For every human being thinking comes naturally, but we typically do not think systematically and effectively, much of our thinking left to itself, has many limitations and failings.1 Our thinking is often biased, unfocused, distorted, partial, uninformed and largely unconscious. People often have no conception of what standards they use for validation. Most of what we know is derived from what our peers have said, what we have been socialized into with only limited standards of validation placed upon it. The effective use of reasoning has to be systematically learned, cultivated and practiced; this is done through the application of stands to our thinking.
It is the nature of the mind to create thoughts, though the quality of that creation varies enormously from person to person. Achievement of quality requires standards of quality. We are thinking systematically or critically when we rely on reason rather than emotion; require evidence; ignore no known evidence; follow evidence wherever it leads; are concerned more with finding the best explanation than being right; analyze apparent contradictions in our reasoning; ask questions and seek knowledge that is valid within all frames of reference, not just one. Systematic thinking involves doing the work necessary to research and understand things for oneself, instead of giving the responsibility to another.
Universal intellectual standards are standards which must be applied to thinking whenever one is interested in checking the quality of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation.2 To think critically entails having command of these standards. While there are many standards, the Foundation for Critical Thinking defines a list of the central elements of effective reasoning including:
Clarity: is the quality of being clear, coherent and intelligible. Clarity is a universal standard for reasoning, if a proposition is unclear, we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant. In fact, we cannot tell anything about it because we do not yet know what it is saying. Thinking and statements have to be refined in order to simplify and clarify them.
Accuracy: is the degree to which the result of a statement or piece of information conforms to the correct state. Is the statement accurate enough to deal with the topic at hand? Can we check that it is accurate? And how accurate is it, can we measure its degree of accuracy?
Precision: it is possible to make many statements that are clear and accurate but not precise and thus have little value. For example, saying there are many galaxies in the universe does not really inform us of anything at all as it is too imprecise.
Relevance: is what is being said relevant to the topic? or is the thinking relevant to the problem at hand? Lack of relevance in thought or speak will achieve little and is one way of avoiding the issue. Effective reasoning should be adapted specifically to the task at hand and not dealing with some other issue.
Depth: Does one’s thinking have sufficient depth to deal with the complexities at hand? Simple questions require only simple answers, complex issues require a depth of insight and thinking. One should be able to think deeply about an issue if needed, superficial thinking is typically of little value when dealing with a topic of any complexity.
Breadth: have we made a full inquiry, gathering data from a wide and diverse set of sources? Is there a sufficient number of perspectives included in the analysis to achieve an inclusive conclusion? It is possible to go deeply into some specific issue without going horizontally to achieve sufficient breadth of vision and a holistic perspective on the issue.
Logic: Is our reasoning logically consistent? Parts of it may be logically consistent but, does it all fit together without inconsistencies? When the aggregate thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination, then one is thinking in a logical fashion. When the combination in some way is contradictory it is not logical. Our reasoning has to make sense as a whole.
Fairness: are we conducting an open minded unbiased inquiry into the situation? Have we determined our desired conclusion before starting the process of reasoning? If so, then it is not truly a fair process. There are many ways that our own prejudices and self-interests can enter in to manipulate our conclusions toward certain ends, have we given full thought to how that may be present in our reasoning?