Whether you’re brand new to data science, have gotten your feet wet in this field or are an expert, you should know that working with data is all about generating knowledge.
There are many handfuls of ways data can make things better. Consider these:
- Telling stories
- Exploring relationships
- Backing up decisions
- Finding patterns
- Judging experiments
- Answering questions
When anaylyzing data, the goal is to turn information into insights and in order to create insights about the right things, we must ask the right questions.
Practicing any of the above well would require one to have many “hard skills” like coding, visualization, data cleaning, math modelling, graph interpretations, etc.
What is far less talked about are the “soft skills” for making data useful, and of all the skills that a successful student or expert of data science needs to have, critical thinking is definitely at the top of that list. All data analysts and scientists should embrace critical thinking as a key skill and capability.
I’ve researched and investigated critical thinking for myself to build my own skills for data analysis: What is it, why is it important, what are the benefits, when is it required and how can we get better at it?
Below, I answer these questions and include exercises and recommendations that can help improve on your own critical thinking skills.
What Is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is the sensible and unbiased analysis, examination and intepretation of data in order to form a usable and reasonable understanding.
A less verbose definition, critical thinking is a process of questioning information to make better decisions and understand things better.
Here are examples of some critical thinking skills:
- Problem Solving
To better understand how to improve our critical thinking skills, we need to understand it fully first.
Why Is Critical Thinking Important?
To put this in perspective, critical thinking is the opposite of your day-to-day thinking. When we think, usually this happens naturally.
When we think critically, we are consciously using our intellectual tools to reach a well-founded conclusion than our brain naturally would.
Elements of thought that can act as the intellectual tools:
- Points of view
That information can come from sources like:
If we were to deliberately think about our every action, we wouldn’t have enough mental energy for the important things, so having much of our thoughts happen automatically can be a good thing.
It’s only when we let our automatic mental processes rule important decisions, where it becomes an issue. Without critical thinking, it’s easy for us to be manipulated and for all kinds of disasters to result.
What Are The Benefits of Critical Thinking?
Thinking critically or not can make the difference between success and failure in most areas of your life.
Here are 5 important ways critical thinking can impact your life:
1. Better Decisions
We make hundreds to thousands of decisions every single day. While most of them are naturally occuring and happening unconsciously, the most important decisions we make are the hard ones that require a lof of thought.
Critical thinking helps you cope with everyday problems as they come. It promotes independent thinking and makes you smarter and less likely to fall for lies, peer pressure, or scams.
As technology advances more and more each year, we now have access to more information than we ever have before.
Critical thinking helps you sort through all the noise and can assure your opinions are based on the best available facts.
Happiness is more than just a feeling, it’s something we can all practice daily. Recognizing and understanding yourself is an underrated path to happiness.
Critical thinking is a great tool to be cognizant of yourself and learn to master your thoughts. You can free yourself from negative thoughts that might hold you back, help express your thoughts, ideas, and beliefs, and help you evaluate your strengths and shortcomings.
4. Successful Career
Critical thinking can help any profession that might require you to:
- analyze information
- solve problems
- find solutions
- be creative
- present ideas
Critical thinking is becoming a skill that is valued in many professions other than data science — it can gauge longstanding success.
5. Improve Relationships
When you utilize critical thinking in relationships, you are more open-minded and able to easily understand someone else’s POV.
You’ll also be able to spot when others are:
- Don’t have your best interests
- Taking advantage
Critical thinking helps you become a voice of reason, less likely to jump to conclusions, more empathetic and easier to get along with.
What Are Some Situations Critical Thinking Is Used?
Here are come examples of critical thinking scenarios:
- A data scientist working with great precision through a complex experiment in an effort to gather and analyze data
- An EMT pulling up to a scene of an accident to analyze the situation, evaluate priorities, and theorize what actions to take
- A lawyer, judge, or jury systematically investigating, interrogating, examining, and evaluating evidence
- A writer organizing ideas for a plot of a story
- A parent anticipating the costs of sending kids to college, analyzing income and budgeting expenses
- A person trying to decipher a friend’s needs, expressed through a stampede of emotion and depracating comments, to give that friend help and support
In all of the above examples, proper critical thinking skills must be utilized to achieve the best solution.
How Can We Improve Critical Thinking?
The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks” — Christopher Hitchens
The good news is that thinking critically is a learned skill, which can be cultivated in anyone. You simply are not born with innate critical thinking skills.
That said, if you want to be a good critical thinker, you need to remember that it’s all about practice. Like any habit, there are certain muscles you need to flex over time.
Below, you’ll find 5 ways to improve your everyday critical thinking. Focusing on these will put you on the path to becoming an exceptional critical thinker.
The first step in the critical thinking process is to identify the situation or problem. Once you have a clear picture of that, and the factors that may influence it, you can begin to dive deeper into it and its potential solutions.
How to Improve: When faced with a new situation, question or scenario, stop to take a mental picture of how things are stacked up.
2. Ask Questions
“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it” — Joseph Joubert
Learn to question everything. It’s very easy to accept things at face value, but that’s a sign of a lazy mind.
How to Improve: You can start by asking the following questions:
- What do you already know?
- How do you know that?
- What seems to be the reason for this happening?
- What are you trying to prove, disprove, demonstrate, critique, support?
- What are you overlooking?
You should continually go back to these basic questions you asked when you set out to solve the problem. These types of questions urge you to get right to the core of a problem, examining it for simple solutions before assuming its complexities.
3. Be Aware of Your Mental Process
Being a good critical thinker requires you to accept that you have biases. Although even the best critical thinkers will never be entirely bias-free, you need to learn to look out for them.
How to Improve:Make a habit of asking yourself what you’re assuming and why you’re assuming that, and check for things like stereotyping.
Becoming more mindful of your own biases is the first step to rewriting these parts of your thinking.
4. Adjust Your Perspective
Good critical thinkers do their best to be neutral with respect to their own beliefs and thoughts, spotting biases and prejudices and then correcting them.
How to Improve: Think of yourself as a judge. You have to evaluate both sides of an argument, but you also need to keep in mind the biases each side may possess.
When evaluating information, ask yourself theses questions:
- Who will this benefit?
- Does the source have an agenda?
- Is the source ignoring, overlooking or leaving out information?
- Is this source using unnecessary language to change an audience’s mind?
5. Establish Foresight
Critical thinking is heavily dependent on problem-solving. An effective critical thinker will have the foresight to anticipate roadblocks and negative outcomes. You’ll be able to make the right decisions if you can already see the consequences down the line.
How to Improve: Making a pro and con list is a great way to boost foresight, making you better at predicting outcomes. The more you do this, the less work you need to put into your attempted predictions each time.
6. Be an Independent Thinker
“Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought” — JFK
Don’t get hung up in research, reading, others’ opinions that you forget to think for yourself.
You must learn to think for yourself and take ownership of your own values, beliefs, judgments, and decisions.
How to Improve: One of the best ways to avoid mental laziness is to practice the 15-minute rule — a process you can apply when you get stuck:
- When you’re presented with a problem you don’t immediately know the answer to, ask if you have even a small amount of confidence to solve it on your own
- If yes, then spend 15 minutes trying to solve the problem
- Document each step of your process
- If you still haven’t solved the problem after 15 minutes, get help (from a person or Google).
Over time, this process will help you build your critical thinking skills and self-reliance.
I hope you found this article resourceful and are able to use some of it to help you think more critically in your career and your life.
If you approach critical thinking skills as a process to follow, you’ll consistently heighten your thought process and when utilized regularly, it will become a habit and improve your critical thinking skills over time.
Remember: learning to think critically is a never-ending journey, there is always more to learn, assess and improve.