Critical Thinking

Have you noticed how badly so many academics abuse the most elementary rules of logic in their reasoning; how frequently they use language to confuse rather than to clarify; how they delight in obfuscation; how 15 references are used in an attempt to add weight to a dubious claim; how many non-sequiturs litter their work, how often they use straw-man arguments; how often their reasoning is circular; and most of all, how keen they are to prove themselves right? The worst, are, of course, the “popular” writers; those who make general claims about the “best” or the ”only” way to do this or that in ELT. Anecdote is the favorite device of such writers, followed by non-sequiturs and fallacies of transfer. But they’re not the only ones. Whole journals in sociolinguistics are dedicated to articles which make Hegel easy to read in comparison.

If you’re doing a postgraduate course, you’re given lists of books and articles at least half of which do nothing more than give you a headache. This, alas, is just the ammunition that those who want to attack the “ruling paradigm” of cognitive research into SLA, for example are looking for; the problem being, of course that these critics are more guilty of sins against critical thinking than those they attack. In any case, what we surely need is a body of research and discussion where authors speak clearly, make careful claims, acknowledge their limitations, and explore rather than insist on their claims.

As an academic discipline, applied linguistics is known for its proliferation of references: you won’t get a paper published in a “good” journal unless there are at least 30 references. Even academics who mark masters –level papers often go straight to the References section – as if there they’ll find the value of the paper. Published papers in applied linguistics are also infamous for their use of technical jargon and convoluted prose, especially those in the realm of sociolinguistics. It’s tempting to suggest that both these traits are associated with feelings of inferiority, and amusing to note that the post-modernists who accuse their opponents of “science envy” are the ones most guilty of these traits. (See Scott Thornbury’s comment for a perfectly justified rap on my knuckles for having given in to this temptation 🙂 )

I think what most concerns me in my academic life is the need for critical thinking. For me, the most important part of an academic’s trade is to think clearly and critically. I should add that, for me, this equates to rational thinking.

What marks out the real scholar is not knowledge but critical acumen; not displays of hundreds of references but the display of a coherent and cohesive argument; not prose that makes the author sound learned, but prose that cuts to the chase. As Forbes said “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one” (in other words, not a full one).

So here I offer a few fallacies which you should avoid, and a few views of critical thinking.

When writing a paper, the masters or doctoral student should have ever before her the reasoning that her writing develops. First, a few things she should avoid:

1. jumping to conclusions based on too few instances or on atypical instances of particular phenomena.
2. fallacies of transfer (claiming that what is true of a part is true of the whole, or claiming that what is true of the whole will be true of the parts).
3. the fallacy of refutation- also known as the Straw Man Argument. It occurs when an arguer attempts to refute an argument that was never raised or to restate a strong argument in a way that makes it appear weaker. Called a Straw Man because it focuses on an issue that is easy to overturn. Popper’s “The Open Society” is a famous example of a straw man argument against Hegel and Marx.
4. Non sequiturs: arguments in which the claim does not follow from the proof offered. Probably the most common of the lot.
5. Circular reasoning (begging the question) supports claims with reasons identical to the claims themselves. The grounds and warrant are equivalent in meaning to the claim they purport to support, thus making no inferential leap from grounds to claim. Krashen’s “theory” is a good example.
6. Ad Hominem- attacking the person and not the argument.
7. Forcing a Dichotomy- Either-or-choice, phrased in such a way that it forces them to favor the arguer’s preferred option. Also known as The False Dilemma because it makes the choices too simple.
8. Fallacies in appeal – to ignorance (something is true simply because it cannot be proven false); to emotion; to authority; to humour.
9. Fallacies in Language – ambiguity and equivocation; emotionally loaded language (Abortion is murder)
10. Technical Jargon- when the technical terms confuses the reader.

But the real issue is one’s approach to a text. Critical thinking suggests that we should first try as hard as we can to spot the fallacies, the most common of which, in academic papers, are numbers 1,3, 4, 5, 9 and 10 above. After that, we should interrogate the text more generally; not, as Fairclough suggests, to uncover its political implications (a worthy enterprise though that might be) but to judge its arguments; its logic, its reasoning, its evidence.

Below I give a few views of critical thinking.

1. Scriven and Paul (1987) Presentation at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fair-mindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of “idealism” by those habituated to its selfish use.

Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.

2. Paul and Elder (2008) The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press.

People who think critically are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies. They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking. They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason. They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest. They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others. They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement. They embody the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world

A well cultivated critical thinker:

• raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
• gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
• thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
• communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.

3. Glasser (1941) An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking. Teacher’s College, Columbia University.
Critical thinking involves three things:

1. an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one’s experiences;
2. knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and
3. some skill in applying those methods.

Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments, to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life.

Critical Thinking Web Sites

1. Roger Darlington gives a very good quick overview here:

2. The web page “Study Guides and Strategies” has a very good section on helping students apply critical thinking to their work on assignments. You can find it here: Once you get there, note that there are 3 parts: see the Menu on the left of the page.

3. Another good web site is “The Critical Thinking Web” which is here: This has a slightly more challenging series of pages, but it starts off very well, and then gets a bit more tricky. See it as a kind of thinking gymn where you can go for a good work-out!

There’s a nice, short, easy but informative video on this page:

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