“Critical thinking” is a skill considered to be very valuable in many settings: in schools, in workplaces, in making financial decisions, even in choosing who and what to vote for. But what IS it, exactly?
The answer to that is unfortunately pretty muddy, partly because once the idea of critical thinking became popular, then many who were producing educational resources wanted to use the term to describe their products, and therefore redefined it to be something that their products were designed to do.
Fortunately, there is a phrase that’s been used to describe critical thinking which, once broken down, becomes quite clear and understandable. It’s “constructive skepticism.”
Constructive, because even though the phrase “Critical thinking” includes the word “critical,” the purpose of critical thinking is not simply to find fault and tear something down. In fact, it’s rather the opposite—the goal is to build your own understanding and knowledge of something.
If you are thinking critically as you read or watch or hear something, you do so in the hopes that you’ll be able to take away something useful from that experience. The word critical in this sense does not mean “fault-finding”, it means, per Merriam Webster, “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation.” This is presumably related to its derivation from the old Middle English word cretic, which meant “at a turning point.” If you are at a turning point, then you’re about to make an important decision, and in doing so you will naturally want to exercise careful judgment.
When you’re considering choices and actions related to improving or maintaining your health, those events can certainly be thought of as turning points, and therefore an excellent time to exercise careful judgment as you read or listen to what others have to say about those choices and actions.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where just because someone writes or says something doesn’t mean it’s true. And that’s where skepticism comes in—you don’t choose to believe something unless you have good reasons to think that it’s true.
Think for a minute about a health-related article that you might read in some publication. If you are “constructively skeptical” about what you’re reading, then you will be looking for information and understandings that have value to you, but you will also be exercising careful judgment regarding what to believe and what not to believe. If you’re doing that, then you are thinking critically.
Here’s something that can be helpful in that regard: a short set of questions you can ask yourself about what you’re reading:
1) Do I have reason to believe that the author of this article knows what they’re talking about?
a. Are they experienced in this field?
b. Are they recognized experts?
c. Do they have any sort of financial interest in making me believe what they’re saying?
d. Do those who endorse this author or support their work have any sort of financial interest in making me believe what they’re saying?
e. Have I read other articles by this author that have proven to be true?
2) Is there objective data that supports the claims and statements in the article, or is it just the author’s opinion?
3) Does this seem true or false to me based on other things that I know to be true or false? (When asking yourself this question, you’ll want to be willing to re-evaluate the other things you “know” to be true or false. Maybe they’re not as true/false as you thought they were, or true/false only in certain circumstances.)
4) Is this article, or this author, logically consistent? That is to say, does it/they offer one claim or piece of information in one place and a contradictory claim or contradictory information someplace else?
This is just a sampling—it’s not hard to find plenty of useful critical thinking questions. But these four alone can help you distinguish useful health information from vested interest-driven misinformation.
That said, there’s a step you’ll need to take before even asking yourself these questions, and in fact before you start reading. It’s probably the most important decision you will make as you seek to build your own knowledge and understanding in making important health decisions, and it’s a decision that most consumers of health information never make. It is simply this: In order to succeed in critical thinking, you must decide that you have the right to think critically regarding what you’re reading or hearing.
This may seem obvious, but most of us have been subjected to years of training in simply accepting the truth of what we read or hear without evaluating it ourselves. This long-term process of indoctrination is called “schooling,” and it’s a process in which the failure to agree is punished by poor grades and the specter of future failure. While there are many educators who swim upstream in this river and try to take their students with them, the current is so strong that we all end up traveling downstream to some extent. If you don’t think it’s happened to you, ask yourself if you have ever taken a test which included true/false or single answer multiple choice questions. If so, then you’ve been subjected to anti-critical thinking indoctrination. Recognizing that, you can grant yourself the power to decide for yourself, and once you’ve done that, you’ve taken that crucial first step.
Two final points:
- Critical thinking is not just something to engage in regarding what you read, it’s also a tool to use in relation to what you hear. And not just what you hear from your friends or acquaintances in casual conversations, but also what you hear from medical professionals. Part of the need for critical thinking in those situations is the pervasive influence of vested interests in the medical industry, but even where practitioners have successfully resisted that influence, they may not know what they’re talking about just because it wasn’t part of their own education. D.’s, for example, generally receive little to no training in nutrition.
- In order to determine whether something seems true or false according to your own understandings, you have to such understandings. In fact, researchers have determined that effective critical thinking about a topic requires the aspiring critical thinker to have quite a bit of pre-existing knowledge in the topic. So, once you’ve granted yourself the right to exercise careful judgment about what you read or hear, you’ll also want to improve your ability to do so, by getting yourself better educated on that topic.
That’s what we’re here to help you with. We have no interest in persuading you to buy any particular health product or medical treatment, only in helping you achieve greater understanding of how your own body works so that you’re in a better position to make those decisions for yourself. We have spent many hundreds of hours thinking critically about health, and every eSavvyHealth article, guidebook and course is a result of such thought.
Our hope is that you will also think as critically about what you read here as you do any other source of health information, and that as a result you will become more and more empowered to, as we say, “confidently chart a course to a healthy life.”
 Why nutrition education is inadequate in the medical curriculum: a qualitative study of students’ perspectives on barriers and strategies