This review relates to Critical Thinking by Tom Chatfield. Available here on Amazon
I bought this book a couple of years ago and it had been sitting on my bookshelf until recently. In my desire to move away from books and articles written from my discipline, I started to read with an idea that I probably knew what I was going to be told. I was fairly confident I’d had experience of critical thinking and analysis, after all, how can I do my day job without it? The time spent reading though, was invaluable and has adjusted many of my assumptions – and after all, isn’t that what critical thinking is about?
This book is written by Tom Chatfield, whose bio describes him as a ‘writer, broadcaster and tech philosopher’. I came to this book having read another of his books, (How to Thrive in a Digital Age). I bought the book when I was having a bit of a crisis of confidence at work but put it on the shelf and only recently returned to it.
It is a book which is aimed at a student market, although definitely not exclusively so, but there are references to literature searches, writing including academic writing specifically and understanding academic papers and research which marks the primary audience but there is a sufficient breadth and style that moves beyond that.
The book is written with the intention of being easy to understand. It is not one to come to that expects any prior knowledge of philosophy (because after all, critical thinking is pretty much applied philosophy) or reading about reading, writing and thinking critically. It is not a book for the Kindle, either. It is designed as a workbook, with exercises, room to scribble in margins and notes added with liberal use of illustration and bullet points.
With my new energy for mindmapping as a form of note-taking, I even mind-mapped a few chapters in the margins but I did transfer one of them electronically to give an idea of what I did – it might be small but it relates to different types of fallacy in thinking – and it was written as I took notes from this book.
So what does the book say? It is divided into two sections. Part 1 is called ‘The Art and Science of Being Reasonable’ and it is occupied primarily with logic and forming arguments where argument means a conclusion based on reasons. It provides a gentle introduction to philosophy for people who may not realise that is what it is doing but it is a useful reminder that there are ways to form arguments that are strong and to be wary of statements without reason. The key areas covered include the ways that deductive (where conclusion is based on factual premises and is therefore, certain), inductive (where conclusion is based on most likely outcome and evidence needs to be examined, for example around probability and sample sizes) and abductive arguments (where conclusion is based on theories and is the most likely conclusion) are formed and the place for each of them as well as what lies behind them.
The second part of the book is called ‘Being Reasonable in an Unreasonable World’. This part covers the use of rhetoric including specific rhetorical devices which might try to pull emotion from fact, like the use (or rather, misuse) of jargon to alienate and complicate or exclude, use of euphemisms or hyperbole to add emotion to an argument. This is not to say there isn’t a place for rhetoric, it is useful to know, but it is also useful to be able to spot.
The book also covers spotting fallacious arguments (see the mindmap above because this was the section I used to take notes from!) and being aware of the bias in arguments presented, including confirmation bias, where you seek views that agree, but also ‘survivorship’ bias which tends to mean that success is more commonly reported because it is the history that ‘survives’ and linked to this is publication bias where journals may be more likely to publish research which has positive results. There was a lot more to it than I’m able to list but some key points about being aware of how statistics can be used to say lots of things in different ways and the choice of what data to include or exclude can display biases.
The writer concludes with a chapter, unsurprisingly, given his background in technology, specifically about ‘thinking critically about technology’. Starting with the different between data, information and knowledge and looking at how, having access to far more knowledge at our fingertips, can expose us to ‘false news’ and echo chambers which we need to have an increasing awareness of.
There are a couple of chapters that specifically draw the learning within the book to an academic context, looking at how to find information and writing up information in a cohesive way, to ensure arguments have premises and are not confused with opinion.
The book is eminently readable. There is a lot in it and it can feel like you want to highlight everything to come back to but it is also flows easily and presents the information in an interesting way.
I found myself distracted, at times, by some of the typeface and the notes in the margin. It may be that I am slightly (cough) older than the average reader and I know it’s done to make the book more ‘fun’ but I would have preferred using the space for my own notes. Saying that, I love having large margins that are large enough to make notes in and I thought the exercises presented were very helpful. I can’t say I worked through them all but I can see it being a really useful space.
The book reminded me of the core essentials of pulling back arguments and determining how they are constructed when I read books and journal articles but also newspaper articles, blog posts and websites. It’s a helpful way of thinking and while I would have liked to have thought I was a critical thinker, beforehand, I think I would be better at it now for having read the book.
It is a clearly presented introduction to a subject that can put people off or if you are a student thinking ‘I need to read up on my subject, I don’t have time to read a book about critical thinking’, it is something that can save a lot of time.
It may be basic if you have a good understanding of the topic and it is written for people coming at it from a beginners level. Saying that, I like simple writing styles. I’ve studied logic at undergraduate level and honestly, I prefer it when it’s simply presented.
Use in practice
This is one of the more practically and immediately useful books I have read. Already I am thinking about reports I write at work where I am asked to give an opinion (social circumstances reports, I’m thinking of you) and ensuring that I provide evidence in the form of clear argument rather than lists of facts.
In terms of my academic writing, it has helped focus me on how I identify good papers, in particular from poorer ones. Recently I have read a few papers that I have instinctively thought ‘how on earth did this get published in a respectable journal’ and this book has given me the language to determine why I was uneasy with them (law of small numbers – where small data sets are more likely to provide extreme variation and fundamental attribution error where outcomes are disproportionately linked to an event!).
I’m going to practice using the language of the book, which is the language of logic to identify fallacies where I spot them so in that sense, this is immediately useful and used.
This book was a pleasure to read and I was genuinely sorry to finish it. That doesn’t happen often with me so in conclusion, that has to be a strong recommendation. I’d definitely recommend the paperback rather than the kindle because I’m not sure how the formatting would work electronically and it’s the kind of book that needs to be flicked through rather than read from beginning to end (although that is the way I covered it).
It reminded me how important philosophy is, to social work. Not just the ethics part which is most commonly covered at university, but the logic and the rhetoric as well.