TLDRoff
Being critical requires you to not only gather appropriate data and information but to examine it carefully and question its reliability and authority.

What is critical thinking? We often make the mistake of confusing being critical with being negative or "nit-picking" and this is unfortunate. Anybody can adopt a negative position to any point of view simply by saying "no" but this is not being critical, more often than not this is simply being awkward.

In this era of so called 'alternative facts' it has never been more important to question our sources of information. Critical thinking involves looking beyond the obvious surface issues, asking questions about motivation and purpose. Being critical requires you to not only gather appropriate data and information but to examine it carefully and question its reliability and authority.

Checklist Guide

One way of helping to focus your critical thinking is by considering the 6 W's:

  • Who by? Who has produced a piece of information is a crucial issue. Everyone has a perspective, a point of view, that can't be avoided. Being aware of a person's point of view, background and even prejudices helps us to interpret their work and better understand why they are saying what they are saying.
  • Why? Why something has been written or said is a very important critical issue. We are bombarded by information these days and each piece is presented to serve a particular purpose. Knowing why something something has been written will help in identifying the underlying motivation of the writer or producer and thus help us decide whether the information is valuable to us or not.
  • What? What evidence is the information based upon? In reading a book or watching the TV or listening to teachers it is important to ask questions about the basis for what is being said. It is important not to believe something just because somebody says so, we need to know why they are saying what they are saying, otherwise it is simply gossip. Newspaper articles can often be accused of this, making claims based on little or no evidence. 
  • When? The period in history when a piece of information was presented is very important, especially in fields where there is rapid development such as IT. There is little use writing an essay about the current state of mobile phone technology based upon a book written in the 1980's. 
  • Where? Geographical location is often an important critical factor. Where something was produced will often make a difference to the kind of information being presented and the way it is presented. Healthcare issues, for example, will differ widely between developed and developing countries. Attitudes to law, religion and society vary a great deal from country to country. 
  • Who for? The target audience for a presentation of information will be an important issue when critically evaluating its value and significance. Writers can aim their work very specifically at the young or the old, male or female, different political groups, different social groups and so on. Some writings or media productions are aimed at the general public others are aimed at a small section. Some information is packaged for easy consumption by people with limited education some is tailored to the needs of students, teachers and experts. It is important when studying to ask whether your source material is pitched at the appropriate level – the "Ladybird Book of Policemen" would not, for example, be an appropriate textbook for an undergraduate essay on criminality and policing in the UK.

Final Comments

Thinking critically is a skill that is taught at school and university BUT its main purpose is to better equip you to understand the world, to make more sense of the vast amount of information that is available to us and to avoid, being manipulated. It is a life skill.

We all act critically in our everyday lives. We don't simply accept gossip and random information and we certainly shouldn't accept everything we see on TV or in the media as true and authoritative. It is vital in our everyday lives to be able to question why people are saying things to us be it the government, our friends or the advertising industry. If we accepted everything we heard and read and saw, without question, we would be open to constant abuse and manipulation. To buy what we really need, to vote for who we really support and to befriend those who truly care for us we have to think critically.

Who do you think is being most critical here and why?

For Further Information

The Skills You Need website has more information on critical thinking.