You can think better, tech philosopher Tom Chatfield promises. He offers engaging explanations of the principles of critical thinking and, as examples, applies these principles to timely, relevant issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. He covers how to question your own assumptions and biases, improve your attention and formulate strong, logical arguments. This commonsense, practical personal development book offers helpful tools for anyone who wants to think and discuss more clearly and rationally.
- Thinking about your own thinking can help you understand yourself and the world.
- Attentiveness and reflection build habits that support clear and critical thinking.
- Strive for clarity and logic in framing your arguments, and in understanding those you hear and read.
- Question and engage with your own and others’ assumptions.
- Give good reasons for the arguments you make.
- Seek meaningful explanations for the world around you, and consider the strongest arguments in favor of the viewpoints you encounter.
- Creativity can take many forms – find a process that works for you.
- Seek the story behind numbers and statistics.
- No technology is neutral: Notice whom it benefits.
Thinking about your own thinking can help you understand yourself and the world.
People see the world through the lens of their own perspectives. You’ll perceive and experience events such as the COVID-19 pandemic in your own individual way, based on your age, wealth, ethnicity and location, among other factors that can influence your thinking. To think more objectively, actively reflect on your thought processes.
“This thinking-about-thinking is sometimes called metacognition.”
T0 find the blind spots in your thinking, be as clear as possible about the question you seek to answer. Explore the question and what you don’t know about it. Seek out information, and get advice from trusted sources. Keep revisiting and reassessing your knowledge. Self-interrogation and reflection will help you understand yourself and the world.
Attentiveness and reflection build habits that support clear and critical thinking.
In your day-to-day routine, you perform everyday tasks without deep and profound analytical thought. If these functions required significant mental energy, you probably wouldn’t leave the house. For much of daily life, humans rely on habits, instincts and emotions, and heuristics. Habits are things you do with sufficient regularity that they require little conscious thought. Instincts and emotions, such as tiredness, hunger and thirst, lead you to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help you make decisions, such as what to eat in an unfamiliar restaurant or which political candidate to support.
Emotions and heuristics work best when the context is familiar, in an evolutionary sense. For example, humans have been making judgments about one another’s trustworthiness for centuries, so emotions have evolved to help.
“Aim to practice constructive doubt by taking a lively, curious interest in how knowledge can be acquired within a particular field – and how this knowledge can be tested and improved.”
People also draw on personal expertise to make judgments, as when a firefighter evaluates the danger of a blaze. In novel or complex situations, or ones that require expertise you don’t have – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – a response called constructive doubt will serve you better. When you respond with constructive doubt, you recognize that you lack enough information or experience to make a judgment. Instead, you think deeply about what matters most in the situation.
To make your thinking clearer and more critical, always pay attention, and take time to reconsider your first response. Keep an open and curious attitude toward new ideas. Practice empathy regarding others’ perspectives.
Strive for clarity and logic in framing your arguments, and in understanding those you hear and read.
To help people understand your ideas, explain them in clear, concrete, everyday language. Precise-sounding technical terms can confuse readers or listeners. To achieve clarity in your writing, use an iterative process. First, plan, research and take notes. Next, write. Then read what you’ve written, taking your audience’s perspective. Continue to reread and edit your work to make it as clear as possible.
“Good writing is dependent upon good reading – and, in particular, upon becoming an attentive reader and re-reader of your own work.”
In order to change readers’ minds, writers often use emotional appeals. This tactic isn’t inherently good or bad, but it is a common persuasive strategy, and you should be aware of its presence. Much of people’s argumentation – and thinking, for that matter – involves fallacies: statements that make a particular claim seem reasonable but don’t make logical sense. Common fallacies include appeals to emotion, nature, authority, tradition or popularity – for example, “A million people can’t be wrong” or, “It’s always been done this way.”
Look for the following fallacies in other people’s arguments, and be careful to avoid them in your own:
- “Whataboutery” – claiming the issue under discussion has less importance than other issues, as a pretext to change the subject.
- Conspiracy theories – suggesting a hidden sinister truth, one “they” don’t want you to know, would explain things.
- Ad hominem – implying you can dismiss anything someone says because of the speaker’s identity.
- Non sequitur – a conclusion that doesn’t follow logically from the facts.
- False dilemma – presenting a set of alternatives as if no other options exist.
- Anecdotal evidence – giving a single example as if it proved a general principle.
Question and engage with your own and others’ assumptions.
Assumptions are ideas and facts you take for granted as being true. For example, you might assume that the words on a page convey the same meaning to you as they do to others. In discussions about COVID-19 vaccines, for example, people make many assumptions about natural immunity, the trustworthiness of science, risk, power and liberty. Different people hold fundamentally different assumptions about these concepts.
When you’re discussing a topic with a group of individuals who hold different assumptions, you can facilitate understanding by asking everyone to articulate their points of view. Clarify the areas where you agree and disagree. Focus on ideas rather than the people involved. Consider different lines of reasoning, and debate and test all proposed ideas, taking nothing for granted. Decide on a final course of action by majority consent.
“No matter how self-evident they seem to us, the assumptions our ideas rest upon may need spelling out to others.”
Because assumptions often link to identity, people tend to take an accusatory stance against those who disagree with them. Instead, engage constructively with your own and others’ assumptions by investigating rather than accusing. Do your best to understand where your own and others’ worldviews come from, and seek common ground.
Give good reasons for the arguments you make.
An argument consists of a line of reasoning that supports a conclusion. An assertion, on the other hand, simply makes a claim. For example, if you tell a friend not to eat at a certain restaurant because a meal there gave you food poisoning, you’ve made an argument; if you only tell the person you dislike the restaurant, you’ve made an assertion. The statements that make up an argument are called premises. The so-called standard form is a simplified way of laying out an argument, so you can study it: In the standard form, you list the premises, in order, and state the conclusion at the end. Spelling out the explicit and implicit premises of an argument allows you to clarify the thinking and pinpoint weaknesses.
Two main kinds of arguments exist: deductive and inductive. In deductive reasoning, the conclusion follows from the premises, according to logical rules. For example, “If X and Y are true, then Z is also true.” In inductive reasoning, a conclusion follows from the observation of a pattern.
Seek meaningful explanations for the world around you, and consider the strongest arguments in favor of the viewpoints you encounter.
When you encounter a point of view you disagree with, build “steel men” instead of “straw men.” Building a straw man means oversimplifying an argument so you can easily dismiss it. Instead, state the strongest possible version of every argument you encounter. This way, you learn as much as possible from the person’s position and put your own ideas to a meaningful test.
“You should try to extract the maximum possible truthful and reasonable content from what others say, especially if they disagree with you.”
When you seek to explain the world around you, search for explanations that offer rich insight and understanding. A worthy explanation is simple, accounts for all relevant information and doesn’t ignore contradictory information. Challenge your beliefs by seeking falsification: evidence that would show them to be wrong. Be alert to confirmation bias: the human tendency to see evidence that confirms existing beliefs and to ignore evidence that falsifies them.
Creativity can take many forms – find a process that works for you.
In contrast to imagination, which occurs in the privacy of your mind, creativity brings a new work – a novel, song or business project, for example – into existence. Anyone can exercise creativity, not just certain people in “artistic” jobs such as singers, actors and writers. You can be creative in everyday life while doing mundane tasks. Originality doesn’t mean creating something totally new; often, it involves finding a new angle to answer an existing question.
Creativity can take place through divergent thinking – freely generating different ideas – or convergent thinking: selecting one particular idea to develop and discarding others. Children tend to engage in divergent thinking; educational systems usually teach convergent thinking.
“Creativity is not so much a single, spontaneous act as a process. It is something that can be learned, taught and practiced, and encompasses convergent and divergent ways of thinking.”
Anthropologist and artist Eitan Buchalter proposes a six-step process for creative thinking. He recommends first identifying an area of interest. Then reflect on your knowledge, playfully experiment, record your findings and research other work done in the area. Review what you’ve learned, and synthesize that knowledge to think more creatively.
When you approach creative work, set a practical goal, consider the obstacles you face and the assets you have, and make a decision about what specific actions you’ll take. When collaborating, emphasize communication and focus on common values. Engage in active listening: Attend closely to what the other person says; don’t interrupt; ask specific questions to clarify; and summarize your understanding.
Seek the story behind numbers and statistics.
Many people view numbers as objective measures of the world; they see data as unbiased, raw material and statistics as the direct result of processing this raw data. The reality is less clear-cut. To improve your assessments of claims that include statistics, learn how statistics work.
Several signs can indicate that a statistics-based claim might be unreliable. Look for phrases like “up to” or “as much as” – these suggest the writer or speaker is using the maximum end of a range for emotional impact. Also watch for comparisons of two unrelated phenomena as if they had a causal connection – for example, when politicians compare household debt and national debt. Other clues include the use of misleading visuals, mentioning very large numbers with little explanation, and placing a misleading focus on percentage changes versus absolute changes. Media outlets often take statistics out of context and sensationalize them. Always dig into the story behind the numbers.
“All data is made, not found. And unless you have some awareness of the processes through which it’s made, you’re likely to fall into error.”
No statistic perfectly describes reality. This gap between reality and statistics often results from variability. For example, a population statistic reflects the population at one particular moment in time, but births, deaths, immigration and emigration constantly change the real number. Statistical samples should be as representative as possible. For example, if you want to find out how to run a company, you should sample the opinions of CEOs, not those of random people on the street. Any statistic’s soundness depends on how well the data represent the phenomenon, and a statistic’s usefulness depends on your awareness of its limitations.
No technology is neutral: Notice whom it benefits.
Fundamental differences exist between artificial intelligence (AI) and human thinking. AI can process larger volumes of data than humans can process, and at greater speed. AI provides answers, performing exceptionally well in identifying and analyzing patterns; human intelligence asks questions, applies imagination, and seeks meaningful understanding.
“There is no such thing as a neutral system or tool.”
No algorithm-based technology is neutral. For example, when schools shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Kingdom tested an algorithmic tool to predict the results students would have achieved if they’d been able to take their exams. AI-generated predictions consistently gave students lower scores than teachers predicted, in patterns that reflected existing systemic inequities. Be aware of AI’s limitations, and always seek to apply technology in an ethical and critically engaged way.
About the Author
Tom Chatfield is a British tech philosopher, broadcaster and author. His books include Critical Thinking, How to Thrive in the Digital Age and Fun Inc.
In an age where information is abundant, but critical thinking skills are scarce, Tom Chatfield’s “How to Think: Your Essential Guide to Clear, Critical Thought” offers a timely and essential guide to help individuals develop robust thinking habits. This book review provides an in-depth analysis of Chatfield’s work, highlighting its strengths, weaknesses, and relevance in today’s society.
Structure and Approach
Chatfield’s approach to teaching critical thinking is refreshingly accessible and engaging. The book is divided into four parts, each building upon the previous section, and culminating in practical tools and techniques for everyday life.
- Part One: The Virtues of Clarity – Chatfield begins by emphasizing the importance of clear thinking and establishes a framework for understanding the cognitive processes that underpin it.
- Part Two: The Traps of Thinking – The author skillfully dissects common cognitive biases and fallacies, equipping readers with the ability to recognize and avoid these pitfalls.
- Part Three: The Art of Reasoning – Chatfield provides a comprehensive guide to logical reasoning, demonstrating how to construct and deconstruct arguments, and how to identify and challenge assumptions.
- Part Four: The Power of Critique – In the final section, the author emphasizes the significance of critique in the thinking process and offers practical strategies for effective critical analysis.
- Practicality – Chatfield’s approach is firmly rooted in practicality. Throughout the book, he provides relatable examples and exercises, ensuring that readers can apply their newly acquired skills in real-life scenarios.
- Accessibility – The author’s writing style is clear, concise, and engaging, making the book accessible to a broad audience, including those without a background in philosophy or psychology.
- Relevance – “How to Think” addresses the pressing need for critical thinking skills in today’s society, where misinformation and confirmation bias are rampant. Chatfield’s guide offers a timely solution, empowering readers to navigate the complexities of modern life.
- Holistic Approach – Chatfield’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence makes the book a valuable resource for personal and professional development.
- Lack of Depth in Certain Areas – While Chatfield provides an excellent introduction to critical thinking, some topics, such as logical fallacies, could benefit from more in-depth analysis and examples.
- Limited Discussion of Emotional Intelligence – Although the author highlights the importance of emotional intelligence, the topic receives less attention than other areas of critical thinking.
Relevance and Impact
Chatfield’s “How to Think” has significant implications for various aspects of modern society, including:
- Education – The book’s practical approach and accessible language make it an ideal resource for teachers, students, and lifelong learners seeking to enhance their critical thinking skills.
- Business – The ability to think critically is essential for effective decision-making, problem-solving, and communication in the workplace. Chatfield’s guide offers valuable insights and strategies for professionals looking to enhance their cognitive abilities.
- Personal Development – By fostering critical thinking, readers can improve their ability to navigate the complexities of personal relationships, consumerism, and the digital age.
In conclusion, Tom Chatfield’s “How to Think: Your Essential Guide to Clear, Critical Thought” is a compelling and accessible guide to developing robust critical thinking skills. Its practical approach, relevance, and emphasis on the interconnectedness of critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence make it an invaluable resource for personal and professional development. While some areas could benefit from more in-depth analysis, Chatfield’s work remains an essential read for anyone seeking to enhance their cognitive abilities and navigate the complexities of modern life.