The Classroom | Empowering Students in Their College Journey

The Relationship Between Scientific Method & Critical Thinking

Scott Neuffer

What Is the Function of the Hypothesis?

Critical thinking, that is the mind’s ability to analyze claims about the world, is the intellectual basis of the scientific method. The scientific method can be viewed as an extensive, structured mode of critical thinking that involves hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion.

Critical Thinking

Broadly speaking, critical thinking is any analytical thought aimed at determining the validity of a specific claim. It can be as simple as a nine-year-old questioning a parent’s claim that Santa Claus exists, or as complex as physicists questioning the relativity of space and time. Critical thinking is the point when the mind turns in opposition to an accepted truth and begins analyzing its underlying premises. As American philosopher John Dewey said, it is the “active, persistent and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.”

Critical thinking initiates the act of hypothesis. In the scientific method, the hypothesis is the initial supposition, or theoretical claim about the world, based on questions and observations. If critical thinking asks the question, then the hypothesis is the best attempt at the time to answer the question using observable phenomenon. For example, an astrophysicist may question existing theories of black holes based on his own observation. He may posit a contrary hypothesis, arguing black holes actually produce white light. It is not a final conclusion, however, as the scientific method requires specific forms of verification.


The scientific method uses formal experimentation to analyze any hypothesis. The rigorous and specific methodology of experimentation is designed to gather unbiased empirical evidence that either supports or contradicts a given claim. Controlled variables are used to provide an objective basis of comparison. For example, researchers studying the effects of a certain drug may provide half the test population with a placebo pill and the other half with the real drug. The effects of the real drug can then be assessed relative to the control group.

In the scientific method, conclusions are drawn only after tested, verifiable evidence supports them. Even then, conclusions are subject to peer review and often retested before general consensus is reached. Thus, what begins as an act of critical thinking becomes, in the scientific method, a complex process of testing the validity of a claim. English philosopher Francis Bacon put it this way: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

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  • How We Think: John Dewey
  • The Advancement of Learning: Francis Bacon

Scott Neuffer is an award-winning journalist and writer who lives in Nevada. He holds a bachelor's degree in English and spent five years as an education and business reporter for Sierra Nevada Media Group. His first collection of short stories, "Scars of the New Order," was published in 2014.

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Science is regarded as one of the greatest achievements of human beings, alongside art, music, and literature. Technology is a product of science, and it has a huge impact on our lives. But the core of scientific methodology is hypothesis testing, an essential part of critical thinking.

Broadly speaking, hypothesis testing is a matter of gathering evidence to select the best hypothesis. (In this book, a hypothesis is the same as a theory or a claim—a statement that can be either true or false.) But hypothesis testing is not just for scientists. In any type of career, we have to solve problems, and hypothesis testing helps us find the best solutions to our problems. Suppose your mobile phone is not working. Is the battery dead or is the phone broken? You try to recharge it to see if it works. If it does the phone wasn’t broken. This is hypothesis testing. Or think about how to improve your health. What should you eat and what exercises should you do? You need to gather information and evaluate different theories before coming up with a plan. This also involves hypothesis testing.

There are two noteworthy features about hypothesis testing. First, it is based on evidence, not on gut feelings, tradition, popularity, authority, or personal preferences. Second, hypothesis testing is fallible, and it is often difficult to prove that a theory must be correct. Our evidence might be tainted without our knowledge, or perhaps the evidence is inconclusive. This ...

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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  • Warren, Karen J. 1988. “Critical Thinking and Feminism”, Informal Logic , 10(1): 31–44. [ Warren 1988 available online ]
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critical thinking involves hypothesis testing

  • > The Cambridge Handbook of the Imagination
  • > Hypothetical Thinking

critical thinking involves hypothesis testing

Book contents

  • The Cambridge Handbook of the Imagination
  • Copyright page
  • Contributors
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Surveying the Imagination Landscape
  • Part I Theoretical Perspectives on the Imagination
  • Part II Imagery-Based Forms of the Imagination
  • Part III Intentionality-Based Forms of the Imagination
  • Part IV Novel Combinatorial Forms of the Imagination
  • 27 On the Interaction Between Episodic and Semantic Representations – Constructing a Unified Account of Imagination
  • 28 How Imagination Supports Narrative Experiences for Textual, Audiovisual, and Interactive Narratives
  • 29 Development of the Fantasy-Reality Distinction
  • 30 Imagining the Real: Buddhist Paths to Wholeness in Tibet
  • 31 Hypothetical Thinking
  • 32 The Counterfactual Imagination: The Impact of Alternatives to Reality on Morality
  • 33 A Look Back at Pioneering Theories of the Creative Brain
  • Part V Phenomenology-Based Forms of the Imagination
  • Part VI Altered States of the Imagination
  • Subject Index

31 - Hypothetical Thinking

from Part IV - Novel Combinatorial Forms of the Imagination

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2020

Hypothetical thinking involves imagining possibilities and mentally exploring their consequences. This chapter overviews a contemporary, integrative account of such thinking in the form of Jonathan Evans’s hypothetical thinking theory. This default-interventionist, dual–process theory operates according to three principles: relevance, singularity, and satisficing. To illustrate the explanatory strength of the theory a range of empirical evidence is considered that has arisen from extensive research on hypothesis testing, which involves individuals generating and evaluating hypotheses as they attempt to derive a more general understanding of information. The chapter shows how key findings from hypothesis-testing research undertaken in both laboratory and real-world studies (e.g. in domains such as scientific reasoning) are readily explained by the principles embedded in hypothetical thinking theory. The chapter additionally points to important new directions for future research on hypothetical thinking, including the need for: (1) further studies of real-world hypothesis testing in collaborative contexts, including ones outside of the domain of scientific reasoning; (2) increased neuroscientific analysis of the brain systems underpinning hypothetical thinking so as to inform theoretical developments; and (3) systematic individual-differences investigations to explore the likely association between people’s capacity to think creatively and their ability to engage in effective hypothetical thinking.

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  • Hypothetical Thinking
  • By Linden J. Ball
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Scientific Thinking and Critical Thinking in Science Education 

Two Distinct but Symbiotically Related Intellectual Processes

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  • Published: 05 September 2023

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critical thinking involves hypothesis testing

  • Antonio García-Carmona   ORCID: 1  

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Scientific thinking and critical thinking are two intellectual processes that are considered keys in the basic and comprehensive education of citizens. For this reason, their development is also contemplated as among the main objectives of science education. However, in the literature about the two types of thinking in the context of science education, there are quite frequent allusions to one or the other indistinctly to refer to the same cognitive and metacognitive skills, usually leaving unclear what are their differences and what are their common aspects. The present work therefore was aimed at elucidating what the differences and relationships between these two types of thinking are. The conclusion reached was that, while they differ in regard to the purposes of their application and some skills or processes, they also share others and are related symbiotically in a metaphorical sense; i.e., each one makes sense or develops appropriately when it is nourished or enriched by the other. Finally, an orientative proposal is presented for an integrated development of the two types of thinking in science classes.

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Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. Albert Einstein

1 Introduction

In consulting technical reports, theoretical frameworks, research, and curricular reforms related to science education, one commonly finds appeals to scientific thinking and critical thinking as essential educational processes or objectives. This is confirmed in some studies that include exhaustive reviews of the literature in this regard such as those of Bailin ( 2002 ), Costa et al. ( 2020 ), and Santos ( 2017 ) on critical thinking, and of Klarh et al. ( 2019 ) and Lehrer and Schauble ( 2006 ) on scientific thinking. However, conceptualizing and differentiating between both types of thinking based on the above-mentioned documents of science education are generally difficult. In many cases, they are referred to without defining them, or they are used interchangeably to represent virtually the same thing. Thus, for example, the document A Framework for K-12 Science Education points out that “Critical thinking is required, whether in developing and refining an idea (an explanation or design) or in conducting an investigation” (National Research Council (NRC), 2012 , p. 46). The same document also refers to scientific thinking when it suggests that basic scientific education should “provide students with opportunities for a range of scientific activities and scientific thinking , including, but not limited to inquiry and investigation, collection and analysis of evidence, logical reasoning, and communication and application of information” (NRC, 2012 , p. 251).

A few years earlier, the report Science Teaching in Schools in Europe: Policies and Research (European Commission/Eurydice, 2006 ) included the dimension “scientific thinking” as part of standardized national science tests in European countries. This dimension consisted of three basic abilities: (i) to solve problems formulated in theoretical terms , (ii) to frame a problem in scientific terms , and (iii) to formulate scientific hypotheses . In contrast, critical thinking was not even mentioned in such a report. However, in subsequent similar reports by the European Commission/Eurydice ( 2011 , 2022 ), there are some references to the fact that the development of critical thinking should be a basic objective of science teaching, although these reports do not define it at any point.

The ENCIENDE report on early-year science education in Spain also includes an explicit allusion to critical thinking among its recommendations: “Providing students with learning tools means helping them to develop critical thinking , to form their own opinions, to distinguish between knowledge founded on the evidence available at a certain moment (evidence which can change) and unfounded beliefs” (Confederation of Scientific Societies in Spain (COSCE), 2011 , p. 62). However, the report makes no explicit mention to scientific thinking. More recently, the document “ Enseñando ciencia con ciencia ” (Teaching science with science) (Couso et al., 2020 ), sponsored by Spain’s Ministry of Education, also addresses critical thinking:

(…) with the teaching approach through guided inquiry students learn scientific content, learn to do science (procedures), learn what science is and how it is built, and this (...) helps to develop critical thinking , that is, to question any statement that is not supported by evidence. (Couso et al., 2020 , p. 54)

On the other hand, in referring to what is practically the same thing, the European report Science Education for Responsible Citizenship speaks of scientific thinking when it establishes that one of the challenges of scientific education should be: “To promote a culture of scientific thinking and inspire citizens to use evidence-based reasoning for decision making” (European Commission, 2015 , p. 14). However, the Pisa 2024 Strategic Vision and Direction for Science report does not mention scientific thinking but does mention critical thinking in noting that “More generally, (students) should be able to recognize the limitations of scientific inquiry and apply critical thinking when engaging with its results” (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2020 , p. 9).

The new Spanish science curriculum for basic education (Royal Decree 217/ 2022 ) does make explicit reference to scientific thinking. For example, one of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) competency descriptors for compulsory secondary education reads:

Use scientific thinking to understand and explain the phenomena that occur around them, trusting in knowledge as a motor for development, asking questions and checking hypotheses through experimentation and inquiry (...) showing a critical attitude about the scope and limitations of science. (p. 41,599)

Furthermore, when developing the curriculum for the subjects of physics and chemistry, the same provision clarifies that “The essence of scientific thinking is to understand what are the reasons for the phenomena that occur in the natural environment to then try to explain them through the appropriate laws of physics and chemistry” (Royal Decree 217/ 2022 , p. 41,659). However, within the science subjects (i.e., Biology and Geology, and Physics and Chemistry), critical thinking is not mentioned as such. Footnote 1 It is only more or less directly alluded to with such expressions as “critical analysis”, “critical assessment”, “critical reflection”, “critical attitude”, and “critical spirit”, with no attempt to conceptualize it as is done with regard to scientific thinking.

The above is just a small sample of the concepts of scientific thinking and critical thinking only being differentiated in some cases, while in others they are presented as interchangeable, using one or the other indistinctly to talk about the same cognitive/metacognitive processes or practices. In fairness, however, it has to be acknowledged—as said at the beginning—that it is far from easy to conceptualize these two types of thinking (Bailin, 2002 ; Dwyer et al., 2014 ; Ennis, 2018 ; Lehrer & Schauble, 2006 ; Kuhn, 1993 , 1999 ) since they feed back on each other, partially overlap, and share certain features (Cáceres et al., 2020 ; Vázquez-Alonso & Manassero-Mas, 2018 ). Neither is there unanimity in the literature on how to characterize each of them, and rarely have they been analyzed comparatively (e.g., Hyytinen et al., 2019 ). For these reasons, I believed it necessary to address this issue with the present work in order to offer some guidelines for science teachers interested in deepening into these two intellectual processes to promote them in their classes.

2 An Attempt to Delimit Scientific Thinking in Science Education

For many years, cognitive science has been interested in studying what scientific thinking is and how it can be taught in order to improve students’ science learning (Klarh et al., 2019 ; Zimmerman & Klarh, 2018 ). To this end, Kuhn et al. propose taking a characterization of science as argument (Kuhn, 1993 ; Kuhn et al., 2008 ). They argue that this is a suitable way of linking the activity of how scientists think with that of the students and of the public in general, since science is a social activity which is subject to ongoing debate, in which the construction of arguments plays a key role. Lehrer and Schauble ( 2006 ) link scientific thinking with scientific literacy, paying especial attention to the different images of science. According to those authors, these images would guide the development of the said literacy in class. The images of science that Leherer and Schauble highlight as characterizing scientific thinking are: (i) science-as-logical reasoning (role of domain-general forms of scientific reasoning, including formal logic, heuristic, and strategies applied in different fields of science), (ii) science-as-theory change (science is subject to permanent revision and change), and (iii) science-as-practice (scientific knowledge and reasoning are components of a larger set of activities that include rules of participation, procedural skills, epistemological knowledge, etc.).

Based on a literature review, Jirout ( 2020 ) defines scientific thinking as an intellectual process whose purpose is the intentional search for information about a phenomenon or facts by formulating questions, checking hypotheses, carrying out observations, recognizing patterns, and making inferences (a detailed description of all these scientific practices or competencies can be found, for example, in NRC, 2012 ; OECD, 2019 ). Therefore, for Jirout, the development of scientific thinking would involve bringing into play the basic science skills/practices common to the inquiry-based approach to learning science (García-Carmona, 2020 ; Harlen, 2014 ). For other authors, scientific thinking would include a whole spectrum of scientific reasoning competencies (Krell et al., 2022 ; Moore, 2019 ; Tytler & Peterson, 2004 ). However, these competences usually cover the same science skills/practices mentioned above. Indeed, a conceptual overlap between scientific thinking, scientific reasoning, and scientific inquiry is often found in science education goals (Krell et al., 2022 ). Although, according to Leherer and Schauble ( 2006 ), scientific thinking is a broader construct that encompasses the other two.

It could be said that scientific thinking is a particular way of searching for information using science practices Footnote 2 (Klarh et al., 2019 ; Zimmerman & Klarh, 2018 ; Vázquez-Alonso & Manassero-Mas, 2018 ). This intellectual process provides the individual with the ability to evaluate the robustness of evidence for or against a certain idea, in order to explain a phenomenon (Clouse, 2017 ). But the development of scientific thinking also requires metacognition processes. According to what Kuhn ( 2022 ) argues, metacognition is fundamental to the permanent control or revision of what an individual thinks and knows, as well as that of the other individuals with whom it interacts, when engaging in scientific practices. In short, scientific thinking demands a good connection between reasoning and metacognition (Kuhn, 2022 ). Footnote 3

From that perspective, Zimmerman and Klarh ( 2018 ) have synthesized a taxonomy categorizing scientific thinking, relating cognitive processes with the corresponding science practices (Table 1 ). It has to be noted that this taxonomy was prepared in line with the categorization of scientific practices proposed in the document A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012 ). This is why one needs to understand that, for example, the cognitive process of elaboration and refinement of hypotheses is not explicitly associated with the scientific practice of hypothesizing but only with the formulation of questions. Indeed, the K-12 Framework document does not establish hypothesis formulation as a basic scientific practice. Lederman et al. ( 2014 ) justify it by arguing that not all scientific research necessarily allows or requires the verification of hypotheses, for example, in cases of exploratory or descriptive research. However, the aforementioned document (NRC, 2012 , p. 50) does refer to hypotheses when describing the practice of developing and using models , appealing to the fact that they facilitate the testing of hypothetical explanations .

In the literature, there are also other interesting taxonomies characterizing scientific thinking for educational purposes. One of them is that of Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas ( 2018 ) who, instead of science practices, refer to skills associated with scientific thinking . Their characterization basically consists of breaking down into greater detail the content of those science practices that would be related to the different cognitive and metacognitive processes of scientific thinking. Also, unlike Zimmerman and Klarh’s ( 2018 ) proposal, Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas’s ( 2018 ) proposal explicitly mentions metacognition as one of the aspects of scientific thinking, which they call meta-process . In my opinion, the proposal of the latter authors, which shells out scientific thinking into a broader range of skills/practices, can be more conducive in order to favor its approach in science classes, as teachers would have more options to choose from to address components of this intellectual process depending on their teaching interests, the educational needs of their students and/or the learning objectives pursued. Table 2 presents an adapted characterization of the Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas’s ( 2018 ) proposal to address scientific thinking in science education.

3 Contextualization of Critical Thinking in Science Education

Theorization and research about critical thinking also has a long tradition in the field of the psychology of learning (Ennis, 2018 ; Kuhn, 1999 ), and its application extends far beyond science education (Dwyer et al., 2014 ). Indeed, the development of critical thinking is commonly accepted as being an essential goal of people’s overall education (Ennis, 2018 ; Hitchcock, 2017 ; Kuhn, 1999 ; Willingham, 2008 ). However, its conceptualization is not simple and there is no unanimous position taken on it in the literature (Costa et al., 2020 ; Dwyer et al., 2014 ); especially when trying to relate it to scientific thinking. Thus, while Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina ( 2022 ) Footnote 4 and McBain et al. ( 2020 ) consider critical thinking to be the basis of or forms part of scientific thinking, Dowd et al. ( 2018 ) understand scientific thinking to be just a subset of critical thinking. However, Vázquez-Alonso and Manassero-Mas ( 2018 ) do not seek to determine whether critical thinking encompasses scientific thinking or vice versa. They consider that both types of knowledge share numerous skills/practices and the progressive development of one fosters the development of the other as a virtuous circle of improvement. Other authors, such as Schafersman ( 1991 ), even go so far as to say that critical thinking and scientific thinking are the same thing. In addition, some views on the relationship between critical thinking and scientific thinking seem to be context-dependent. For example, Hyytine et al. ( 2019 ) point out that in the perspective of scientific thinking as a component of critical thinking, the former is often used to designate evidence-based thinking in the sciences, although this view tends to dominate in Europe but not in the USA context. Perhaps because of this lack of consensus, the two types of thinking are often confused, overlapping, or conceived as interchangeable in education.

Even with such a lack of unanimous or consensus vision, there are some interesting theoretical frameworks and definitions for the development of critical thinking in education. One of the most popular definitions of critical thinking is that proposed by The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (1987, cited in Inter-American Teacher Education Network, 2015 , p. 6). This conceives of it as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”. In other words, critical thinking can be regarded as a reflective and reasonable class of thinking that provides people with the ability to evaluate multiple statements or positions that are defensible to then decide which is the most defensible (Clouse, 2017 ; Ennis, 2018 ). It thus requires, in addition to a basic scientific competency, notions about epistemology (Kuhn, 1999 ) to understand how knowledge is constructed. Similarly, it requires skills for metacognition (Hyytine et al., 2019 ; Kuhn, 1999 ; Magno, 2010 ) since critical thinking “entails awareness of one’s own thinking and reflection on the thinking of self and others as objects of cognition” (Dean & Kuhn, 2003 , p. 3).

In science education, one of the most suitable scenarios or resources, but not the only one, Footnote 5 to address all these aspects of critical thinking is through the analysis of socioscientific issues (SSI) (Taylor et al., 2006 ; Zeidler & Nichols, 2009 ). Without wishing to expand on this here, I will only say that interesting works can be found in the literature that have analyzed how the discussion of SSIs can favor the development of critical thinking skills (see, e.g., López-Fernández et al., 2022 ; Solbes et al., 2018 ). For example, López-Fernández et al. ( 2022 ) focused their teaching-learning sequence on the following critical thinking skills: information analysis, argumentation, decision making, and communication of decisions. Even some authors add the nature of science (NOS) to this framework (i.e., SSI-NOS-critical thinking), as, for example, Yacoubian and Khishfe ( 2018 ) in order to develop critical thinking and how this can also favor the understanding of NOS (Yacoubian, 2020 ). In effect, as I argued in another work on the COVID-19 pandemic as an SSI, in which special emphasis was placed on critical thinking, an informed understanding of how science works would have helped the public understand why scientists were changing their criteria to face the pandemic in the light of new data and its reinterpretations, or that it was not possible to go faster to get an effective and secure medical treatment for the disease (García-Carmona, 2021b ).

In the recent literature, there have also been some proposals intended to characterize critical thinking in the context of science education. Table 3 presents two of these by way of example. As can be seen, both proposals share various components for the development of critical thinking (respect for evidence, critically analyzing/assessing the validity/reliability of information, adoption of independent opinions/decisions, participation, etc.), but that of Blanco et al. ( 2017 ) is more clearly contextualized in science education. Likewise, that of these authors includes some more aspects (or at least does so more explicitly), such as developing epistemological Footnote 6 knowledge of science (vision of science…) and on its interactions with technology, society, and environment (STSA relationships), and communication skills. Therefore, it offers a wider range of options for choosing critical thinking skills/processes to promote it in science classes. However, neither proposal refers to metacognitive skills, which are also essential for developing critical thinking (Kuhn, 1999 ).

3.1 Critical thinking vs. scientific thinking in science education: differences and similarities

In accordance with the above, it could be said that scientific thinking is nourished by critical thinking, especially when deciding between several possible interpretations and explanations of the same phenomenon since this generally takes place in a context of debate in the scientific community (Acevedo-Díaz & García-Carmona, 2017 ). Thus, the scientific attitude that is perhaps most clearly linked to critical thinking is the skepticism with which scientists tend to welcome new ideas (Normand, 2008 ; Sagan, 1987 ; Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina, 2022 ), especially if they are contrary to well-established scientific knowledge (Bell, 2009 ). A good example of this was the OPERA experiment (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2016a ), which initially seemed to find that neutrinos could move faster than the speed of light. This finding was supposed to invalidate Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity (the finding was later proved wrong). In response, Nobel laureate in physics Sheldon L. Glashow went so far as to state that:

the result obtained by the OPERA collaboration cannot be correct. If it were, we would have to give up so many things, it would be such a huge sacrifice... But if it is, I am officially announcing it: I will shout to Mother Nature: I’m giving up! And I will give up Physics. (BBVA Foundation, 2011 )

Indeed, scientific thinking is ultimately focused on getting evidence that may support an idea or explanation about a phenomenon, and consequently allow others that are less convincing or precise to be discarded. Therefore when, with the evidence available, science has more than one equally defensible position with respect to a problem, the investigation is considered inconclusive (Clouse, 2017 ). In certain cases, this gives rise to scientific controversies (Acevedo-Díaz & García-Carmona, 2017 ) which are not always resolved based exclusively on epistemic or rational factors (Elliott & McKaughan, 2014 ; Vallverdú, 2005 ). Hence, it is also necessary to integrate non-epistemic practices into the framework of scientific thinking (García-Carmona, 2021a ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ), practices that transcend the purely rational or cognitive processes, including, for example, those related to emotional or affective issues (Sinatra & Hofer, 2021 ). From an educational point of view, this suggests that for students to become more authentically immersed in the way of working or thinking scientifically, they should also learn to feel as scientists do when they carry out their work (Davidson et al., 2020 ). Davidson et al. ( 2020 ) call it epistemic affect , and they suggest that it could be approach in science classes by teaching students to manage their frustrations when they fail to achieve the expected results; Footnote 7 or, for example, to moderate their enthusiasm with favorable results in a scientific inquiry by activating a certain skepticism that encourages them to do more testing. And, as mentioned above, for some authors, having a skeptical attitude is one of the actions that best visualize the application of critical thinking in the framework of scientific thinking (Normand, 2008 ; Sagan, 1987 ; Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina, 2022 ).

On the other hand, critical thinking also draws on many of the skills or practices of scientific thinking, as discussed above. However, in contrast to scientific thinking, the coexistence of two or more defensible ideas is not, in principle, a problem for critical thinking since its purpose is not so much to invalidate some ideas or explanations with respect to others, but rather to provide the individual with the foundations on which to position themself with the idea/argument they find most defensible among several that are possible (Ennis, 2018 ). For example, science with its methods has managed to explain the greenhouse effect, the phenomenon of the tides, or the transmission mechanism of the coronavirus. For this, it had to discard other possible explanations as they were less valid in the investigations carried out. These are therefore issues resolved by the scientific community which create hardly any discussion at the present time. However, taking a position for or against the production of energy in nuclear power plants transcends the scope of scientific thinking since both positions are, in principle, equally defensible. Indeed, within the scientific community itself there are supporters and detractors of the two positions, based on the same scientific knowledge. Consequently, it is critical thinking, which requires the management of knowledge and scientific skills, a basic understanding of epistemic (rational or cognitive) and non-epistemic (social, ethical/moral, economic, psychological, cultural, ...) aspects of the nature of science, as well as metacognitive skills, which helps the individual forge a personal foundation on which to position themself in one place or another, or maintain an uncertain, undecided opinion.

In view of the above, one can summarize that scientific thinking and critical thinking are two different intellectual processes in terms of purpose, but are related symbiotically (i.e., one would make no sense without the other or both feed on each other) and that, in their performance, they share a fair number of features, actions, or mental skills. According to Cáceres et al. ( 2020 ) and Hyytine et al. ( 2019 ), the intellectual skills that are most clearly common to both types of thinking would be searching for relationships between evidence and explanations , as well as investigating and logical thinking to make inferences . To this common space, I would also add skills for metacognition in accordance with what has been discussed about both types of knowledge (Khun, 1999 , 2022 ).

In order to compile in a compact way all that has been argued so far, in Table 4 , I present my overview of the relationship between scientific thinking and critical thinking. I would like to point out that I do not intend to be extremely extensive in the compilation, in the sense that possibly more elements could be added in the different sections, but rather to represent above all the aspects that distinguish and share them, as well as the mutual enrichment (or symbiosis) between them.

4 A Proposal for the Integrated Development of Critical Thinking and Scientific Thinking in Science Classes

Once the differences, common aspects, and relationships between critical thinking and scientific thinking have been discussed, it would be relevant to establish some type of specific proposal to foster them in science classes. Table 5 includes a possible script to address various skills or processes of both types of thinking in an integrated manner. However, before giving guidance on how such skills/processes could be approached, I would like to clarify that while all of them could be dealt within the context of a single school activity, I will not do so in this way. First, because I think that it can give the impression that the proposal is only valid if it is applied all at once in a specific learning situation, which can also discourage science teachers from implementing it in class due to lack of time or training to do so. Second, I think it can be more interesting to conceive the proposal as a set of thinking skills or actions that can be dealt with throughout the different science contents, selecting only (if so decided) some of them, according to educational needs or characteristics of the learning situation posed in each case. Therefore, in the orientations for each point of the script or grouping of these, I will use different examples and/or contexts. Likewise, these orientations in the form of comments, although founded in the literature, should be considered only as possibilities to do so, among many others possible.

Motivation and predisposition to reflect and discuss (point i ) demands, on the one hand, that issues are chosen which are attractive for the students. This can be achieved, for example, by asking the students directly what current issues, related to science and its impact or repercussions, they would like to learn about, and then decide on which issue to focus on (García-Carmona, 2008 ). Or the teacher puts forward the issue directly in class, trying for it be current, to be present in the media, social networks, etc., or what they think may be of interest to their students based on their teaching experience. In this way, each student is encouraged to feel questioned or concerned as a citizen because of the issue that is going to be addressed (García-Carmona, 2008 ). Also of possible interest is the analysis of contemporary, as yet unresolved socioscientific affairs (Solbes et al., 2018 ), such as climate change, science and social justice, transgenic foods, homeopathy, and alcohol and drug use in society. But also, everyday questions can be investigated which demand a decision to be made, such as “What car to buy?” (Moreno-Fontiveros et al., 2022 ), or “How can we prevent the arrival of another pandemic?” (Ushola & Puig, 2023 ).

On the other hand, it is essential that the discussion about the chosen issue is planned through an instructional process that generates an environment conducive to reflection and debate, with a view to engaging the students’ participation in it. This can be achieved, for example, by setting up a role-play game (Blanco-López et al., 2017 ), especially if the issue is socioscientific, or by critical and reflective reading of advertisements with scientific content (Campanario et al., 2001 ) or of science-related news in the daily media (García-Carmona, 2014 , 2021a ; Guerrero-Márquez & García-Carmona, 2020 ; Oliveras et al., 2013 ), etc., for subsequent discussion—all this, in a collaborative learning setting and with a clear democratic spirit.

Respect for scientific evidence (point ii ) should be the indispensable condition in any analysis and discussion from the prisms of scientific and of critical thinking (Erduran, 2021 ). Although scientific knowledge may be impregnated with subjectivity during its construction and is revisable in the light of new evidence ( tentativeness of scientific knowledge), when it is accepted by the scientific community it is as objective as possible (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2016b ). Therefore, promoting trust and respect for scientific evidence should be one of the primary educational challenges to combating pseudoscientists and science deniers (Díaz & Cabrera, 2022 ), whose arguments are based on false beliefs and assumptions, anecdotes, and conspiracy theories (Normand, 2008 ). Nevertheless, it is no simple task to achieve the promotion or respect for scientific evidence (Fackler, 2021 ) since science deniers, for example, consider that science is unreliable because it is imperfect (McIntyre, 2021 ). Hence the need to promote a basic understanding of NOS (point iii ) as a fundamental pillar for the development of both scientific thinking and critical thinking. A good way to do this would be through explicit and reflective discussion about controversies from the history of science (Acevedo-Díaz & García-Carmona, 2017 ) or contemporary controversies (García-Carmona, 2021b ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2016a ).

Also, with respect to point iii of the proposal, it is necessary to manage basic scientific knowledge in the development of scientific and critical thinking skills (Willingham, 2008 ). Without this, it will be impossible to develop a minimally serious and convincing argument on the issue being analyzed. For example, if one does not know the transmission mechanism of a certain disease, it is likely to be very difficult to understand or justify certain patterns of social behavior when faced with it. In general, possessing appropriate scientific knowledge on the issue in question helps to make the best interpretation of the data and evidence available on this issue (OECD, 2019 ).

The search for information from reliable sources, together with its analysis and interpretation (points iv to vi ), are essential practices both in purely scientific contexts (e.g., learning about the behavior of a given physical phenomenon from literature or through enquiry) and in the application of critical thinking (e.g., when one wishes to take a personal, but informed, position on a particular socio-scientific issue). With regard to determining the credibility of information with scientific content on the Internet, Osborne et al. ( 2022 ) propose, among other strategies, to check whether the source is free of conflicts of interest, i.e., whether or not it is biased by ideological, political or economic motives. Also, it should be checked whether the source and the author(s) of the information are sufficiently reputable.

Regarding the interpretation of data and evidence, several studies have shown the difficulties that students often have with this practice in the context of enquiry activities (e.g., Gobert et al., 2018 ; Kanari & Millar, 2004 ; Pols et al., 2021 ), or when analyzing science news in the press (Norris et al., 2003 ). It is also found that they have significant difficulties in choosing the most appropriate data to support their arguments in causal analyses (Kuhn & Modrek, 2022 ). However, it must be recognized that making interpretations or inferences from data is not a simple task; among other reasons, because their construction is influenced by multiple factors, both epistemic (prior knowledge, experimental designs, etc.) and non-epistemic (personal expectations, ideology, sociopolitical context, etc.), which means that such interpretations are not always the same for all scientists (García-Carmona, 2021a ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ). For this reason, the performance of this scientific practice constitutes one of the phases or processes that generate the most debate or discussion in a scientific community, as long as no consensus is reached. In order to improve the practice of making inferences among students, Kuhn and Lerman ( 2021 ) propose activities that help them develop their own epistemological norms to connect causally their statements with the available evidence.

Point vii refers, on the one hand, to an essential scientific practice: the elaboration of evidence-based scientific explanations which generally, in a reasoned way, account for the causality, properties, and/or behavior of the phenomena (Brigandt, 2016 ). In addition, point vii concerns the practice of argumentation . Unlike scientific explanations, argumentation tries to justify an idea, explanation, or position with the clear purpose of persuading those who defend other different ones (Osborne & Patterson, 2011 ). As noted above, the complexity of most socioscientific issues implies that they have no unique valid solution or response. Therefore, the content of the arguments used to defend one position or another are not always based solely on purely rational factors such as data and scientific evidence. Some authors defend the need to also deal with non-epistemic aspects of the nature of science when teaching it (García-Carmona, 2021a ; García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ) since many scientific and socioscientific controversies are resolved by different factors or go beyond just the epistemic (Vallverdú, 2005 ).

To defend an idea or position taken on an issue, it is not enough to have scientific evidence that supports it. It is also essential to have skills for the communication and discussion of ideas (point viii ). The history of science shows how the difficulties some scientists had in communicating their ideas scientifically led to those ideas not being accepted at the time. A good example for students to become aware of this is the historical case of Semmelweis and puerperal fever (Aragón-Méndez et al., 2019 ). Its reflective reading makes it possible to conclude that the proposal of this doctor that gynecologists disinfect their hands, when passing from one parturient to another to avoid contagions that provoked the fever, was rejected by the medical community not only for epistemic reasons, but also for the difficulties that he had to communicate his idea. The history of science also reveals that some scientific interpretations were imposed on others at certain historical moments due to the rhetorical skills of their proponents although none of the explanations would convincingly explain the phenomenon studied. An example is the case of the controversy between Pasteur and Liebig about the phenomenon of fermentation (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2017 ), whose reading and discussion in science class would also be recommended in this context of this critical and scientific thinking skill. With the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the arguments of some charlatans in the media and on social networks managed to gain a certain influence in the population, even though scientifically they were muddled nonsense (García-Carmona, 2021b ). Therefore, the reflective reading of news on current SSIs such as this also constitutes a good resource for the same educational purpose. In general, according to Spektor-Levy et al. ( 2009 ), scientific communication skills should be addressed explicitly in class, in a progressive and continuous manner, including tasks of information seeking, reading, scientific writing, representation of information, and representation of the knowledge acquired.

Finally (point ix ), a good scientific/critical thinker must be aware of what they know, of what they have doubts about or do not know, to this end continuously practicing metacognitive exercises (Dean & Kuhn, 2003 ; Hyytine et al., 2019 ; Magno, 2010 ; Willingham, 2008 ). At the same time, they must recognize the weaknesses and strengths of the arguments of their peers in the debate in order to be self-critical if necessary, as well as to revising their own ideas and arguments to improve and reorient them, etc. ( self-regulation ). I see one of the keys of both scientific and critical thinking being the capacity or willingness to change one’s mind, without it being frowned upon. Indeed, quite the opposite since one assumes it to occur thanks to the arguments being enriched and more solidly founded. In other words, scientific and critical thinking and arrogance or haughtiness towards the rectification of ideas or opinions do not stick well together.

5 Final Remarks

For decades, scientific thinking and critical thinking have received particular attention from different disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, pedagogy, and specific areas of this last such as science education. The two types of knowledge represent intellectual processes whose development in students, and in society in general, is considered indispensable for the exercise of responsible citizenship in accord with the demands of today’s society (European Commission, 2006 , 2015 ; NRC, 2012 ; OECD, 2020 ). As has been shown however, the task of their conceptualization is complex, and teaching students to think scientifically and critically is a difficult educational challenge (Willingham, 2008 ).

Aware of this, and after many years dedicated to science education, I felt the need to organize my ideas regarding the aforementioned two types of thinking. In consulting the literature about these, I found that, in many publications, scientific thinking and critical thinking are presented or perceived as being interchangeable or indistinguishable; a conclusion also shared by Hyytine et al. ( 2019 ). Rarely have their differences, relationships, or common features been explicitly studied. So, I considered that it was a matter needing to be addressed because, in science education, the development of scientific thinking is an inherent objective, but, when critical thinking is added to the learning objectives, there arise more than reasonable doubts about when one or the other would be used, or both at the same time. The present work came about motivated by this, with the intention of making a particular contribution, but based on the relevant literature, to advance in the question raised. This converges in conceiving scientific thinking and critical thinking as two intellectual processes that overlap and feed into each other in many aspects but are different with respect to certain cognitive skills and in terms of their purpose. Thus, in the case of scientific thinking, the aim is to choose the best possible explanation of a phenomenon based on the available evidence, and it therefore involves the rejection of alternative explanatory proposals that are shown to be less coherent or convincing. Whereas, from the perspective of critical thinking, the purpose is to choose the most defensible idea/option among others that are also defensible, using both scientific and extra-scientific (i.e., moral, ethical, political, etc.) arguments. With this in mind, I have described a proposal to guide their development in the classroom, integrating them under a conception that I have called, metaphorically, a symbiotic relationship between two modes of thinking.

Critical thinking is mentioned literally in other of the curricular provisions’ subjects such as in Education in Civics and Ethical Values or in Geography and History (Royal Decree 217/2022).

García-Carmona ( 2021a ) conceives of them as activities that require the comprehensive application of procedural skills, cognitive and metacognitive processes, and both scientific knowledge and knowledge of the nature of scientific practice .

Kuhn ( 2021 ) argues that the relationship between scientific reasoning and metacognition is especially fostered by what she calls inhibitory control , which basically consists of breaking down the whole of a thought into parts in such a way that attention is inhibited on some of those parts to allow a focused examination of the intended mental content.

Specifically, Tena-Sánchez and León-Medina (2020) assume that critical thinking is at the basis of rational or scientific skepticism that leads to questioning any claim that does not have empirical support.

As discussed in the introduction, the inquiry-based approach is also considered conducive to addressing critical thinking in science education (Couso et al., 2020 ; NRC, 2012 ).

Epistemic skills should not be confused with epistemological knowledge (García-Carmona, 2021a ). The former refers to skills to construct, evaluate, and use knowledge, and the latter to understanding about the origin, nature, scope, and limits of scientific knowledge.

For this purpose, it can be very useful to address in class, with the help of the history and philosophy of science, that scientists get more wrong than right in their research, and that error is always an opportunity to learn (García-Carmona & Acevedo-Díaz, 2018 ).

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García-Carmona, A. Scientific Thinking and Critical Thinking in Science Education . Sci & Educ (2023).

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Hypothesis Testing | A Step-by-Step Guide with Easy Examples

Published on November 8, 2019 by Rebecca Bevans . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Hypothesis testing is a formal procedure for investigating our ideas about the world using statistics . It is most often used by scientists to test specific predictions, called hypotheses, that arise from theories.

There are 5 main steps in hypothesis testing:

  • State your research hypothesis as a null hypothesis and alternate hypothesis (H o ) and (H a  or H 1 ).
  • Collect data in a way designed to test the hypothesis.
  • Perform an appropriate statistical test .
  • Decide whether to reject or fail to reject your null hypothesis.
  • Present the findings in your results and discussion section.

Though the specific details might vary, the procedure you will use when testing a hypothesis will always follow some version of these steps.

Table of contents

Step 1: state your null and alternate hypothesis, step 2: collect data, step 3: perform a statistical test, step 4: decide whether to reject or fail to reject your null hypothesis, step 5: present your findings, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about hypothesis testing.

After developing your initial research hypothesis (the prediction that you want to investigate), it is important to restate it as a null (H o ) and alternate (H a ) hypothesis so that you can test it mathematically.

The alternate hypothesis is usually your initial hypothesis that predicts a relationship between variables. The null hypothesis is a prediction of no relationship between the variables you are interested in.

  • H 0 : Men are, on average, not taller than women. H a : Men are, on average, taller than women.

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For a statistical test to be valid , it is important to perform sampling and collect data in a way that is designed to test your hypothesis. If your data are not representative, then you cannot make statistical inferences about the population you are interested in.

There are a variety of statistical tests available, but they are all based on the comparison of within-group variance (how spread out the data is within a category) versus between-group variance (how different the categories are from one another).

If the between-group variance is large enough that there is little or no overlap between groups, then your statistical test will reflect that by showing a low p -value . This means it is unlikely that the differences between these groups came about by chance.

Alternatively, if there is high within-group variance and low between-group variance, then your statistical test will reflect that with a high p -value. This means it is likely that any difference you measure between groups is due to chance.

Your choice of statistical test will be based on the type of variables and the level of measurement of your collected data .

  • an estimate of the difference in average height between the two groups.
  • a p -value showing how likely you are to see this difference if the null hypothesis of no difference is true.

Based on the outcome of your statistical test, you will have to decide whether to reject or fail to reject your null hypothesis.

In most cases you will use the p -value generated by your statistical test to guide your decision. And in most cases, your predetermined level of significance for rejecting the null hypothesis will be 0.05 – that is, when there is a less than 5% chance that you would see these results if the null hypothesis were true.

In some cases, researchers choose a more conservative level of significance, such as 0.01 (1%). This minimizes the risk of incorrectly rejecting the null hypothesis ( Type I error ).

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critical thinking involves hypothesis testing

The results of hypothesis testing will be presented in the results and discussion sections of your research paper , dissertation or thesis .

In the results section you should give a brief summary of the data and a summary of the results of your statistical test (for example, the estimated difference between group means and associated p -value). In the discussion , you can discuss whether your initial hypothesis was supported by your results or not.

In the formal language of hypothesis testing, we talk about rejecting or failing to reject the null hypothesis. You will probably be asked to do this in your statistics assignments.

However, when presenting research results in academic papers we rarely talk this way. Instead, we go back to our alternate hypothesis (in this case, the hypothesis that men are on average taller than women) and state whether the result of our test did or did not support the alternate hypothesis.

If your null hypothesis was rejected, this result is interpreted as “supported the alternate hypothesis.”

These are superficial differences; you can see that they mean the same thing.

You might notice that we don’t say that we reject or fail to reject the alternate hypothesis . This is because hypothesis testing is not designed to prove or disprove anything. It is only designed to test whether a pattern we measure could have arisen spuriously, or by chance.

If we reject the null hypothesis based on our research (i.e., we find that it is unlikely that the pattern arose by chance), then we can say our test lends support to our hypothesis . But if the pattern does not pass our decision rule, meaning that it could have arisen by chance, then we say the test is inconsistent with our hypothesis .

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Descriptive statistics
  • Measures of central tendency
  • Correlation coefficient


  • Cluster sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Types of interviews
  • Cohort study
  • Thematic analysis

Research bias

  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Survivorship bias
  • Availability heuristic
  • Nonresponse bias
  • Regression to the mean

Hypothesis testing is a formal procedure for investigating our ideas about the world using statistics. It is used by scientists to test specific predictions, called hypotheses , by calculating how likely it is that a pattern or relationship between variables could have arisen by chance.

A hypothesis states your predictions about what your research will find. It is a tentative answer to your research question that has not yet been tested. For some research projects, you might have to write several hypotheses that address different aspects of your research question.

A hypothesis is not just a guess — it should be based on existing theories and knowledge. It also has to be testable, which means you can support or refute it through scientific research methods (such as experiments, observations and statistical analysis of data).

Null and alternative hypotheses are used in statistical hypothesis testing . The null hypothesis of a test always predicts no effect or no relationship between variables, while the alternative hypothesis states your research prediction of an effect or relationship.

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The Use of Critical Thinking to Identify Fake News: A Systematic Literature Review

Paul machete.

Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, 0001 South Africa

Marita Turpin

With the large amount of news currently being published online, the ability to evaluate the credibility of online news has become essential. While there are many studies involving fake news and tools on how to detect it, there is a limited amount of work that focuses on the use of information literacy to assist people to critically access online information and news. Critical thinking, as a form of information literacy, provides a means to critically engage with online content, for example by looking for evidence to support claims and by evaluating the plausibility of arguments. The purpose of this study is to investigate the current state of knowledge on the use of critical thinking to identify fake news. A systematic literature review (SLR) has been performed to identify previous studies on evaluating the credibility of news, and in particular to see what has been done in terms of the use of critical thinking to evaluate online news. During the SLR’s sifting process, 22 relevant studies were identified. Although some of these studies referred to information literacy, only three explicitly dealt with critical thinking as a means to identify fake news. The studies on critical thinking noted critical thinking as an essential skill for identifying fake news. The recommendation of these studies was that information literacy be included in academic institutions, specifically to encourage critical thinking.


The information age has brought a significant increase in available sources of information; this is in line with the unparalleled increase in internet availability and connection, in addition to the accessibility of technological devices [ 1 ]. People no longer rely on television and print media alone for obtaining news, but increasingly make use of social media and news apps. The variety of information sources that we have today has contributed to the spread of alternative facts [ 1 ]. With over 1.8 billion active users per month in 2016 [ 2 ], Facebook accounted for 20% of total traffic to reliable websites and up to 50% of all the traffic to fake news sites [ 3 ]. Twitter comes second to Facebook, with over 400 million active users per month [ 2 ]. Posts on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter spread rapidly due to how they attempt to grab the readers’ attention as quickly as possible, with little substantive information provided, and thus create a breeding ground for the dissemination of fake news [ 4 ].

While social media is a convenient way of accessing news and staying connected to friends and family, it is not easy to distinguish real news from fake news on social media [ 5 ]. Social media continues to contribute to the increasing distribution of user-generated information; this includes hoaxes, false claims, fabricated news and conspiracy theories, with primary sources being social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter [ 6 ]. This means that any person who is in possession of a device, which can connect to the internet, is potentially a consumer or distributor of fake news. While social media platforms and search engines do not encourage people to believe the information being circulated, they are complicit in people’s propensity to believe the information they come across on these platforms, without determining their validity [ 6 ]. The spread of fake news can cause a multitude of damages to the subject; varying from reputational damage of an individual, to having an effect on the perceived value of a company [ 7 ].

The purpose of this study is to investigate the use of critical thinking methods to detect news stories that are untrue or otherwise help to develop a critical attitude to online news. This work was performed by means of a systematic literature review (SLR). The paper is presented as follows. The next section provides background information on fake news, its importance in the day-to-day lives of social media users and how information literacy and critical thinking can be used to identify fake news. Thereafter, the SLR research approach is discussed. Following this, the findings of the review are reported, first in terms of descriptive statistics and the in terms of a thematic analysis of the identified studies. The paper ends with the Conclusion and recommendations.

Background: Fake News, Information Literacy and Critical Thinking

This section discusses the history of fake news, the fake news that we know today and the role of information literacy can be used to help with the identification of fake news. It also provides a brief definition of critical thinking.

The History of Fake News

Although fake news has received increased attention recently, the term has been used by scholars for many years [ 4 ]. Fake news emerged from the tradition of yellow journalism of the 1890s, which can be described as a reliance on the familiar aspects of sensationalism—crime news, scandal and gossip, divorces and sex, and stress upon the reporting of disasters, sports sensationalism as well as possibly satirical news [ 5 ]. The emergence of online news in the early 2000s raised concerns, among them being that people who share similar ideologies may form “echo chambers” where they can filter out alternative ideas [ 2 ]. This emergence came about as news media transformed from one that was dominated by newspapers printed by authentic and trusted journalists to one where online news from an untrusted source is believed by many [ 5 ]. The term later grew to describe “satirical news shows”, “parody news shows” or “fake-news comedy shows” where a television show, or segment on a television show was dedicated to political satire [ 4 ]. Some of these include popular television shows such as The Daily Show (now with Trevor Noah), Saturday Night Live ’s “The Weekend Update” segment, and other similar shows such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert [ 4 ]. News stories in these shows were labelled “fake” not because of their content, but for parodying network news for the use of sarcasm, and using comedy as a tool to engage real public issues [ 4 ]. The term “Fake News” further became prominent during the course of the 2016 US presidential elections, as members of the opposing parties would post incorrect news headlines in order to sway the decision of voters [ 6 ].

Fake News Today

The term fake news has a more literal meaning today [ 4 ]. The Macquarie Dictionary named fake news the word of the year for 2016 [ 8 ]. In this dictionary, fake news is described it as a word that captures a fascinating evolution in the creation of deceiving content, also allowing people to believe what they see fit. There are many definitions for the phrase, however, a concise description of the term can be found in Paskin [ 4 ] who states that certain news articles originating from either social media or mainstream (online or offline) platforms, that are not factual, but are presented as such and are not satirical, are considered fake news. In some instances, editorials, reports, and exposés may be knowingly disseminating information with intent to deceive for the purposes of monetary or political benefit [ 4 ].

A distinction amongst three types of fake news can be made on a conceptual level, namely: serious fabrications, hoaxes and satire [ 3 ]. Serious fabrications are explained as news items written on false information, including celebrity gossip. Hoaxes refer to false information provided via social media, aiming to be syndicated by traditional news platforms. Lastly, satire refers to the use of humour in the news to imitate real news, but through irony and absurdity. Some examples of famous satirical news platforms in circulation in the modern day are The Onion and The Beaverton , when contrasted with real news publishers such as The New York Times [ 3 ].

Although there are many studies involving fake news and tools on how to detect it, there is a limited amount of academic work that focuses on the need to encourage information literacy so that people are able to critically access the information they have been presented, in order to make better informed decisions [ 9 ].

Stein-Smith [ 5 ] urges that information/media literacy has become a more critical skill since the appearance of the notion of fake news has become public conversation. Information literacy is no longer a nice-to-have proficiency but a requirement for interpreting news headlines and participation in public discussions. It is essential for academic institutions of higher learning to present information literacy courses that will empower students and staff members with the prerequisite tools to identify, select, understand and use trustworthy information [ 1 ]. Outside of its academic uses, information literacy is also a lifelong skill with multiple applications in everyday life [ 5 ]. The choices people make in their lives, and opinions they form need to be informed by the appropriate interpretation of correct, opportune, and significant information [ 5 ].

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking covers a broad range of skills that includes the following: verbal reasoning skills; argument analysis; thinking as hypothesis testing; dealing with likelihood and uncertainties; and decision making and problem solving skills [ 10 ]. For the purpose of this study, where we are concerned with the evaluation of the credibility of online news, the following definition will be used: critical thinking is “the ability to analyse and evaluate arguments according to their soundness and credibility, respond to arguments and reach conclusions through deduction from given information” [ 11 ]. In this study, we want to investigate how the skills mentioned by [ 11 ] can be used as part of information literacy, to better identify fake news.

The next section presents the research approach that was followed to perform the SLR.

Research Method

This section addresses the research question, the search terms that were applied to a database in relation to the research question, as well as the search criteria used on the search results. The following research question was addressed in this SLR:

  • What is the role of critical thinking in identifying fake news, according to previous studies?

The research question was identified in accordance to the research topic. The intention of the research question is to determine if the identified studies in this review provide insights into the use of critical thinking to evaluate the credibility of online news and in particular to identify fake news.


In the construction of this SLR, the following definitions of fake news and other related terms have been excluded, following the suggestion of [ 2 ]:

  • Unintentional reporting mistakes;
  • Rumours that do not originate from a particular news article;
  • Conspiracy theories;
  • Satire that is unlikely to be misconstrued as factual;
  • False statements by politicians; and
  • Reports that are slanted or misleading, but not outright false.

Search Terms.

The database tool used to extract sources to conduct the SLR was Google Scholar ( ). The process for extracting the sources involved executing the search string on Google Scholar and the retrieval of the articles and their meta-data into a tool called Mendeley, which was used for reference management.

The search string used to retrieve the sources was defined below:

(“critical think*” OR “critically (NEAR/2) reason*” OR “critical (NEAR/2) thought*” OR “critical (NEAR/2) judge*” AND “fake news” AND (identify* OR analyse* OR find* OR describe* OR review).

To construct the search criteria, the following factors have been taken into consideration: the research topic guided the search string, as the key words were used to create the base search criteria. The second step was to construct the search string according to the search engine requirements on Google Scholar.

Selection Criteria.

The selection criteria outlined the rules applied in the SLR to identify sources, narrow down the search criteria and focus the study on a specific topic. The inclusion and exclusion criteria are outlined in Table  1 to show which filters were applied to remove irrelevant sources.

Table 1.

Inclusion and exclusion criteria for paper selection

Inclusion criteriaExclusion criteria
Publications related to alternative facts, fake news and fabricationsPublications related to alternative facts, fake news and fabrications
Academic journals published in information technology and related fieldsAcademic journals published in information technology and related fields
Academic journals should outline critical thinking, techniques of how to identify fake news or reviewing fake news using critical thinkingAcademic journals should outline critical thinking, techniques of how to identify fake news or reviewing fake news using critical thinking
Academic journals should include an abstractAcademic journals should include an abstract
Publications related to alternative facts, fake news and fabrications

Source Selection.

The search criteria were applied on the online database and 91 papers were retrieved. The criteria in Table  1 were used on the search results in order to narrow down the results to appropriate papers only.

PRISMA Flowchart.

The selection criteria included four stages of filtering and this is depicted in Fig.  1 . In then Identification stage, the 91 search results from Google Scholar were returned and 3 sources were derived from the sources already identified from the search results, making a total of 94 available sources. In the screening stage, no duplicates were identified. After a thorough screening of the search results, which included looking at the availability of the article (free to use), 39 in total records were available – to which 55 articles were excluded. Of the 39 articles, nine were excluded based on their titles and abstract being irrelevant to the topic in the eligibility stage. A final list of 22 articles was included as part of this SLR. As preparation for the data analysis, a data extraction table was made that classified each article according to the following: article author; article title; theme (a short summary of the article); year; country; and type of publication. The data extraction table assisted in the analysis of findings as presented in the next section.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 497534_1_En_20_Fig1_HTML.jpg

PRISMA flowchart

Analysis of Findings

Descriptive statistics.

Due to the limited number of relevant studies, the information search did not have a specified start date. Articles were included up to 31 August 2019. The majority of the papers found were published in 2017 (8 papers) and 2018 (9 papers). This is in line with the term “fake news” being announced the word of the year in the 2016 [ 8 ].

The selected papers were classified into themes. Figure  2 is a Venn diagram that represents the overlap of articles by themes across the review. Articles that fall under the “fake news” theme had the highest number of occurrences, with 11 in total. Three articles focused mainly on “Critical Thinking”, and “Information Literacy” was the main focus of four articles. Two articles combined all three topics of critical thinking, information literacy, and fake news.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 497534_1_En_20_Fig2_HTML.jpg

Venn diagram depicting the overlap of articles by main focus

An analysis of the number of articles published per country indicate that the US had a dominating amount of articles published on this topic, a total of 17 articles - this represents 74% of the selected articles in this review. The remaining countries where articles were published are Australia, Germany, Ireland, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden - with each having one article published.

In terms of publication type, 15 of the articles were journal articles, four were reports, one was a thesis, one was a magazine article and one, a web page.

Discussion of Themes

The following emerged from a thematic analysis of the articles.

Fake News and Accountability.

With the influence that social media has on the drive of fake news [ 2 ], who then becomes responsible for the dissemination and intake of fake news by the general population? The immediate assumption is that in the digital age, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter should be able to curate information, or do some form of fact-checking when posts are uploaded onto their platforms [ 12 ], but that leans closely to infringing on freedom of speech. While different authors agree that there need to be measures in place for the minimisation of fake news being spread [ 12 , 13 ], where that accountability lies differs between the authors. Metaxas and Mustafaraj [ 13 ] aimed to develop algorithms or plug-ins that can assist in trust and postulated that consumers should be able to identify misinformation, thus making an informed decision on whether to share that information or not. Lazer et al. [ 12 ] on the other hand, believe the onus should be on the platform owners to put restrictions on the kind of data distributed. Considering that the work by Metaxas and Mustafaraj [ 13 ] was done seven years ago, one can conclude that the use of fact-checking algorithms/plug-ins has not been successful in curbing the propulsion of fake news.

Fake News and Student Research.

There were a total of four articles that had a focus on student research in relation to fake news. Harris, Paskin and Stein-Smith [ 4 , 5 , 14 ] all agree that students do not have the ability to discern between real and fake news. A Stanford History Education Group study reveals that students are not geared up for distinguishing real from fake news [ 4 ]. Most students are able to perform a simple Google search for information; however, they are unable to identify the author of an online source, or if the information is misleading [ 14 ]. Furthermore, students are not aware of the benefits of learning information literacy in school in equipping them with the skills required to accurately identify fake news [ 5 ]. At the Metropolitan Campus of Fairleigh Dickson University, librarians have undertaken the role of providing training on information literacy skills for identifying fake news [ 5 ].

Fake News and Social Media.

A number of authors [ 6 , 15 ] are in agreement that social media, the leading source of news, is the biggest driving force for fake news. It provides substantial advantage to broadcast manipulated information. It is an open platform of unfiltered editors and open to contributions from all. According to Nielsen and Graves as well as Janetzko, [ 6 , 15 ], people are unable to identify fake news correctly. They are likely to associate fake news with low quality journalism than false information designed to mislead. Two articles, [ 15 ] and [ 6 ] discussed the role of critical thinking when interacting on social media. Social media presents information to us that has been filtered according to what we already consume, thereby making it a challenge for consumers to think critically. The study by Nielsen and Graves [ 6 ] confirm that students’ failure to verify incorrect online sources requires urgent attention as this could indicate that students are a simple target for presenting manipulated information.

Fake News That Drive Politics.

Two studies mention the effect of social and the spread of fake news, and how it may have propelled Donald Trump to win the US election in 2016 [ 2 , 16 ]. Also, [ 8 ] and [ 2 ] mention how a story on the Pope supporting Trump in his presidential campaign, was widely shared (more than a million times) on Facebook in 2016. These articles also point out how in the information age, fact-checking has become relatively easy, but people are more likely to trust their intuition on news stories they consume, rather than checking the reliability of a story. The use of paid trolls and Russian bots to populate social media feeds with misinformation in an effort to swing the US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour, is highlighted [ 16 ]. The creation of fake news, with the use of alarmist headlines (“click bait”), generates huge traffic into the original websites, which drives up advertising revenue [ 2 ]. This means content creators are compelled to create fake news, to drive ad revenue on their websites - even though they may not be believe in the fake news themselves [ 2 ].

Information Literacy.

Information literacy is when a person has access to information, and thus can process the parts they need, and create ways in which to best use the information [ 1 ]. Teaching students the importance of information literacy skills is key, not only for identifying fake news but also for navigating life aspects that require managing and scrutinising information, as discussed by [ 1 , 17 ], and [ 9 ]. Courtney [ 17 ] highlights how journalism students, above students from other disciplines, may need to have some form of information literacy incorporated into their syllabi to increase their awareness of fake news stories, creating a narrative of being objective and reliable news creators. Courtney assessed different universities that teach journalism and media-related studies, and established that students generally lack awareness on how useful library services are in offering services related to information literacy. Courtney [ 17 ] and Rose-Wiles [ 9 ] discuss how the use of library resources should be normalised to students. With millennials and generation Z having social media as their first point of contact, Rose-Wiles [ 9 ] urges universities, colleges and other academic research institutes to promote the use of more library resources than those from the internet, to encourage students to lean on reliable sources. Overall, this may prove difficult, therefore Rose-Wiles [ 9 ] proposes that by teaching information literacy skills and critical thinking, students can use these skills to apply in any situation or information source.

Referred to as “truth decay”, people have reached a point where they no longer need to agree with facts [ 18 ]. Due to political polarisation, the general public hold the opinion of being part of an oppressed group of people, and therefore will believe a political leader who appeals to that narrative [ 18 ]. There needs to be tangible action put into driving civil engagement, to encourage people to think critically, analyse information and not believe everything they read.

Critical Thinking.

Only three of the articles had critical thinking as a main theme. Bronstein et al. [ 19 ] discuss how certain dogmatic and religious beliefs create a tendency in individuals to belief any information given, without them having a need to interrogate the information further and then deciding ion its veracity. The article further elaborates how these individuals are also more likely to engage in conspiracy theories, and tend to rationalise absurd events. Bronstein et al.’s [ 19 ] study conclude that dogmatism and religious fundamentalism highly correlate with a belief in fake news. Their study [ 19 ] suggests the use of interventions that aim to increase open-minded thinking, and also increase analytical thinking as a way to help religious, curb belief in fake news. Howlett [ 20 ] describes critical thinking as evidence-based practice, which is taking the theories of the skills and concepts of critical thinking and converting those for use in everyday applications. Jackson [ 21 ] explains how the internet purposely prides itself in being a platform for “unreviewed content”, due to the idea that people may not see said content again, therefore it needs to be attention-grabbing for this moment, and not necessarily accurate. Jackson [ 21 ] expands that social media affected critical thinking in how it changed the view on published information, what is now seen as old forms of information media. This then presents a challenge to critical thinking in that a large portion of information found on the internet is not only unreliable, it may also be false. Jackson [ 21 ] posits that one of the biggest dangers to critical thinking may be that people have a sense of perceived power for being able to find the others they seek with a simple web search. People are no longer interested in evaluation the credibility of the information they receive and share, and thus leading to the propagation of fake news [ 21 ].

Discussion of Findings

The aggregated data in this review has provided insight into how fake news is perceived, the level of attention it is receiving and the shortcomings of people when identifying fake news. Since the increase in awareness of fake news in 2016, there has been an increase in academic focus on the subject, with most of the articles published between 2017 and 2018. Fifty percent of the articles released focused on the subject of fake news, with 18% reflecting on information literacy, and only 13% on critical thinking.

The thematic discussion grouped and synthesised the articles in this review according to the main themes of fake news, information literacy and critical thinking. The Fake news and accountability discussion raised the question of who becomes accountable for the spreading of fake news between social media and the user. The articles presented a conclusion that fact-checking algorithms are not successful in reducing the dissemination of fake news. The discussion also included a focus on fake news and student research , whereby a Stanford History Education Group study revealed that students are not well educated in thinking critically and identifying real from fake news [ 4 ]. The Fake news and social media discussion provided insight on social media is the leading source of news as well as a contributor to fake news. It provides a challenge for consumers who are not able to think critically about online news, or have basic information literacy skills that can aid in identifying fake news. Fake news that drive politics highlighted fake news’ role in politics, particularly the 2016 US presidential elections and the influence it had on the voters [ 22 ].

Information literacy related publications highlighted the need for educating the public on being able to identify fake news, as well as the benefits of having information literacy as a life skill [ 1 , 9 , 17 ]. It was shown that students are often misinformed about the potential benefits of library services. The authors suggested that university libraries should become more recognised and involved as role-players in providing and assisting with information literacy skills.

The articles that focused on critical thinking pointed out two areas where a lack of critical thinking prevented readers from discerning between accurate and false information. In the one case, it was shown that people’s confidence in their ability to find information online gave made them overly confident about the accuracy of that information [ 21 ]. In the other case, it was shown that dogmatism and religious fundamentalism, which led people to believe certain fake news, were associated with a lack of critical thinking and a questioning mind-set [ 21 ].

The articles that focused on information literacy and critical thinking were in agreement on the value of promoting and teaching these skills, in particular to the university students who were often the subjects of the studies performed.

This review identified 22 articles that were synthesised and used as evidence to determine the role of critical thinking in identifying fake news. The articles were classified according to year of publication, country of publication, type of publication and theme. Based on the descriptive statistics, fake news has been a growing trend in recent years, predominantly in the US since the presidential election in 2016. The research presented in most of the articles was aimed at the assessment of students’ ability to identify fake news. The various studies were consistent in their findings of research subjects’ lack of ability to distinguish between true and fake news.

Information literacy emerged as a new theme from the studies, with Rose-Wiles [ 9 ] advising academic institutions to teach information literacy and encourage students to think critically when accessing online news. The potential role of university libraries to assist in not only teaching information literacy, but also assisting student to evaluate the credibility of online information, was highlighted. The three articles that explicitly dealt with critical thinking, all found critical thinking to be lacking among their research subjects. They further indicated how this lack of critical thinking could be linked to people’s inability to identify fake news.

This review has pointed out people’s general inability to identify fake news. It highlighted the importance of information literacy as well as critical thinking, as essential skills to evaluate the credibility of online information.

The limitations in this review include the use of students as the main participants in most of the research - this would indicate a need to shift the academic focus towards having the general public as participants. This is imperative because anyone who possesses a mobile device is potentially a contributor or distributor of fake news.

For future research, it is suggested that the value of the formal teaching of information literacy at universities be further investigated, as a means to assist students in assessing the credibility of online news. Given the very limited number of studies on the role of critical thinking to identify fake news, this is also an important area for further research.

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20.4: Testing Hypotheses

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  • Page ID 95206

  • Jason Southworth & Chris Swoyer
  • Fort Hays State & University University of Oklahoma

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Ok, so we have a hypothesis, and it has yielded some predictions. Now they need to be tested. But what does it mean to test a hypothesis? A theory or hypothesis is testable just in case some sort of objective, empirical test could provide evidence that it is either true or false.

When we formulate tests, we are figuring out the best way to check if the predictions we made are true. In an experimental test, we can bring about the test condition in a laboratory or some other controlled setting. Experimental sciences employ many experimental tests, but in some sciences (e.g., astronomy, meteorology) such tests are difficult to devise. We can obviously still test hypotheses in these areas, as we have made scientific advances in these fields, but we must bend our tests around observing naturally occurring phenomena instead.

Whenever possible, the way we want to test is with a controlled experiment . This involves collecting data on two representative groups – one group, which serves as a baseline, is the control group , and the other, that is affected in some way that lets us test our hypothesis, is the experimental group . The end result is we can compare the data collected from the control group to that of the experimental group and measure the impact the change in treatment had. For example, in a clinical drug trial, researchers will give one group a new drug, give the other group no drug (or the same drug they’ve already been taking), and see if those who get the new drug have improved health outcomes.

Not all tests are equally good at evaluating hypotheses. In general, a difficult or severe test of a theory is much better than a weak or easy test. The more unlikely a prediction seems to be before we check it, the better the test it provides of a theory. For example, if your local meteorologist has a theory that predicts it will rain in Seattle sometime this coming April, we won’t be bowled over if this comes true (we all knew that it would rain at least a little sometime during April, long before we ever the meteorologist’s theory). But suppose their theory predicts that it will rain between nine and nine and a half inches in Seattle between noon and 1 pm on April 7. If this happens, we are surprised, and take it to provide strong—though not conclusive— support for the theory: it must have something going for it, to get something like this right. Other things being equal, predictions that are extremely definite and precise provide a better test of a theory than predictions that are indefinite or vague.

What we really want, though, is a falsifiable hypothesis. A theory or hypothesis if falsifiable just in case some sort of objective, empirical test could show that it is false. The reason this is preferable is because, if we can run a test that may show our view is false, but the test doesn’t show that it is false, then we have good reason for thinking this view is true. The same isn’t the case for tests that only yield positive evidence for a view. Positive evidence is pretty easy to come by. No matter how much positive evidence we have, we need to keep in mind that there always might be negative or disconfirming evidence out there. We can even find positive evidence for hypothesis we know are false. There is positive evidence that Santa Claus is real, for instance (there he is, at the mall).

An additional kind of falsifiable test is a critical test . A critical test is one where two theories are pitted against each other. Critical tests are not particularly common, but what is great about them is that at the end of the process we have strong reason to support a hypothesis and strong reason to reject another.

It is important to keep in mind that theories can’t be conclusively falsified because when predictions don’t turn out to be correct, the result can be pinned on one of the auxiliary hypotheses . An auxiliary hypothesis is a background assumption used in testing a theory or hypothesis of interest. Every test of any interesting scientific theory involves auxiliary hypotheses (e.g., about the workings of the measuring devices one employs, the presence or absence of various disturbing influences, and so on). This is not to say that we should never set aside a hypothesis or conclude that it is false. After a failed test, we should go back and check all auxiliary hypotheses. If they seem to be reasonably supported (the equipment is in good working order, etc.) we will have reason to discard the hypothesis.

[C07] Critical thinking assessment

Module: Critical thinking

  • C01. What is critical thinking?
  • C02. Improve our thinking skills
  • C03. Defining critical thinking
  • C04. Teaching critical thinking
  • C05. Beyond critical thinking
  • C06. The Cognitive Reflection Test
  • C08. Videos and courses on critical thinking
  • C09. Famous quotes
  • C10. History of critical thinking

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There are different psychological tests that are used to evaluate critical thinking skills. The more popular ones are usually standardized tests that can be benchmarked against a larger sample.

  • Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (WGCTA) - The standard version consists of multiple choice questions for an hour-long test. There are two versions (A & B) that are supposed to be equivalent and so can be used to measure changes in critical thinking over a period of time.
  • California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCTST) - A more recent test that can also be completed online, with sub-scores for different categories such as analysis, inference, induction, etc.
  • California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory (CCTDI) - Designed to "designed to measure the disposition to engage problems and make decisions using critical thinking."
  • The Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment (HCTA) - Focuses on five dimensions of critical thinking: verbal reasoning, argument analysis, thinking as hypothesis testing, likelihood and uncertainty, and decision making and problem solving.
  • Cornell Critical Thinking Tests - There are two levels. Assessment topics include: induction, deduction, credibility, identification of assumptions, etc.
  • Related to the assessment of critical thinking, there is also the interesting Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), which consists of only 3 short questions. It provides a measurement of rational and reflective thinking. We have a copy of the CRT test on our web site here .

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critical thinking involves hypothesis testing

How to test your idea: start with the most critical hypotheses

To validate business ideas you need to perform many small experiments. At the centre of any one of these experiments should be a deep understanding of the most critical hypotheses and why you are testing them.


In the world of Lean Startup, the Build, Measure, Learn cycle is a means to an end to test the attractiveness of business ideas. Unfortunately, some innovators and entrepreneurs take the “Build” step too literally and immediately start building prototypes. However, at the centre of this cycle there is actually a step zero: shaping your idea and defining the most critical assumptions and hypotheses underlying it (Note: I’ll be interchanging between assumptions and hypotheses throughout the rest of the post).

Step 0 - think (& hypothesize)

Shape your idea (product, tech, market opportunity, etc.) into an attractive customer value proposition and prototype a potential profitable and scalable business model. Use the Value Proposition & Business Model Canvas to do this. Then ask: What are the critical assumptions and hypotheses that need to be true for this to work. Define assumptions as to desirability (market risk: will customers want it?); feasibility (tech & implementation risk: can I build/execute it?); and viability (financial risk: can I earn more money from it than it will cost me to build?). To test these assumptions/hypotheses you will perform many, many experiments. With your hypotheses mapped out, you can now start to move through the steps of the Build, Measure, Learn cycle:

Step 1 - build

In this step you design and build the experiments that are best suited to test your assumptions? Ask: Which hypothesis will we test first and how? Ask: Which tests will yield the most valuable data and evidence? ‍

Step 2 - measure

In this step you actually perform the experiments. That might be through interviews and talking to a series of customers and stakeholders; by launching a landing page to see if people click on, sign up for, or even buy your (non existing because it’s not yet implemented) value proposition. ‍

Step 3 - learn

In this step you analyze the data and gain insights. You systematically connect the evidence and data from experiments back to the initial hypotheses, how you tested them, and what you learned. This is where you identify if your initial hypotheses were right, wrong, or still unclear. You might learn that you have to reshape your idea, to pivot, to create new hypotheses, to continue testing, or you might prove with evidence that your idea has legs and you’re on the right rack. At the centre of all testing should always be a deep understanding of the critical hypotheses underlying how you intend to create value for customers (Value Proposition Canvas) and how you hope to create value for your company (Business Model Canvas). I’ve seen too many innovators and entrepreneurs get lost in building experiments, but losing sight of their initial hypotheses and the ultimate prize. At the end there’s only one thing that counts: Are you making progress in turning your initial idea into a profitable and scalable business model that creates value for customers?

About the speakers

Dr. Alexander (Alex) Osterwalder is one of the world’s most influential innovation experts, a leading author, entrepreneur and in-demand speaker whose work has changed the way established companies do business and how new ventures get started.

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