A Crash Course in Critical Thinking (2024)

Conspiracy theories. Inability to distinguish facts from falsehoods. Widespread confusion about who and what to believe.

These are some of the hallmarks of the current crisis in critical thinking—which just might be the issue of our times. Because if people aren’t willing or able to think critically as they choose potential leaders, they’re apt to choose bad ones. And if they can’t judge whether the information they’re receiving is sound, they may follow faulty advice while ignoring recommendations that are science-based and solid (and perhaps life-saving).

Moreover, as a society, if we can’t think critically about the many serious challenges we face, it becomes more difficult to agree on what those challenges are—much less solve them.

On a personal level, critical thinking can enable you to make better everyday decisions. It can help you make sense of an increasingly complex and confusing world.

In the new expanded edition of my book A More Beautiful Question (AMBQ), I took a deep dive into critical thinking. Here are a few key things I learned.

First off, before you can get better at critical thinking, you should understand what it is. It’s not just about being a skeptic. When thinking critically, we are thoughtfully reasoning, evaluating, and making decisions based on evidence and logic. And—perhaps most important—while doing this, a critical thinker always strives to be open-minded and fair-minded. That’s not easy: It demands that you constantly question your assumptions and biases and that you always remain open to considering opposing views.

In today’s polarized environment, many people think of themselves as critical thinkers simply because they ask skeptical questions—often directed at, say, certain government policies or ideas espoused by those on the “other side” of the political divide. The problem is, they may not be asking these questions with an open mind or a willingness to fairly consider opposing views.

When people do this, they’re engaging in “weak-sense critical thinking”—a term popularized by the late Richard Paul, a co-founder of The Foundation for Critical Thinking. “Weak-sense critical thinking” means applying the tools and practices of critical thinking—questioning, investigating, evaluating—but with the sole purpose of confirming one’s own bias or serving an agenda.

In AMBQ, I lay out a series of questions you can ask yourself to try to ensure that you’re thinking critically. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • Why do I believe what I believe?
  • Are my views based on evidence?
  • Have I fairly and thoughtfully considered differing viewpoints?
  • Am I truly open to changing my mind?

Of course, becoming a better critical thinker is not as simple as just asking yourself a few questions. Critical thinking is a habit of mind that must be developed and strengthened over time. In effect, you must train yourself to think in a manner that is more effortful, aware, grounded, and balanced.

For those interested in giving themselves a crash course in critical thinking—something I did myself, as I was working on my book—I thought it might be helpful to share a list of some of the books that have shaped my own thinking on this subject. As a self-interested author, I naturally would suggest that you start with the new 10th-anniversary edition of A More Beautiful Question, but beyond that, here are the top eight critical-thinking books I’d recommend.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan

This book simply must top the list, because the late scientist and author Carl Sagan continues to be such a bright shining light in the critical thinking universe. Chapter 12 includes the details on Sagan’s famous “baloney detection kit,” a collection of lessons and tips on how to deal with bogus arguments and logical fallacies.

Cognition Essential Reads

Why We Get More Impatient When the End is in Sight

Are Neurons Required for Cognition and Memory?

Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments Into Extraordinary Results, by Shane Parrish

The creator of the Farnham Street website and host of the “Knowledge Project” podcast explains how to contend with biases and unconscious reactions so you can make better everyday decisions. It contains insights from many of the brilliant thinkers Shane has studied.

Good Thinking: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World, by David Robert Grimes

A brilliant, comprehensive 2021 book on critical thinking that, to my mind, hasn’t received nearly enough attention. The scientist Grimes dissects bad thinking, shows why it persists, and offers the tools to defeat it.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know, by Adam Grant

Intellectual humility—being willing to admit that you might be wrong—is what this book is primarily about. But Adam, the renowned Wharton psychology professor and bestselling author, takes the reader on a mind-opening journey with colorful stories and characters.

Think Like a Detective: A Kid's Guide to Critical Thinking, by David Pakman

The popular YouTuber and podcast host Pakman—normally known for talking politics—has written a terrific primer on critical thinking for children. The illustrated book presents critical thinking as a “superpower” that enables kids to unlock mysteries and dig for truth. (I also recommend Pakman’s second kids’ book called Think Like a Scientist.)

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, by Steven Pinker

The Harvard psychology professor Pinker tackles conspiracy theories head-on but also explores concepts involving risk/reward, probability and randomness, and correlation/causation. And if that strikes you as daunting, be assured that Pinker makes it lively and accessible.

How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion and Persuasion, by David McRaney

David is a science writer who hosts the popular podcast “You Are Not So Smart” (and his ideas are featured in A More Beautiful Question). His well-written book looks at ways you can actually get through to people who see the world very differently than you (hint: bludgeoning them with facts definitely won’t work).

A Healthy Democracy's Best Hope: Building the Critical Thinking Habit, by M Neil Browne and Chelsea Kulhanek

Neil Browne, author of the seminal Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, has been a pioneer in presenting critical thinking as a question-based approach to making sense of the world around us. His newest book, co-authored with Chelsea Kulhanek, breaks down critical thinking into “11 explosive questions”—including the “priors question” (which challenges us to question assumptions), the “evidence question” (focusing on how to evaluate and weigh evidence), and the “humility question” (which reminds us that a critical thinker must be humble enough to consider the possibility of being wrong).

A Crash Course in Critical Thinking (2024)
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