This blog is almost entirely about critical thinking as it applies to the realm of alternative medicine, and I have written about it more often than I care to remember. For instance, in one post I concluded that criticism  in alternative medicine is directed almost exclusively towards those who are outside the realm. Criticism from the inside is as good as non-existent.

The consequences of this situation are easy to see for everyone, and they can be dramatic:

  • The journals of alternative medicine publish nothing that could be perceived to be negative for the practice of alternative medicine.
  • Self-critical thinking has no tradition and has remained an almost alien concept.
  • The very few people from the ‘inside’ who dare to criticise alternative practices are ousted and/or declared to be incompetent or worse.
  • No action is taken to initiate change.
  • The assumptions of alternative medicine remain unaltered for centuries.
  • Progress is all but absent.

But what exactly is critical thinking? The ‘Foundation of Critical Thinking‘ defines it as follows: Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

In an article in the Scientific American Heather butler recently provided further clarification. Here is a short extract from this most commendable paper:


Though often confused with intelligence, critical thinking is not intelligence. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion, and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate. Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases (e.g., hindsight bias, confirmation bias).

Critical thinking predicts a wide range of life events. In a series of studies, conducted in the U.S. and abroad, my colleagues and I have found that critical thinkers experience fewer bad things in life. We asked people to complete an inventory of life events and take a critical thinking assessment (the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment). The critical thinking assessment measures five components of critical thinking skills including verbal reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, probability and uncertainty, decision-making, and problem-solving. The inventory of negative life events captures different domains of life such as academic (e.g., I forgot about an exam), health (e.g., I contracted a sexually transmitted infection because I did not wear a condom), legal (e.g., I was arrested for driving under the influence), interpersonal (e.g., I cheated on my romantic partner who I had been with for over a year), financial (e.g., I have over $5,000 of credit card debt), etc. Repeatedly, we found that critical thinkers experience fewer negative life events. This is an important finding because there is plenty of evidence that critical thinking can be taught and improved.

Is it better to be a critical thinker or to be intelligent? My latest research pitted critical thinking and intelligence against each other to see which was associated with fewer negative life events. People who were strong on either intelligence or critical thinking experienced fewer negative events, but critical thinkers did better.

Intelligence and improving intelligence are hot topics that receive a lot of attention. It is time for critical thinking to receive a little more of that attention. Keith Stanovich wrote an entire book about What Intelligence Tests Miss. Reasoning and rationality more closely resemble what we mean when we say a person is smart than spatial skills and math ability. Furthermore, improving intelligence is difficult. Intelligence is largely determined by genetics. Critical thinking, though, can improve with training and the benefits have been shown to persist over time. Anyone can improve their critical thinking skills: Doing so, we can say with certainty, is a smart thing to do.


We cannot learn to be intelligent, but we can learn how to think critically. If my blog helps some readers to achieve this aim, I would consider the effort worthwhile.

10 Responses to Critical thinking is good for you – please give it a try!

  • Surely though, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘intelligence’ overlap so greatly that it’s difficult or impossible- or even unnecessary- to disentangle them.
    Thatcher gained two degrees- Law and Chemistry- both of which seemed to me to be be rather difficult, especially the latter, but maybe that’s a personal thing. But to me she was vindictive and abusive, as is the qualified airline pilot Norman Tebbit. Clever, but to me not intelligent.
    The late Logos Bios regularly used to disparage those of a non- scientific or non- medical background such as myself, arguing that they were not qualified to hold an opinion on anything they hadn’ studied ( leading inevitably to the ludicrous claim that no one who hadn’t studied homeopathy for years had a right to object.
    But any argument is going to be won partly by winning over at least part of the middle ground, not preaching to the converted.
    What people like Logos Bios could not, or, worse, would not, understand is that facts are one thing (and lies), but logical and reasoned argument are at least AS important. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.
    To my shame, I’d never even heard the phrase ‘critical thinking’ until I encountered this blog a few years ago. Although, without being too ‘ad hominem’ about it, I do think the style v. content T rubric is often useful here.
    As I’ve said before, it’similar to the argument about what people call ‘pornography’, in that in many ways the argument is only tangentially about what it seems ( in this case, whatever one’particular views, it’s aboutprudishness, linguistic , definition, repression, censorship, patronisation, feminism/ femininity, masculinity etc).

  • Perfect commentary and summation on this pivotal point.
    Perhaps “alternative-medicine” practitioners should be called “alternative-logic” practitioners?
    Of course they would re-name themselves “complementary-logic” practitioners….as they don’t understand illogic is the antithesis of logic not simply a viable alternative.

    • i tried to express this once:

  • I would love to give it a try, but try to find a website that will evaluate you. Hundreds ABOUT critical thinking, some for children that are not free. I could not find a single free test.

  • CT involves intellectual discipline certainly, and it is an aquired set of skills. Once aquired it becomes second nature to apply them.

    Other ways of thinking can be contrasted with CT.

    One highly significant other way is WT – wishful thinking.

    A devout desire for something to be true easily morphs into imaginary reasons for believing that something is true, without a well-honed critical thinking skill-set to bring to bear on the question of whether the desired something is true.

    MT – magical thinking or superstition is another mode of illusionary thinking.

    Placebos provide opportunities for these two modes of thinking.

  • I recommend that the proponents of EBM (Evidently Baseless Medicine) take up critical thinking also.

    1 &3. Any serious criticism that rocks the boat of EBM is crushed. Take Dr Thompson of the CDC on the MMR vaccine science fraud that he admitted that he and his colleagues participated in. Or take Dr Wakefields being pilloried for making the mild suggestion in his study that the MMR vaccine requires more study for possible bowel effects.

    2 & 4 After 100 years there is finally some consideration of alternatives to the cancer industry’s approach of cut, burn and poison. Meanwhile millions have suffered and died under this orthodox hegemony. Any doctor attempting anything outside of this “Standard of Medical (un-)Care” could lose their license no matter how benign the treatment. Same could be said of most other branches of medicine. They dont even consider alternatives to drugs and surgery. Thats why we have an Alternative Medical industry in the first place. Its all the people who prefer to think outside the straight jacket!

    3. The third point is actually is one of the good points of homeopathy (which I assume he is referring to) vs conventional med (CM). Classical homeopathy has certain fixed principles that practitioners strive to follow. CM just runs on fads since they have no valid definition of disease or cure. Oh, today we are giving VIOXX. Oops not a good idea. Oh, today we are doing radical mastectomies. Oops not a good idea. Oh, today we are giving Hormone Replacement Therapy. Oops not a good idea. Oh, today we are giving Thalidomide or DES. Oops not so good for the next generation. And on, and on, and on. We are all guinea pigs in this uncontrolled experiment called EBM.

    I dont see much critical thinking in CM when it comes to its basic (lack of) principles.

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