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The greatest hindrance to thinking critically is ignorance: the lack of essential background knowledge on the subject at hand.

Ignorance is not the same as stupidity, which has to do with lack of, or incompetent application of, intelligence. Ignorance has to do with lack of knowledge or information. Ignorance is not the same as lack of intelligence. All intelligent people are ignorant of some things. Some highly intelligent people are ignorant of the fundamental cognitive biases that hinder critical thinking.

If you don’t understand what a person means, you can’t evaluate that person’s claims or arguments. Of all the things people are ignorant of, nothing hinders critical thinking more than lack of adequate vocabulary. A quick and efficient way to overcome this block to critical thinking is to use a good dictionary, one that doesn't just provide synonyms, but provides etymology and guidance for usage. A good dictionary will not only give the various meanings a word can have, but will also give examples of the word used in different ways. Knowing the origins of words can help with understanding new words you come across that use the same prefixes, suffixes, or root words.

A good way to build a strong vocabulary is to set aside a block of time every day for learning new words. About ten years ago, the Nielsen folks reported that the average American watched about 7 hours of television programming a day. The TV writer for my local fish wrap recently reported that the average is now about 5 hours a day. I suspect that computers, cell phones, and the like have picked up the slack. Some of that time might be better spent improving your vocabulary. There are some television programs that can stimulate your thinking, e.g., documentaries like "The Black List" and "Sicko," or science programs like "NOVA." Most television programming, however, is not designed to improve anyone's thinking.

I was fortunate to have the same English teacher for four years of high school. He made us learn 20 new words a week. (Thank you, Fr. Hutchinson.) You are reading this on a computer, so bookmark this address: http://wordsmith.org/words/today.html

This wonderful site provides the definition of a new word each day with a link to hear how the word is pronounced and an example of how the word is used in a sentence.

You might also consult my Student Success Guide: Study Skills, which is available free here. The first set of activities will help you build a large vocabulary.

I assume you have a dictionary bookmarked on your browser toolbar. If not, try this one http://www.merriam-webster.com/


Without a firm understanding of the basic principles and accepted beliefs in a particular field, it is impossible to judge the truth, relevance, or sufficiency of evidence put forth to support positions in that field. Without adequate background knowledge of a subject, one can’t tell whether claims are clear enough or whether relevant material has been omitted. In short, one can be a master of critical thinking skills, but without knowledge those skills won’t do you much good. A good critical thinker knows that conclusions, decisions, or actions should be knowledgeable ones. He or she knows that the best thinking is done when all pertinent data is presented. Critical thinking requires the ability to do skillful reading and research. This will require hard work, and, as the saying goes, there really is no substitute for it. A critical thinker must know how to use the library and the Internet to get accurate and up-to-date information. Since it is often impossible to do one’s own research, a critical thinker must be skilled at evaluating the claims of experts and authorities in various fields.

If you are ignorant of basic biological, physical, and chemical concepts and facts, you cannot critically evaluate the claims made by people who deny the truth of those facts and concepts. You don't need to be a critical thinker to provide a persuasive argument for intelligent design, a young earth, or homeopathy; you need an audience that is ignorant of science and medicine.

Click here for a complete list of the SD critical thinking mini-lessons
Last updated 12/09/10

This page was designed by Cristian Popa.