Suppose a friend says, “I can’t get over the notion that the short people I’ve met recently always seem to have no patience.” The friend asks you to throw some light on the problem from your experience as a means of forming a supported assumption that might prove valuable at some later date. We will pretend that the solution to this problem is important enough to justify the labor that follows.
When you employ critical thinking, you don’t reflect for a moment and then remember one exception and at once say, vigorously, “You’re absolutely wrong!” This often takes place in unscientific contests between untrained people — often in dorm discussions. You first tentatively accept the problem as stated — it is an indeterminate situation (Step A) — but you begin to turn it over in your mind. You ask questions. “What do you mean by ‘a short person’ — how short?” “What do you mean by having ‘no patience’?” Gradually, the exact meaning is revealed, and the problem takes shape. The question now becomes (Step B), “Do people whose stature is less than five-feet-two have a greater tendency than taller ones to lose their tempers a few seconds after being confronted with a situation that interferes with what they happen to be doing at the moment?”
In this case, the choice of a working hypothesis (Step C) is simple: We can just take the affirmative (or the negative) of this statement as the working hypothesis. Let us decide upon the affirmative. In some other problem, such as a flat tire on one’s bicycle, one may choose from among several hypotheses: It may be a bad valve, a hole in the tire, or a prankster who let the air out.
Now comes the difficult stage of planning an experiment (Step D). Let us assume that we decide to study the reactions of the first two hundred people under five-feet-two whom we meet. As a control, we will want to study a hundred or more taller people — a cross-section of the people above five-feet-two.
We proceed with the experiment and gather data about each person (Step E).
Having obtained information in an unbiased way, we are ready to summarize these data, to make a “meaningful statement” that describes what the data show (Step F).
At last we are down to the point where we can compare the “meaningful statement” with the “working hypothesis” (Step G). If they agree, we have found the answer and have reached a “conclusion.” If they do not agree, our conclusion is a negative one: The hypothesis we used is not the correct explanation, and in other types of problems we must return to Step C again, and go through Steps D to G repeatedly, until we get the answer.
Having found that impatience among tall and average people is present to approximately the same degree as among short people, we “regretfully” conclude our problem by saying, “It was probably coincidence that led to the original impression.” The results of a scientific study of this might be worthy of publication (Step H), especially if it came out otherwise!
We have used a procedure that is far better than asking a dozen people’s opinions without evidence. We have thought out the problem critically, by checking over each step in a process of investigation.
It is seldom that such an elaborate series of steps can be followed in daily life, of course. This method has its limitations of time and expense. But basically it gets to the fundamental problem and employs a certain amount of objectivity and method in searching for a solution. By understanding how critical thinking might take place in a rather detailed investigation, we are better equipped to employ it in day-to-day living. We certainly will be better fitted to meet day-to-day situations that demand decisions of importance. We will see that stating the problem, planning and executing an experiment, summarizing data in an unbiased way, and drawing conclusions which are fully within the limits of the data are all common-sense steps — but they go beyond “ordinary” hunches or guesses or intuition in that they actually are common sense with a system.