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Improving your Critical Thinking Skills

Everyone has their own concept of the world, of how they interpret and predict stimuli. This “concept” is underpinned by their philosophical approach to life. Whilst philosophy may seem to be a branch of knowledge best left for academics, the truth is we all utilize some form of it.

It surprises some people when they are told they use philosophy in just about everything they do – even science. The way we gain knowledge and enquire about it is greatly impacted by how we view the world. 

In the HPAT, you will encounter questions that require you to evaluate a study and make assumptions. This means it is imperative that your critical thinking skills are up to scratch before the day of the HPAT arrives. 

Important key terms:

Before we introduce any theories of thought, it is important to define some key terms relevant to critical thinking:

  • Reliability: reliability is a method’s ability to produce consistent results if the study was conducted multiple times.
  • Parsimony: Parsimony refers to the idea of “keeping things simple”. Rather than having a long and complicated explanation for the results of a study – is there a more simple and straightforward one?
  • Generality: refers to whether the results obtained from this study be generalized to the population.

Theories of thought:

There are many theories of thought in philosophy. They can be lined up in a spectrum. On the opposite sides we have positivism and relativism. You may find that you fall somewhere between these two theories. These are briefly outlined below.

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The concepts of order, external reality, reliability, parsimony and generality are understood differently in relativism and positivism. Positivism believes definite facts can be established and certainty can be achieved. Relativism, on the other hand, believes what is “true” depends on the circumstances of the situation.

Positivism:

Positivism is based on the idea that knowledge can only be gained from observable and measureable things. An observer must view the object from a detached and neutral perspective. This means personal beliefs and external factors are irrelevant during observation.

The theory suggests that any observable phenomenon can be understood and explained in a logical way if there was sufficient knowledge about the situation.

The scientific method:

It is the underlying assumptions of positivism that create the basis for the scientific method. Understanding the scientific method is key to tackling questions in the HPAT that requires you to analyse or interpret results in a study. Below are some assumptions that underpin positivism. Think about how they can apply to your HPAT prep as you are reading them. 

Order:

Positivism suggests the universe has an inherent order. Understanding the universe can be achieved through drawing links between causes and events. This knowledge can be used to predict future events. 

External reality:

Positivism believes everyone shares the same reality. It is assumed that knowledge can be shared and verified. A simple example of this measuring the length of a line in centimetres – regardless of who measures it, the length is still going to be the same.

This means when evaluating a study in the HPAT, you should see whether the results have high replicability. That is, whether it will produce similar results if it was conducted again.

Reliability

Positivism maintains that humans can depend on their senses and methods of thinking where careful observation and logical thought has been used. It suggests that our memories are accurate.

Parsimony

Positivism believes the simplest explanations are the best. A theory should not be cluttered with unnecessary complexity. This is particularly important when tackling pattern questions in the HPAT - is there a simpler answer available? 

Generality

Positivism suggests results of a study are not entirely useful if they are only relevant to those particular set of circumstances. Results obtained from a study must be able to be generalized to other sets of circumstances. This may include predicting future results. In terms of critical thinking for the HPAT, this translates to whether the results from the study can be used for a different set of circumstances.

Relativism:

Relativism suggests it is impossible for anyone to observe things detachedly as we are influenced, whether subconsciously or consciously, by personal experiences, viewpoints and social values.

Relativism is particularly useful for humanity subjects. Whilst the scientific method is useful in analysing and predicting things in a systematic and logical manner, it does not take into account external factors - that is, inconsistences, conflicts and differences in beliefs. These are aspects that make up what it means to be human.

This is particularly important when it comes to the ‘Understanding People’ questions in the HPAT. You will have to interpret passages and understand the subtleties of language.

Relativism also very heavily relies on communication. Communication differs from individual to individual, from culture to culture. Differences in the meaning of words or gestures due to cultural differences can give rise to conflict. This is particularly important for questions in the HPAT where you have to interpret the actions of an individual and their effects on others.

Listed below are a set of assumptions that underlie relativism:

Order:

Relativism believes order is dynamic. It is changes as our own human perceptions of life, society and beliefs change. Despite the amount of knowledge we gain, a definitive understanding of world order will never be reached. Ultimately, our perception of the order of the universe will be influenced by societal and personal values.

External reality

Relativism suggests that we look on the world from within ourselves. Everyone already has a picture of the world, and it is through our feelings and understanding that we interpret this picture to create our own reality.

Reliability

Relativism is based on personal interpretation and memorization of stimuli. Our senses can be fooled and influenced easily – either by personal or cultural values. Our memory is not 100% accurate. Researchers therefore cannot rely on their senses to give definitive records. However, our skills of reasoning can be taken as a reliable method of organizing data and ideas.

Parsimony

Relativism believes life and society cannot be summed up in a simple explanation. It is rarely possible to sum up any situation in a neat formula. There is the risk of oversimplification.

Generality

Relativists do not believe that individuals should be categorized. The uniqueness of each event and person should be valued. It is also this uniqueness that makes predicting future events difficult. Relativists believes it is dangerous to generalize from studies.

Relativism also very heavily relies on communication. Communication differs from individual to individual, from culture to culture. Differences in the meaning of words or gestures due to cultural differences can give rise to conflict. This is particularly important for questions in the HPAT where you have to interpret the actions of an individual and their effects on others.

So what is the point of this?

You will need to think about this for the HPAT. There are many ways of analyzing a situation. Each method is usually based on a philosophical approach that influences the way you interpret the data and the conclusions you come to. Your philosophical approach to understanding the world is a key factor in your interpretation. Of course, the approach you choose will depend on what study you are analyzing in the HPAT. You may end up using different methods for different types of questions.

Ultimately, being aware of your philosophical standpoint is important. It influences greatly how you approach each question on the HPAT.

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