critical thinking

5 Steps to Sharpen Your Thinking

Do you believe what everyone else does and go along with the flow but with a nagging doubt at the back of your mind that you’re not sure that it’s all as it should be?

What you need is to develop your critical thinking skills so you can sift information to form sharper and better informed opinions. You can then make better life decisions based on a firm foundation of accurate knowledge.

So how do you become more discerning and sharper in what you let into our minds?

Let’s start with an example. Is the following statement true?

Anti-oxidants are good for you and eating loads of them prevents disease.

Unfortunately, it isn’t true. Researchers had hoped that anti-oxidants would mop up free-radicals in the body – the theory and what the media pounced on. But when tested in practice the results didn’t stand up (not so exciting for the media). I’ll let you know where I found this out later if you don’t believe me.

So here are 5 steps to sharpen your mind up.

1. Stop being lazy and don’t just read the same old stuff

If you’re input is the sensationalist press then you’re not necessarily going to get a highly balanced and in-depth view. It’s very easy to skim the popular news media and read the blogs of the fanciful amateur and get suckered.

A diet of tougher reading may mean smaller print and less entertainment though not necessarily so as you’ll see later.

This sort of reading isn’t something that everyone can adjust to overnight but take your time, pick a subject and build up an appetite for the in depth, serious and well researched.

2. Learn the art of critical appraisal

Just because someone is wearing a white coat and has mail-order qualifications you shouldn’t accept what they say. You need to learn to critically appraise the information and the information giver. Here are some questions to ask to help do this:

Do they have vested interested? Does the story originate from someone trying to sell you something or promote how good they are? Is there an conflict of interest which could lead to bias?

Is the evidence all that they say it is? This can range from taking results out of context to not enough data (technically known as small sample size) to meaningful conclude anything. Is the data even real! Shocking, but true people have made things up! You might need to track back and seek out the underlying research. Academic papers are available on line in full text (charges can apply) or summary form.

Are the numbers absolute or relative? Give me a moment of this one! Gerd Gigerenzer has written extensively on this and a quick illustration is worth giving. If a new treatment has 2 in 1000 people with side effects as opposed to 1 in 1000 the results should be stated like that rather than “new treatment doubles side effects” a relative and sensationalist statement that will create fear in people taking what might be a more effective treatment with a still low risk (0.2%) of side effect.

3. Challenge everything

There’s a lot of things you should challenge particularly when the message giver has a interest in the information being presented. Science, medicine, psychology and technology are all areas that require a sharp and enquiring mind.

Even headline news like the economy needs critical appraisal.

Firstly, it’s often taken as a given that economic growth is good thing. But what if the economy is growing because of growth in industries such as arms and tobacco that you might not think is a good thing? Secondly, how the growth is stated is misleading. Normally it’s stated as Gross Domestic Product for a country. Which is fine but for a country like Britain where the population is growing significantly the economy will expand just because there are more people. Stating per capita GDP would be more reasonable but not if you’re a politician wanting to present your economic turnaround miracle.

There’s also a lot of claims on how success can be achieved. So, always question how valid or provable any claim is. For instance, celebrity success stories (sample size of 1!) often tell us nothing about how they really become a success. Others who did the same but failed won’t get reported on and who’s to say if the success story will rightly attribute, or even reveal, the real success factors, including luck?

4. Find some trust worthy sources

It’s not everyone out there that has a hidden agenda and wants you to believe stuff for their own advantage. Sometimes it’s just incompetence on the behalf of those who report these things.

The good news is that there are some very diligent writers out there who we can trust. The best thing to do is to build a list of these people who go back to proven sources (sound academically rigorous research) and report it back without bias.

I’ve found the following helpful: Gary Taubes and Ben Goldacre on medicine and nutrition;

Oliver Burkeman on self help; and Richard Wiseman on Psychology.

It was Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science that put me straight on anti-oxidants. An entertaining read from a highly qualified doctor.

5. Keep your radar open

The first point was about not reading the same old stuff. As you stretch your reading the risk is you develop a nice list of pet authors and just stick with them. Keeping a critical judgement means keeping the radar open to new sources and new issues. There’s never a point to sit back and rest.

Being more critical in your thinking will give you a more accurate basis for action, action that will therefore be more effective than those who are following the the latest fad or misleading headline.

Peter Ewin Hall is the creator of where he writes on the theme of “Cutting your own path”, encouraging creativity and adventure.