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Taking a Deeper Look at Universal Intellectual Standards

Thinking critically requires command of fundamental intellectual standards. Critical thinkers routinely ask questions that apply intellectual standards to thinking. The ultimate goal is for these questions to become so spontaneous in thinking that they form a natural part of our inner voice, guiding us to better and better reasoning. In this section, we focus on the standards and questions that apply across the various facets of your life.


Questions that focus on clarity include:

Clarity is a gateway standard. If a statement is unclear, we cannot determine whether it is accurate or relevant. In fact, we cannot tell anything about it because we don't yet know what is being said. For example, the question "What can be done about the education system in America?" is unclear. To adequately address the question, we would need a clearer understanding of what the person asking the question is considering the "problem" to be. A clearer question might be, "What can educators do to ensure that students learn the skills and abilities that help them function successfully on the job and in their daily decision-making?" This question, because of its increased clarity, provides a better guide to thinking. It lays out in a more definitive way the intellectual task at hand.

Test the Idea
Converting Unclear Thoughts to Clear Thoughts

Can you convert an unclear thought to one that is clear? Suppose you are engaged in a discussion about welfare and one person says, "Let's face it - welfare is corrupt!" What does this mean? What could it mean?

It could mean some very different things. It could mean, "The very idea of giving people goods and services they have not personally earned is equivalent to stealing money from those who have earned it" (a moral claim). Or it could mean, "The welfare laws have so many loopholes that people are receiving money and services that were not envisioned when the laws were initially formulated" (a legal claim). Or it could mean, "The people who receive welfare so often lie and cheat to falsify the documents they submit that they should be thrown in jail" (a claim about the ethical character of the recipients).

Now, take this statement: "She is a good employee." This statement is unclear. Because we don't know the context within which this statement is being made, we aren't sure in what way "she" is "good." Formulate three possible meanings of this statement.

Now take the statement, "He is a jerk." Again, formulate three possible different meanings of this statement.

When you become skilled in differentiating what is clear and what is unclear, you will find that much of the time we are unclear both about what we are thinking and about what we are saying.

Clarifying a Problem You Face at Work

Now take a problem you are currently facing at work. Write down the problem as clearly as possible. Then see if you can reformulate the problem so that it is even clearer. Reformulate the problem until you are very clear about the issue you are facing.


Questions focusing on making thinking more accurate include:

A statement may be clear but not accurate, as in, "Most dogs weigh more than 300 pounds." To be accurate is to represent something in accordance with the way it actually is. People often present or describe things or events in a way that is not in accordance with the way things actually are. People frequently misrepresent or falsely describe things, especially when they have a vested interest in the description. Advertisers often do this to keep a buyer from seeing the weaknesses in a product. If an advertisement states, "Our water is 100% pure" when, in fact, the water contains trace amounts of chemicals such as chlorine and lead, it is inaccurate. If an advertisement says, "this bread contains 100% whole wheat" when the whole wheat has been bleached and enriched and the bread contains many additives, the advertisement is inaccurate.

Good thinkers listen carefully to statements and, when there is reason for skepticism, question whether what they hear is true and accurate. In the same way, they question the extent to which what they read is correct, when asserted as fact. Critical thinking, then, implies a healthy skepticism about public descriptions as to what is and is not fact.

At the same time, because we tend to think from a narrow, self-serving perspective, assessing ideas for accuracy can be difficult. We naturally tend to believe that our thoughts are automatically accurate just because they are ours, and therefore that the thoughts of those who disagree with us are inaccurate. We also fail to question statements that others make that conform to what we already believe, while we tend to question statements that conflict with our views. But as critical thinkers, we force ourselves to accurately assess our own views as well as those of others. We do this even if it means facing deficiencies in our thinking.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Inaccurate Statements

Can you identify a statement that you heard recently that was clear but inaccurate? You will find an abundance of examples in everyday statements that people often make in praise or criticism. People in general have a tendency to make two kinds of inaccurate statements: false positives about the people they personally like (these would be untrue positive statements about people they like) and false negatives about the people they personally dislike (untrue negative things about people they don't like). Politically motivated statements tend to follow a similar pattern. See if you can think of an example of an inaccurate statement from your recent experience. Write out your answer.

In Search of the Facts

One of the most important critical thinking skills is the skill of assessing the accuracy of "factual" claims (someone's assertion that such-and-so is a fact).

In an ad in the New York Times (Nov. 29, 1999, p. A15), a coalition of 60 nonprofit organizations accused the World Trade Organization (a coalition of 134 nation states) of operating in secret, undermining democratic institutions and the environment. In the process of doing this, the nonprofit coalition argued that the working class and the poor have not significantly benefited as a result of the last 20 years of rapid expansion of global trade. They alleged, among other things, the following facts:

  1. "American CEOs are now paid, on average, 419 times more than line workers, and the ratio is increasing."

  2. "Median hourly wages for workers are down by 10% in the last 10 years."

  3. "The top 20% of the U.S. population owns 84.6% of the country's wealth."

  4. "The wealth of the world's 475 billionaires now equals the annual incomes of more than 50% of the world population combined."

Using whatever sources you can find (including the Website of the Turning Point Project, the nonprofit coalition,, discuss the probable accuracy of the factual claims. For example, visit the Web site of the World Trade Organization ( They might challenge some of the facts alleged or advance facts of their own that put the charges of the nonprofit coalition into a different perspective.


Questions focusing on making thinking more precise include:

A statement can be both clear and accurate but not precise, as in "Jack is overweight." (We don't know how overweight Jack is - 1 pound or 500 pounds.) To be precise is to give the details needed for someone to understand exactly what is meant. Some situations don't call for detail. If you ask, "Is there any milk in the refrigerator?" and I answer "Yes," both the question and the answer are probably precise enough for the circumstance (though it might be relevant to specify how much milk is there). Or imagine that you are ill and go to the doctor. He wouldn't say, "Take 1.4876946 antibiotic pills twice per day." This level of specificity, or precision, would be beyond that which is useful in the situation.

In many situations, however, specifics are essential to good thinking. Let's say that your friend is having financial problems and asks you, "What should I do about my situation?" In this case, you want to probe her thinking for specifics. Without the full specifics, you could not help her. You might ask questions such as, "What precisely is the problem? What exactly are the variables that bear on the problem? What are some possible solutions to the problem-in detail?

Test the Idea
Recognizing when Precision is Needed

Can you think of a recent situation at work or at home in which you needed more details to figure something out, a circumstance in which, because you didn't have the details, you experienced some negative consequences? For example, have you ever been given directions to someone's house, directions that seemed precise enough at the time? Yet when you tried to find the person's house, you got lost because of lack of details in the directions?

First identify a situation in which the details and specifics were important (for example, in buying a house, a computer, or a car). Then identify the negative consequences that resulted because you didn't get the details you needed to think well in the situation.


Questions focusing on relevance include:

A statement can be clear, accurate, and precise, but not relevant to the question at issue. For example, students often think the amount of effort they put into a course should contribute to raising their grade in the course. Often, however, effort does not measure the quality of student learning and therefore is irrelevant to the grade. Something is relevant when it is directly connected with and bears upon the issue at hand. Something is also relevant when it is pertinent or applicable to a problem we are trying to solve. Irrelevant thinking encourages us to consider what we should set aside. Thinking that is relevant stays on track. People are often irrelevant in their thinking because they lack discipline in thinking. They don't know how to analyze an issue for what truly bears on it. Therefore, they aren't able to effectively think their way through the problems and issues they face.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Irrelevant Statements

Can you identify a statement you heard recently that was clear, accurate, and sufficiently precise, but irrelevant to the circumstance, problem, or issue? Though we all sometimes stray from a question or task, we need to be sensitive to when failure to stay on task may have a significant negative implication.

Identify, first, circumstances in which people tend to introduce irrelevant considerations into a discussion (for example, in meetings, in response to questions in class, in everyday dialogue when they have a hidden agenda - or simply want to get control of the conversation for some reason).


Questions focusing on depth of thought include:

We think deeply when we get beneath the surface of an issue or problem, identify the complexities inherent in it, and then deal with those complexities in an intellectually responsible way. Even when we think deeply and deal well with the complexities in a question, we may find the question difficult to address. Still, our thinking will work better for us when we can recognize complicated questions and address each area of complexity in it.

A statement can be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant, but superficial - lacking in depth. Let's say you are asked what should be done about the problem of drug use in America and you answer by saying, "Just say no." This slogan, which was for several years used to discourage children and teens from using drugs, is clear, accurate, precise, and relevant. Nevertheless, it lacks depth because it treats an extremely complex issue superficially - i.e. it hardly addresses the pervasive problem of drug use among people in our culture. It does not address the history of the problem, the politics of the problem, the economics of the problem, the psychology of addiction, and so on.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Superficial Approaches

Identify a problem you have experienced at work where the solutions presented to the problem were superficial in nature. If decisions were made based on this surface thinking, what were the consequences that followed from the decision? If final decisions have not yet been made on this issue, try to think of some implications (or potential consequences) of following the superficial thinking that has been presented to deal with the problem.


Questions focusing on making thinking broader include:

A line of reasoning may be clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and deep, but lack breadth. Examples are arguments from either the conservative or the liberal standpoint that get deeply into an issue but show insight into only one side of the question.

When we consider the issue at hand from every relevant viewpoint, we think in a broad way. When multiple points of view are pertinent to the issue, yet we fail to give due consideration to those perspectives, we think myopically, or narrow-mindedly. We do not try to understand alternative, or opposing, viewpoints.

Humans are frequently guilty of narrow-mindedness for many reasons: limited education, innate socio-centrism, natural selfishness, self-deception, and intellectual arrogance. Points of view that significantly disagree with our own often threaten us. It's much easier to ignore perspectives with which we disagree than to consider them, when we know at some level that to consider them would mean to be forced to reconsider our views.

Let's say, for example, that you like to watch/listen to TV in the bedroom as a way of falling to sleep. But let's say that your spouse has difficulty falling to sleep while the TV is on. The question at issue, then, is "Should you have the TV on in the bedroom while you and your spouse are falling asleep?" It is easy enough to rationalize your "need" to have the TV on every night while falling asleep, by saying such things to your spouse as "It is impossible for me to fall asleep without the TV on. And, after all, I really don't ask that much of you. Besides, you don't seem to have any real problem falling to sleep with the TV on." Yet both your viewpoint and your spouse's are relevant to the question at issue. When you recognize your spouse's viewpoint as relevant, and then intellectually empathize with it - when you enter her/his way of thinking so as to actually understand it - you will be thinking broadly about the issue. You will realize common consideration would require you to come to an agreement that fully takes into account both ways of looking at the situation. But if you don't force yourself to enter her/his viewpoint, you do not have to change your self-serving behavior. One of the primary mechanisms the mind uses to avoid giving up what it wants is unconsciously to refuse to enter viewpoints that differ from its own.

Test the Idea
Thinking Broadly About an Issue

Take the question, "Is abortion morally justified?" Some argue that abortion is not morally justifiable, and others argue that it is. Try to state and elaborate on each of these points of view in detail. Articulate each point of view objectively, regardless of your personal views. Present each point of view in such a way that a person who actually takes that position would assess it as accurate. Each line of reasoning should be clear, accurate, precise, relevant, and deep. Try not to take a position on the issue yourself.


Questions that focus on making thinking more logical include:

When we think, we bring together a variety of thoughts in some order. When the combined thoughts are mutually supporting and make sense in combination, the thinking is logical. When the combination is not mutually supporting, is contradictory in some sense, or does not make sense, the combination is not logical. Because humans often maintain conflicting beliefs without being aware that we are doing so, it is not unusual to find inconsistencies in human life and thought.

Let's say we know, by looking at standardized tests of students in schools and the actual work they are able to produce, that for the most part students are deficient in basic academic skills such as reading, writing, speaking, and the core disciplines such as math, science, and history. Despite this evidence, teachers often conclude that there is nothing they can do to change their instruction to improve student learning (and in fact that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way they teach). Given the evidence, this conclusion seems illogical. The conclusion doesn't seem to follow from the facts.

Let's take another example. Say that you know a person who has had a heart attack, and her doctors have told her she must be careful what she eats. Yet she concludes that what she eats really doesn't matter. Given the evidence, her conclusion is illogical. It doesn't make sense.

Test the Idea
Recognizing Illogical Thinking

Identify a situation at work where decisions made seemed to be based on illogical thinking - thinking that didn't make sense to you.

  1. What was the situation?

  2. What was the thinking in the situation that you consider to be illogical? Why do you think it was illogical?

  3. What were some consequences that followed from the illogical thinking?


Questions that focus on making thinking more significant include:

When we reason through issues, we want to concentrate on the most important information (relevant to the issue) in our reasoning and take into account the most important ideas or concepts. Too often we fail in our thinking because we do not recognize that, though many ideas may be relevant to an issue, it does not follow that all are equally important. In a similar way, we often fail to ask the most important questions and are trapped by thinking only in terms of superficial questions, questions of little weight. In college, for example, few students focus on important questions such as, "What does it mean to be an educated person? What do I need to do to become educated?" Instead, students tend to ask questions such as, "What do I need to do to get an "A" in this course? How many pages does this paper have to be? What do I have to do to satisfy this professor?"

In our work, we too often focus on that which is pressing, at the expense of focusing on that which is significant. In our personal lives, we also often focus on the trivial mundane details, rather than the important bigger picture of our lives. Very few people, for example, have seriously thought about questions such as:

Test the Idea
Focusing on Significance in Thinking

Think about your life, about the way you spend your time, in terms of the amount of time you spend on significant versus trivial things. As you do so, write the answers to these questions:

  1. What is the most important goal or purpose you should focus on at this point in your life? Why is this purpose important? How much time do you spend focused on it?

  2. What are the most trivial or superficial things you spend time focused on (things such as your appearance, impressing your friends or colleagues, spending money on things you don't need, chatting about insignificant things at parties, and the like)?

  3. What can you do to reduce the amount of time you spend on the trivial, and increase the amount of time you spend on the significant?


Questions that focus on ensuring that thinking is fair include:

When we think through problems, we want to make sure that our thinking is justified. To be justified is to think fairly in context. In other words, it is to think in accord with reason. If you are vigilant in using the other intellectual standards covered thus far in the chapter you will (by implication) satisfy the standard of fairness. We include fairness in its own section because of the powerful nature of self-deception in human thinking. For example, we often deceive ourselves into thinking that we are being fair and justified in our thinking when in fact we are refusing to consider significant relevant information that would cause us to change our view (and therefore not pursue our selfish interest). We often pursue unfair purposes in order to get what we want even if we have to hurt others to get it. We often use concepts in an unjustified way in order to manipulate people. And we often make unjustified assumptions, unsupported by facts, which then lead to faulty inferences.

Let's focus on an example where the problem is unjustified thinking owing to ignoring relevant facts. Let's say, for instance, that Kristi and Abbey share the same office. Kristi is cold natured and Abbey is warm-natured. During the winter, Abbey likes to have the window in the office open while Kristi likes to keep it closed. But Abbey insists that it's "extremely uncomfortable" with the window closed. The information she is using in her reasoning all centers around her own point of view - that she is hot, that she can't work effectively if she's hot, that if Kristi is cold she can wear a sweater. But the fact is that Abbey is not justified in her thinking. She refuses to enter Kristi's point of view, to consider information supporting Kristi's perspective, because to do so would mean that she would have to give something up. She would have to adopt a more reasonable, or fair, point of view.

When we reason to conclusions, we want to check to make sure that the assumptions we are using to come to those conclusions are justifiable given the facts of the situation. For example, all of our prejudices and stereotypes function as assumptions in thinking. And no prejudices and stereotypes are justifiable given their very nature. For example, we often make broad sweeping generalizations such as:

The problem with assumptions like these is that they cause us to make basic - and often serious - mistakes in thinking. Because they aren't justifiable, they cause us to prejudge situations and people and draw faulty inferences - or conclusions - about them. For example, if we believe that all intellectuals are nerds, whenever we meet an intellectual we will infer that he or she is a nerd (and act unfairly toward the person).

In sum, justifiability, or fairness, is an important standard in thinking because it forces us to see how we are distorting our thinking in order to achieve our self-serving ends (or to see how others are distorting their thinking to achieve selfish ends).

Test the Idea
Are You Always Fair?

All of us want to see ourselves as imminently fair. Yet because we are by nature self-serving, we are not always able to consider the rights and needs of others in equivalent terms as we do our own. Indeed, one of the most difficult things for people to do is identify times when they are unfair. Yet highly skilled thinkers, aware of this human tendency, routinely search for problems in their thinking.

In the spirit of this idea, try to think of several times in the past few weeks where you were not fair. You are looking for situations where your behavior was selfish or self-serving and as a result, you negated another person's desires or rights. You placed your desires first. Remember that the more examples you can think of, the better. Also remember that, because of our native egocentrism, we are highly motivated to hide our unfair thoughts and behavior. Try not to fall into this trap.

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