How to think effectively: Six stages of critical thinking

A critical thinking framework developed by psychologists can help teach mental skills necessary for our times.

How to think effectively: Six stages of critical thinking

Graphic: Paul Ratner

Credit: Elder / Paul
  • Researchers propose six levels of critical thinkers: Unreflective thinkers, Challenged thinkers, Beginning thinkers, Practicing thinkers, Advanced thinkers, and Master thinkers.
  • The framework comes from educational psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul.
  • Teaching critical thinking skills is a crucial challenge in our times.

The coronavirus has not only decimated our populations, its spread has also attacked the very nature of truth and stoked inherent tensions between many different groups of people, both at local and international levels. Spawning widespread conspiracy theories and obfuscation by governments, the virus has also been a vivid demonstration of the need for teaching critical thinking skills necessary to survive in the 21st century. The stage theory of critical thinking development, devised by psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul, can help us gauge the sophistication of our current mental approaches and provides a roadmap to the thinking of others.

The researchers identified six predictable levels of critical thinkers, from ones lower in depth and effort to the advanced mind-masters, who are always steps ahead.

As the scientists write, moving up on this pyramid of thinking "is dependent upon a necessary level of commitment on the part of an individual to develop as a critical thinker." Using your mind more effectively is not automatic and "is unlikely to take place "subconsciously." In other words – you have to put in the work and keep doing it, or you'll lose the faculty.

Here's how the stages of intellectual development break down:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker

These are people who don't reflect about thinking and the effect it has on their lives. As such, they form opinions and make decisions based on prejudices and misconceptions while their thinking doesn't improve.

Unreflective thinkers lack crucial skills that would allow them to parse their thought processes. They also do not apply standards like accuracy, relevance, precision, and logic in a consistent fashion.

How many such people are out there? You probably can guess based on social media comments. As Elder and Paul write, "it is perfectly possible for students to graduate from high school, or even college, and still be largely unreflective thinkers."

Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker

This next level up thinker has awareness of the importance of thinking on their existence and knows that deficiencies in thinking can bring about major issues. As the psychologists explain, to solve a problem, you must first admit you have one.

People at this intellectual stage begin to understand that "high quality thinking requires deliberate reflective thinking about thinking", and can acknowledge that their own mental processes might have many flaws. They might not be able to identify all the flaws, however.

A challenged thinker may have a sense that solid thinking involves navigating assumptions, inferences, and points of view, but only on an initial level. They may also be able to spot some instances of their own self-deception. The true difficulty for thinkers of this category is in not "believing that their thinking is better than it actually is, making it more difficult to recognize the problems inherent in poor thinking," explain the researchers.

Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker

Thinkers at this level can go beyond the nascent intellectual humility and actively look to take control of their thinking across areas of their lives. They know that their own thinking can have blind spots and other problems and take steps to address those, but in a limited capacity.

Beginning thinkers place more value in reason, becoming self-aware in their thoughts. They may also be able to start looking at the concepts and biases underlying their ideas. Additionally, such thinkers develop higher internal standards of clarity, accuracy and logic, realizing that their ego plays a key role in their decisions.

Another big aspect that differentiates this stronger thinker – some ability to take criticism of their mental approach, even though they still have work to do and might lack clear enough solutions to the issues they spot.

Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker

This more experienced kind of thinker not only appreciates their own deficiencies, but has skills to deal with them. A thinker of this level will practice better thinking habits and will analyze their mental processes with regularity.

While they might be able to express their mind's strengths and weaknesses, as a negative, practicing thinkers might still not have a systematic way of gaining insight into their thoughts and can fall prey to egocentric and self-deceptive reasoning.

How do you get to this stage? An important trait to gain, say the psychologists, is "intellectual perseverance." This quality can provide "the impetus for developing a realistic plan for systematic practice (with a view to taking greater command of one's thinking)."

"We must teach in such a way that students come to understand the power in knowing that whenever humans reason, they have no choice but to use certain predictable structures of thought: that thinking is inevitably driven by the questions, that we seek answers to questions for some purpose, that to answer questions, we need information, that to use information we must interpret it (i.e., by making inferences), and that our inferences, in turn, are based on assumptions, and have implications, all of which involves ideas or concepts within some point of view," explain Elder and Paul.

Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker

One doesn't typically get to this stage until college and beyond, estimate the scientists. This higher-level thinker would have strong habits that would allow them to analyze their thinking with insight about different areas of life. They would be fair-minded and able to spot the prejudicial aspects in the points of view of others and their own understanding.

While they'd have a good handle on the role of their ego in the idea flow, such thinkers might still not be able to grasp all the influences that affect their mentality.

The advanced thinker is at ease with self-critique and does so systematically, looking to improve. Among key traits required for this level are "intellectual insight" to develop new thought habits, "intellectual integrity" to "recognize areas of inconsistency and contradiction in one's life," intellectual empathy" to put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, and the "intellectual courage" to confront ideas and beliefs they don't necessarily believe in and have negative emotions towards.

Stage Six: The Master Thinker

This is the super-thinker, the one who is totally in control of how they process information and make decisions. Such people constantly seek to improve their thought skills, and through experience "regularly raise their thinking to the level of conscious realization."

A master thinker achieves great insights into deep mental levels, strongly committed to being fair and gaining control over their own egocentrism.

Such a high-level thinker also exhibits superior practical knowledge and insight, always re-examining their assumptions for weaknesses, logic, and biases.

And, of course, a master thinker wouldn't get upset with being intellectually confronted and spends a considerable amount of time analyzing their own responses.

"Why is this so important? Precisely because the human mind, left to its own, pursues that which is immediately easy, that which is comfortable, and that which serves its selfish interests. At the same time, it naturally resists that which is difficult to understand, that which involves complexity, that which requires entering the thinking and predicaments of others," write the researchers.

So how do you become a master thinker? The psychologists think most students will never get there. But a lifetime of practicing the best intellectual traits can get you to that point when "people of good sense seek out master thinkers, for they recognize and value the ability of master thinkers to think through complex issues with judgment and insight."

The significance of critical thinking in our daily lives, especially in these confusing times, so rife with quick and often-misleading information, cannot be overstated. The decisions we make today can truly be life and death.

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Surprising Science
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Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
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