What are the steps taken by people who engage in critical thinking?
First, they become aware of the existence of an unsolved problem—an “indeterminate situation.” This is brought to their attention by someone else, or they perceive a situation which is out of step with what they anticipated.
Second, they carefully state the problem, so they know precisely what they are going to investigate. In a sense, they build a fence around the problem, so their energies do not spill over into some other area or their attention is not drawn away from the main effort.
Third, they review in their minds a number of possible explanations (hypotheses) to account for the indeterminate situation. They draw upon experience to explain what might be the cause; a wide range of experience provides many possible explanations. At this stage, there is no evidence to support any particular explanation. But from among the numerous explanations that come to mind, one is chosen to be tested. It is then called the temporary working hypothesis. The true essence of science is the testing of hypotheses. Most if not all scientific work is concerned with selecting one working hypothesis after another, to be tested until eventually one of them shows that the evidence gathered by experimentation supports it over all others.
In the fourth step, an experiment is designed. The plans are drawn up for a careful test of the hypothesis selected. This is sometimes a time-consuming task. The plans may be extremely simple (as in deciding to wet one’s finger to sec if the valve on a tire is leaking air) or very complex (as in an experiment, for example, with a new insect poison).
Having set up the experiment, the fifth step is to gather the data—the information which will be the outcome of putting questions to nature. The experiment is conducted carefully, to prevent inaccuracies which might lead to false conclusions. Where possible, a “control” is used, to make sure the factor being tested is indeed the factor responsible. For example, if an insecticide is to be tested, two plots of vegetables arc grown, and only one gets the insecticide; the other is the control, and the number of insects in both, after a treatment, must be counted. It might be that the insecticide seems to get a complete “kill,” but the control may show that the test is inconclusive if the unsprayed plot docs not develop any insect pests that particular season either.
The sixth step is to take all the scores or hundreds or thousands of separate observations (data) and convert them into a simple, meaningful statement that summarizes the results of the experiment. The sprayed plot may prove to be 82%freer of insects than the control plot.
The seventh step is a comparison of the summary statement in Step F with the working hypothesis in Step C. If the two agree, the working hypothesis is concluded to be one of the causes (if not the cause) of the “indeterminate situation.”
In scholarly work, the last step would be to publish the findings.
Applying these steps of critical thinking to a simple example will help with homework and clarify things.