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Critical thinking - explained

Our public square is broken. For the first time since records began, more Americans say they have no trust in the mainstream media than those that say they have a medium or high trust. This is my series on rebuilding the public square, a topic very close to my heart.

Where do you go to debate the substantive issues of our time?

Chances are this question was hard to answer. There has never been a perfect time for debate but we feel far, far away from good debate now. We are unwitting accomplices to this. Technologists have profitably proven that we prefer being bathed in information supporting our existing views than facing the reality that others may reasonably think otherwise. This means we are not thinking critically.

Looking at information, or reading articles is useless without critical thinking. If you cannot separate the theatrics from the important topics at hand, you end up being influenced by style rather than persuaded by reason.


The BBC came under fire recently at its refusal to label Hamas as terrorists. In a very well-written explanation of this approach (Why BBC doesn't call Hamas militants 'terrorists' - John Simpson - BBC News), a famour correspondent explained that by using emotive language and labels, the BBC would be distracting from the understanding of the facts and telling you who to support. As an aspiring critical thinker, I applaud this approach. Sadly, this is a rarity, and most newspapers and sites serve a particular tribal narrative. You are either a saviour or a terrorist depending on whether you are an ally or a foe.

What does bad debate look like

We rarely see good debates. Good debate tackles hard issues head on and uses different viewpoints to arrive at an informed and considered conclusion. When we are too lazy to use critical thinking we can be swayed by debating tricks. The use of emotion, unsound arguments, anecdotes and lies is so pervasive and successful, that many people can get good results without using reason.  


Emotional rhetoric - "Because You're Worth It" – L’Oréal

Fake Facts - "the scientific community is hugely divided on whether climate change is caused by human activities"

Anecdotes - "I'm a businessman and I think I will have to decrease my workforce if the minimum wage comes into law"

Unsound arguments: "If we do not accept this Rwanda bill, the UK will forever be a haven for people smuggling" - suggests that the Rwanda bill is the only option.


We see persuasion through non-arguments all around us. In politics we see slogans like “Make America great again” and “Take back control” and in advertising we see “Just do it” which are vague statements trying to evoke feeling. None of those three statements are arguments to vote for someone or buy something. They are trying to make you feel a certain way about those brands.


With elections throughout the world this year, and politicians trying to persuade us, it is more important now than ever to be able to critically assess the information you consume so that you can be well informed and make good decisions.

Four steps to start critical thinking


Critical thinking helps us assess whether someone has made a well reasoned and factually correct argument. Thinking critically makes us remove emotive language and simplify the argument. The following four steps are an example of how to get there:

An example is your friend says the following “I’m, having such an awful year. I need to buy a darn car. My old car is a heap of junk, is unsafe and costs me an arm and leg to run. It’s rusty and uses too much fuel.”


Critical thinking is making arguments into testable statements and then testing it.


Where critical thinking is an advantage or disadvantage


Critical thinking is not for every situation, particularly where the idea is not to “solve”. Sometimes people who are too keen to implement critical thinking take things too literally and miss out on the social dynamics at play. Conversely, social dynamics can make very people uncritical. We tend to be uncritical of people who tend to have the same views as us or if we like them. Many wonky beliefs are allowed to take hold because they were delivered by a particular person.


Why I care so much about it


I did not see much pro-Brexit material in the run up to the 2016 referendum (Brexit won 52 to 48) and that was a huge failure in my choice of sources. Add to that, my social media feeds were curated for me to see those views which I already held. We have had technology unleashed on us which has made us less critical of our views and those who keep hearing from. I am a part of the problem.

If we all for a moment accept, we are part of the problem, it will encourage us to seek out opposing views. That's the first step in rebuilding the public square.

So What?

  1. The quality of debate is low: True critical thinking is rare today, particularly in the media, where there is an incentive to reinforce existing beliefs rather than challenge them. Our debating muscles are atrophying.

  2. We are wide open to the tricks of others: Debates use non-reasoned methods such as emotion, anecdotes, or misleading facts to persuade people. These techniques are successful on people who are uncritical.

  3. We need to think more critically: Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating arguments and making informed decisions, particularly in this polarised environment. We can rebuild the public square and improve the quality and outcome of our discourse when we decide to think more critically.

Thank you for joining. Next week "Where is free speech?". Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @Decidersblog 


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