Resurrecting Critical Thinking

@@In the Information Age the propensity for critical thinking has become arguably the most critical skill for practitioners@@ in all fields. With unprecedented access to a vast sea of information at the touch of a key stroke, the ability to filter and to critically evaluate are paramount. This is the great irony of the Information Age; @@at a time when the need has never been greater, critical thinking is seemingly a dying art@@. Increasingly we are plagued with superficial knowledge and incomplete understanding. @@We are beset on all sides by spurious reasoning and a preponderance of facile solutions@@. In this post we argue there is a need to resurrect critical thinking; we must understand the true meaning of skepticism and embrace it. Here we present the case that rediscovering these faculties will allow us to negotiate our way to free thought and provide the tools for independent learning to attain deeper understanding.


I recently wrote a guest article for Rob Pacey's Strength of Science website entitled 'Crimes Against Critical Thinking in the Face of a Good Story'. This was something of a call to arms for enemies of 'group think' and defenders of critical thinking.

@@Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect@@
— Mark Twain

More specifically, the theme of the article related to the manner in which popularised concepts or practices, and the hype that surrounds them, is received by practitioners. In the article I described an often observed phenomenon, which can be summed up by the phrase 'never let the truth get in the way of a good story'. Essentially, if the narrative presented appeals to a particular bias or something we wish to be true, we tend to unwittingly, and yet willingly, suspend our critical thinking.

It is beguilingly easy to succumb to this, particularly in the face of a message we find appealing. We must recognise and reconcile ourselves with this in order to resist.


@@Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think@@
— Albert Einstein

In the excellent article by Prof Daniel T Willingham, he delves into difficulties of fostering critical thinking in modern education. Whilst most in education would agree on the need to provide these skills to the learner, as Willingham writes there is no real consensus on what specifically critical thinking comprises.

Certainly, what attempts have been made to teach these higher order skills have to date been largely unsuccessful. A possible reason for this is that critical thinking represents a way of viewing the world, entertaining and assimilating new information, and engaging in independent thought and reasoning. There are parallels here with fostering abstract abilities such as creativity and problem-solving.


There are an increasing number of instances where social media is becoming the predominant source of information for the practitioner. Social media is often a great way to be alerted to new research or topical ideas and practices in the field. However, it remain critical to then seek out the source to discover more.

Too often practitioners are relying on soundbites or a snapshot, without taking the time to read the full content and independently evaluate the data presented. Essentially if the full extent of your information comes from an abstract or an infographic, you have fallen at the first hurdle.

By definition, the critical thinking process is contingent on first having the full information at your disposal. Sadly, getting access to this information often presents a challenge and can prove costly without open source publishing, or resources that provide a synthesis of current literature. That said, in this new era of connectivity it is often possible to reach out to the source - authors, practitioners and coaches are often amenable to having a conversation and responding to questions.


@@Data does not necessarily equal information
Information does not equal knowledge
Knowledge without context is not necessarily meaningful or useful@@

Sourcing (and then reading) the relevant information and literature available should be viewed as intelligence gathering. With the seas of information available, our ability to filter becomes a critical skill.

The process of intelligence gathering can be greatly expedited if our search can be directed to the most complete sources of information, and bypass what is not useful. That said, whilst there is very little we should swallow whole, there is usually something we can take from most publications or information sources.

It is equally critical to consider what you are using this information for. If you use what you have read as a shield to defend a position, this should be a warning sign. Likewise, if you find yourself simply parroting what you have read, this should also give you pause.

We must be clear in our aim, which ultimately is to derive an independent and balanced conclusion on the topic, that considers a variety of sources and diverging perspectives.


Returning to the notion of intelligence gathering, clearly we must retain an open mind in order to entertain new ideas, even if they differ to what we presently believe to be true.

Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.
— Brian Dunning

Another part of the intelligence gathering process is that we must consider the source. We must consider their motivation (and possible agendas), in relation to how the information is presented and the message that is conveyed. We must independently evaluate the data, and weigh the evidence, in order to establish whether the data in fact support the conclusions presented. We then take what makes sense and add it as a piece in the jigsaw.


As noted in the second part of the quote above, just as we must evaluate the source and the motivations of the authors, we must also consider our own preconceptions.

As we spoke about earlier, the process and level of scrutiny applied should be the same whether or not the view presented aligns with our opinion or bias. We cannot become lax or suspend our critical thinking simply because we find the message agreeable.

We must scrutinise every assumption

Periodically we should critically evaluate our opinions on various topics and the assumptions that underpin them. Nothing should be beyond scrutiny.


In this post we have explored some of the challenges and pitfalls faced by practitioners and coaches in our quest to resurrect critical thinking in this era of connectivity, mobile technology and social media. We have also described the key steps in the process of critical thinking. Our task begins with 'intelligence gathering', whereby we source and filter the information available before independently evaluating the data presented.

As we have discussed we must retain both an open mind to entertain new concepts and ideas, and also healthy skepticism to scrutinise the information and conclusions presented. We must also apply the same scrutiny to our own assumptions and opinions, in order for our understanding to evolve.

Finally, we must synthesise what we have gleaned from a variety of sources to arrive at a balanced and considered view. Each step in the process involves a range of skills; clearly our task is far from straightforward. Nevertheless, for coaches, practitioners, and indeed athletes, @@critical thinking represents the principal means to remain informed in the Information Age@@.

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