all the time. But like any skill, it is something that can be greatly improved through conscientious practice.
Scientific method can be described in different ways and some people include slightly different steps, but basically it comes down to these:
1. Make observations.
Looking is the first and most important step. Whether it’s noticing something odd or interesting, or whether you are confronted with a problem of some kind, the first thing you do is observe.
Observation doesn’t take place just because of something unusual or odd. You can easily observe what is going on around you anytime. For example, stop watching this for a moment and look up at the space around you. Notice something you may never have noticed before, or see if there is anything in the environment around you that is different from what you remember the last time you looked around. That is observation.
In science, we use the word “observation” rather than “looking” because observing is not just done with the eyes. Visual observation is important, but it can also include any of your senses. Walking into a room and smelling something bad is observation. Hearing a ringing sound coming from a machine or feeling warm air coming off a hot pad are perfectly valid observations.
It also can involve using instruments or measuring devices. It’s kind of hard to see with the naked eye that something is 5.498 centimeters wide. Having a measuring device helps in the accuracy of the observation. Using a telescope to observe a distant planet or a microscope to observe cellular behavior is the only way we can even be aware of these things. Who knows what else is out there that we don’t know about because we have no way of observing it.
Observing, by the way, is something that you do on purpose, it’s not passive. You can’t observe something when you are putting up some “mental picture” of what you’ve always seen there every single day instead of seeing what is really there right now in this moment. People do this all the time. It’s not unusual at all for someone to be looking right into an intersection and not “see” the person on a motorcycle twenty feet away. They aren’t really observing what is going on in front of them. Instead, they are “seeing” the same thing they always see when they cross this same intersection on their way home from work every day. Their mind is on other things. And it’s one reason people miss things that are perfectly obvious to other people around them.
Observation is a skill you can practice all by itself. And it should be practiced every day.
2. Propose a hypothesis.
A hypothesis is an idea or a proposition that explains an observation. It is not necessarily true, but it’s a starting point. It’s basically a guess as to why a particular observation is the way it is. It’s now up to the person who made the hypothesis to find evidence to prove whether it’s true or not.
In real life, outside of science, many people will guess or dream up explanations or answers and then stop right there. They’ll assume that what they came up with is true because it’s the best answer they could come up with based on the information available to them at the time.
Until you have some proof and have verified the hypothesis is correct, it’s just as likely that it’s not true and you could end up making a really big mistake. So it’s very important to realize that a hypothesis is not the end of critical thinking – it’s just the beginning.
An example of a hypothesis you could propose would be something about the weather. Here we are in the middle of December. You are inside and you see that it’s crystal clear outside, the sun is shining brightly with no clouds. There appears to be a slight breeze blowing. You hate having to bundle up every time you want to go outside, so you think to yourself that perhaps today it’s not really so cold out. How could it be when it’s so clear and beautiful?
You propose a hypothesis that the temperature outside is tolerable and won’t require you to multi-layer two shirts, a sweater and your parka just to get out to your car so you can drive to work. This could just be wishful thinking, so before you act on it, you first have to test that hypothesis.
3. Design and perform an experiment to test the hypothesis.
An experiment is simply anything that is done to test whether a hypothesis proves out to be true or false. Experiments can be simple, like just taking a measurement of something to see if it’s the amount you think it is. They can also be very complicated, such as injecting a new medicine into thousands of people and carefully monitoring the results as well as monitoring injections of a placebo (a fake medicine) into a similar group of people to see what happens to them too. By comparing the results of the real medicine to the fake medicine, you can test its effectiveness.
The most important thing about experimentation is testing your hypothesis in such a way as to actually prove out whether it is true or false. Depending on the circumstances, it may take many experiments before you can conclude for sure that your hypothesis if valid.
In the case of our hypothesis about the temperature outside, there are a couple of experiments you could perform to test this out.
Look at a thermometer on the window. In doing so, you see that it shows the temperature outside is 5 degrees. Okay, that is one indication that it is not so warm outside. It’s not necessarily conclusive evidence yet, but it’s a start. The thermometer could be off because it could be broken and also, it may only be measuring the temperature in one specific location where there could be a “cold pocket”.
Open the window and stick your head outside. The freezing cold temperature assaults your face and the slight “breeze” stings your skin. You quickly close the window.
You determine at this point that your experiment is over.
One last point on experimentation. To find out whether it is cold outside, you could always just consult Google or the Weather Channel. But that is not really an experiment. Things on the internet or on the TV or radio come from people. When you “google” something, you are basically asking someone else for their opinion or their ideas.
No matter who is telling you what, there is always a chance they could be wrong. They may be able to point you in a direction or help you with an experiment, but that is not the same thing as accepting their opinions or ideas as facts. One of the most common mistakes in logic and critical thinking is to take someone else’s opinions or “facts” as true without verifying it yourself first.
4. Analyze your data to determine whether to accept or reject the hypothesis.
Now that you have the results of your experiments, you use that to determine whether your hypothesis was correct. In our simple case, we have the following results:
Temperature reads 5 degrees outside.
Physical test of the air and temperature indicated that it was frigid and very uncomfortable.
The hypothesis that it is warm and tolerable outside has been proven false. It is, in fact, freezing and you decide that you are not going out without bundling up first.
5. If necessary, propose and test a new hypothesis.
In this case, there is no need to proceed with further hypotheses as the one we came up with was proven wrong. At the same time, we concluded that bundling up would handle our aversion to the freezing weather.
There are many other instances where you may make one hypothesis, test it out and it doesn’t turn out to be true and then you need to come up with another one. Let’s say you are working on fixing a broken air conditioner. You don’t know what the problem is exactly, but you see that a pipe is sticking out that doesn’t look like it should, so you experiment with putting it back in place. That seemed to be a good idea but the air conditioner still doesn’t work after you fix the pipe. So you look some more and see that it’s not plugged in. You formulate a new hypothesis that it may not be working because
it needs electricity. You plug it in and, voila, it turns on and operates smoothly.
Perhaps the pipe and the electricity both needed to be fixed before it would operate. The bottom line is that by observing, experimenting and re-evaluating the information and further experimenting, you were able to solve the problem. That is what the scientific method is for. Following these steps are the heart of critical thinking.
Chances are, you already are doing these steps many times every single day. But by knowing these steps and going over them yourself, you can be more certain about what you are doing. You can also catch yourself if you miss a step or find yourself stuck. The solution to almost any problem you will encounter in life is to observe, analyze, experiment and re-evaluate based on what you find until you come to a solution.
Practice, practice, practice using the steps of the scientific method and see what results you get. Every single discovery in our history, every leap forward in science or technology or anything else, was made using these steps. They are the basis of all the rest of the critical thinking skills you can learn. Learn them well and may your life and thinking never be the same again.
Just for fun and to give you an idea of how this can be practiced in real life, here are some practical exercises you can do:
(1) The next time you go into a space or room you are very familiar with, look around the room and observe it as though you had never seen it before. See if you can find at least three things about the space that you have never noticed before.
(2) Recall some example from your experience where a problem was solved using scientific method. Break down the steps so you can see what hypothesis you formed and how you tested it and then proved it to be correct.
(3) See if you can recall a time that you or someone you know came up with a hypothesis but then did not test it out before acting on it. What was the result? What could they have done as an experiment to test the hypothesis?
(4) The next time you encounter a problem in life, form a hypothesis about what the source of that problem might be. Perform some kind of test or experiment to see if your hypothesis is actually valid. Only after you have proven that the hypothesis is correct, come up with the solution. Notice to yourself what might have happened if you had not verified your hypothesis before acting.
I am very interested in what results you get from these exercises. Please leave me any comments if you have any feedback on this.
Thank you for watching.