3.2 Critical Thinking

Ruxandra Buluc. Cătălina Nastasiu


The present section investigates critical thinking as one of the most recommended instruments in the fight against disinformation. Numerous European documents and courses point to developing critical thinking as a means of countering the effects disinformation has on the informational environment. The section examines the skills that need to be included in critical thinking curricula, the traits of a critical thinker, the processes and types of analysis involved in critically interacting with any kind of discourse (argumentative, rhetorical, conversational, narrative). The deliverable also puts forth concrete tools for students to develop their critical thinking competences. Employing the latest research in the field, the section focuses on the skills and competences that need to be developed in order for students to become proficient critical thinkers, providing them with clearly understandable checklists and questions, as well as examples and analyses to help them understand how critical thinking works.

Main research questions addressed

● What is critical thinking?
● What abilities make a person and efficient critical thinker?
● What are the types of analysis which comprise critical thinking?
● How can each type of analysis be developed? 

European documents are increasingly mentioning critical thinking as a solution to counter the effects of disinformation and to build citizen resilience in the face of disinformation attacks and foreign information and manipulation interference.

The Digital Education Action Plan presents critical thinking as a requirement in today’s society and combines it with media literacy to develop the “ability to engage positively and competently in the digital environment” (2018, 3) and to “overcome the ever-present threats of fake news, cyber bullying, radicalisation, cybersecurity threats and fraud” (2018, 8). However, the document acknowledges the fact that making these abilities available to the wider public still proves somewhat elusive.  

The Communication on achieving the European Education Area by 2025 names critical thinking as one the key transversal skills that the next generations of students should possess, along with entrepreneurship, creativity and civic engagement through transdisciplinary, learner-centred and challenge-based approaches (2020, 5).

In the context of digital rhetoric, critical content interpretation capabilities are essential. Critical thinking represents a set of tools used in the process of interpreting content to analyze and evaluate ideas, messages, or arguments, including interpreting evidence, placing the message in a larger context, and understanding whether cited data supports the point of view.

The New Skills Agenda for Europe also refers to critical thinking as a transversal skill and key competence that needs to be mastered along with digital competences, entrepreneurship, problem solving or learning to learn, and financial literacy (2016, 5). The New Skills Agenda for Europe also refers to the broad range of skills which formal education and training should equip graduates with: literacy, numeracy, science and foreign languages so as to foster inclusion, personal development, employability and active citizenship. In the context of current technological and informational changes, critical thinking have become essential for full participation in society. Moreover, new technical and "soft" skills are gaining more and more importance on the labor market.

The first steps in order to provide a curriculum to develop critical thinking are to understand what critical thinking is, what makes a good critical thinker and what skills and types of analysis it relies on. 

What is critical thinking?

Walton (1989, 169) explains that critical thinking requires a central theory of reasoned argument criticism. Siegel (1989, 21) points out that critical thinking is “principled thinking” as it combines reasons and principles and it is dependent on, stemming from and promoting rationality, by bringing to light the matters which are relevant for belief formation and action. Hunter (2009, 2) explains that critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is aimed at deciding what to do and what to believe. Paul and Elder (2020) provide a more extensive definition:

Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thought processes with a view to improving them. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It requires rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcoming our native egocentrism and socio-centrism. It advances the character and ethical sensitivities of the dedicated person through the explicit cultivation of intellectual virtues.

Their definition examines not only the characteristics of critical thinking as a process, but also its prerequisites (the standards), its outputs (effective communication and problem-solving) and its effects (character molding and evolution).

Siegel (1989, 23) also points out that principled critical thinking is based on consistency, impartiality, non-arbitrariness, fairness, which recognises the universal and objective standards on which judgements are based. He (Siegel, 1989, 23-24) details the two types of principles that exist: a) subject-neutral principles, which are general and function across a wide variety of contexts and subjects, such as proper inductive and deductive reasoning, fallacy avoidance; b) subject-specific principles which apply only to specific areas of inquiry or subjects, such as physics, mathematics, linguistics, etc. Both types of principles are necessary prerequisites for effective critical thinking. It is not sufficient to know various facts in a particular subject if one is not able to operate with them logically; just as it is not enough to understand reasoning processes if one does not know the specific knowledge in a field that those processes could be applied to. More often than not, lack of knowledge in one of these areas leads to fallacies, to acceptance of dubious theories (be they fake news, unfounded rumors or conspiracy theories), to a lack of understanding of how the world and society function, which does not allow for a rational and constructive debate in the public sphere (see chapters 2.3 and 3.1 for more information). Subject-specific principles do not form the object of this chapter, as it would be impossible to cover all the different areas. However, we will delve into the subject-neutral principles and skills that help form and inform good reasoning practices across disciplines of study.

Critical thinking researchers and educators have identified a series of abilities, skills and sub-skills that need to be developed and practised in order to foster the development of critical thinkers.

  1. Empathy. The ability to constructively understand the other side's point of view (Walton, 1989, 169)
  2. Critical detachment. The ability to detect bias, and thereby to avoid being too heavily partisan to attain a balanced perspective in argument.' (Walton, 1989, 169)

To these Facione (1990a, 12–19) adds a further set of skills and sub-skills:

  1. Interpretation. Categorization, decoding significance, clarifying meaning;
  2. Analysis. Examining ideas, identifying arguments, analyzing arguments;
  3. Evaluation. Assessing claims, assessing arguments;
  4. Inference. Querying evidence, conjecturing alternatives, drawing conclusions;
  5. Explanation. Stating results, justifying procedures, presenting arguments;
  6. Self-regulation. Self-examination, self-correction.

To this extended list, we would add that it is not only arguments that serve as the basis for the practice and development of these critical thinking skills; one should also focus on discourse that is not argumentative, on narratives, speech and conversation, as well as on source analysis. All these will be explored in more depth in the following sections.

Therefore, critical thinking can be seen as a process which focuses on the self, as much as on the others in order to identify, monitor, assess, (if necessary) correct the reasons and principles that function in decision-making situations or in communicative contexts more generally. Most of the problems that people face in their everyday lives require thoughtful consideration and cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. These issues may not have clear-cut solutions, may require updated solutions, as society changes quickly and fundamentally. Any and all solutions that may present themselves have both advantages and disadvantages, that necessitate a reasonable, principled, overt analysis, which accounts for various perspectives, uncovers possible omitted elements, unearths the values and interests that may dictate opinions, accounts for the contextual influences and limitations. This is the main task of critical thinkers and this approach to situations, events, opinions, convictions, beliefs, values presupposes that people think independently, can analyse with detachment their own reasoning as well others’, and can make informed, calculated and responsible decisions.  

What makes a critical thinker?

Critical thinkers exhibit a complex set of traits, attitudes and dispositions that Siegel (1989, 21-22) groups under the more general label “critical attitude” or “critical spirit”. First and foremost, they strive to determine, identify, evaluate the reasons, based on principles (see section 1 of this chapter) that support any claim, judgement or action. However, this is not sufficient. The critical thinker must also be willing to endorse the principles, and strive to put them into practice through reasoning, have an inquiring mind and a commitment to objectivity as much as possible, sympathetic but thorough investigative inclinations that are not solely focused on the points of view that the thinker supports, but even more so on the ones they are more inclined to reject, so as to be able to overcome some possible biases (see chapter 2.1).

Facione (1990, 25) undertook an extensive mapping of the critical thinkers’ skills and attitudes with respect to life in general and also focused on how they could be applied to specific situations or issues. The table below presents the list of skills, aptitudes and characteristics that make adept critical thinkers. 

Life in general

● inquisitiveness about a wide range of issues;
● concern to become and remain generally well-informed;
● alertness to opportunities to use critical thinking;
● trust in the processes of reasoned inquiry;
● self-confidence in their own ability to reason;
● open-mindedness to divergent worldviews,
● flexibility in weighing alternatives and opinions,
● understanding different opinions;
● fair-mindedness in assessing reasoning;
● honesty in facing their own biases, prejudices, stereotypes, egocentric or sociocentric tendencies;
● prudence in suspending, making or altering judgments, and
● willingness to reconsider and revise views where honest reflection suggests that change is warranted.

Specific issues
● clarity in stating the question or concern;
● orderliness in working with complexity;
● diligence in seeking relevant information;
● reasonableness in selecting and applying criteria;
● care in focusing attention on the concern at hand;
● persistence though difficulties are encountered, and
● precision to the degree permitted by subject and circumstances. 

This is a wide array of skills and traits that a person must possess and exercise in order to become an efficient critical thinker. Some of them might be more easily attainable, while others might be more difficult to exercise in every context, due to emotional interferences or charges and also to time constraints that might hinder more in-depth analysis. However, if practised extensively, the skills become more like second nature and manifest themselves when needed, thus turning a person into what Paul and Elder (2020) coined the term “well-cultivated critical thinker”.

They concentrated their vast experience in teaching and researching critical thinking and developed a brief toolkit to encompass the skills employed by the well-cultivated critical thinker:
• raises vital clearly formulated questions and issues;
• gathers and assesses relevant information;
• comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions and verifies them against principles and standards;
• thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought;
• communicates effectively with others to identify solutions to complex problems; and
• avoids misrepresenting or distorting information in producing arguments (Paul and Elder, 2020, 9). 

Hunter (2007) synthesizes the traits that a critical thinker should have under two encompassing categories: reasonableness and reflectivity.

The former refers to employing and relying on reason and sound reasoning principles when analyzing and evaluating the arguments and discourses one is presented with. The latter means that the analysis process should be in-depth, exploratory and multi-level, which means it “involves thinking about a problem at several different levels or from several different angles all at once, including thinking about what the right method is for answering or solving the problem (Hunter, 2007, 5). Levitin states that employing reasonableness and reflectivity fosters the development and maintenance of intellectual humility: “Critical thinking trains us to take a step back, to evaluate facts and form evidence-based conclusions. (...)

The most important component of the best critical thinking that is lacking in our society is humility. It is a simple yet profound notion: If we realize we don’t know everything, we can learn. If we think we know everything, learning is impossible” (2017, xiv). Being able to acknowledge that we may not know everything, that some things are beyond our understanding is the defining quality of a rational thinker, who is able not only to assess the limits of others’ judgements but also one’s own.
Paul & Elder (2004, 5) also explain that human objectivity and all-knowingness is merely an ideal that individuals cannot attain on their own and that the best ways to try to get as close to objectivity as possible is to remain humble, admitting one’s subjective point of view and considering diverging, different, various competing sources of information when considering an important judgment or decision.  

What should critical thinking courses focus on?

Most critical thinking courses focus on formal and informal logic, on producing correct and valid deductive and inductive arguments, which might, at times, appear to students to be cut off from the real world and all the issues that they need to consider. It is our contention that argumentation is but a part, albeit vital, of what critical thinking courses should address. Not all the real-life situations in which people need to exercise critical thinking can be reduced to arguments. In fact, in many cases, people have to analyse other types of discourse, such as persuasive discourse, which is not constructed around an argument; or narratives, which present a message that is not argumentative; or participate in conversations or dialogues that do not revolve around an argument; or, increasingly more important at present, analyse the sources of various messages to determine their credibility and trust-worthiness. Therefore, we argue that critical thinking courses should extend their area of applicability beyond argumentation to also include: rhetorical analysis, narrative analysis, conversational analysis and source analysis (which is explored in more depth in a separate section 3.4 Media literacy).

a) Argument analysis
Continuing the discussion of argumentative fallacies in section 3.1, we focus on how critical thinking can aid people to detect, analyse and uncover such fallacies in disinformation and thus counter their manipulative effects.

Critical thinking focuses on explicitly analysing arguments employing the standards and principles that make it a fair, transparent, impartial skill. The way to do this is to uncover the reasons that an argument is built on and to examine their validity. Hunter (2009: 4) explains that there are three important categories of reasons: epistemic, pragmatic and emotional.
Epistemic reasons refer to facts, to the real world, to the system of knowledge and data that society is based upon, that is true regardless of whether people believe them or not. For example, the law of gravity dictates that objects fall to the ground due to gravity irrespective of whether people know about this law, believe it or agree with it. Epistemic reasons are independent of other types of reasons and they confer truth value to various assertions given the scientific evidence and previously proven theories that they encompass. They remain true and real irrespective of how well they are integrated or made use of in an argument. Examples of such reasons are appeals to authority (experts, laws, scientific tenets, etc.) and results of scientific research that have been verified and validated in the scientific community.

Pragmatic reasons refer to the beliefs, information, data, evidence that people believe will assist them in attaining their particular goals with more ease or in a timelier manner. These reasons reflect people’s longer or shorter term expectations with respect to how a system should work, how losses can be prevented or minimised, how gains could be enhanced. In other words, they are interest-based and convention-enforced. They regulate how a community or social system functions in order to meet the expectations or satisfy the needs of the individuals that are part of it. Examples of pragmatic reasons could be examples of particular situations and how events unfold, analogies that help the audience understand how something functions by comparing it to another, already familiar and similar item, etc.

Emotional reasons are based on personal experiences, feelings, sentiments, beliefs that are part of and determine an individual’s identity, and which can affect the ways in which that individual perceives the events around them. Emotional reasons are versatile and possibly the most persuasive, as people are emotionally attached to their convictions and are molded by their personal experiences, and do not react entirely rationally when these are called into question. It is difficult to relinquish beliefs that are fundamental to how one perceives and understands the world and their place in it. Moreover, these emotional reasons can also form the basis for communities, be they large or small, in which case they are consistently reinforced by mere inclusion in the respective community. These types of reasons might be the most challenging to untangle, to bring to light and to objectively analyse. They might also be the most resistant to the open-minded approach that critical thinking presupposes because they are so deeply entwined with personal and collective identities.

Moreover, Kahane (1989, 142) explains that students need an understanding of types of reasons, as well as of the ways in which they may be corrupted through sophistic reasoning. To this end, informal logic, employing real-life examples of fallacies, which are then critically analysed and their flaws revealed, better assist students in tackling argumentative fallacies weaponised into fake news and disinformation. Kahane also points out that critical thinking is a how-to type of course, which teaches students not only how to analyse others’ arguments but also how to critically analyse their own arguments, assisting them in taking a step back and clearing their own reasoning and strengthening it (also see section 3.1).

Govier (1989, 117) explains that critical thinking is more extensive than mere argumentation. Other types of reasoning processes are involved, some of them may never become public, but they are nonetheless important and need to be examined critically: hypothesising, deliberating, judging, estimating, investigating similarities and differences, explaining, classifying, interpreting, fact presenting, etc. All these thinking processes may be evaluated via critical thinking mechanisms.
Moreover, critical thinking should not and cannot be limited to analysis of argumentative language. It should also include other modes of representation (images, films, visual representations, etc.), as well as other contexts of language use such as conversations, speeches, narratives.

b) Rhetorical analysis
Public discourse is a social process through which the speaker creates and transmits meanings and representations of the world, builds the social image that they want to put forth for the audience. None of us have direct access to reality as such, and each of us perceives it differently. Based on what we experience and the representations we construct, we create and transmit our understanding of the world, while at the same time challenging, changing, shaping, molding the society we live in. In order to understand how public discourse shapes the world, the communities and societies we live in, the critical thinker needs to analyse the ways in which rhetoric is manifest in various contexts such as politics, law, science, social science, journalism, history, public relations, strategic communication, marketing, advertising, education, health, etc.

Rhetorical analysis focuses on public discourse in all its forms, examining in more detail how it is constructed, with a special focus on the rhetorical devices that grant it persuasive power and capture the attention of the audiences. Rhetorical analysis calls for a piecemeal integration of various analysis criteria, focusing on broader mechanisms such as the ways in which discourse creates emotional connections to its audiences, either by employing narratives which stir the audience's reactions, or by relying on argumentation, as previously explained. These broader mechanisms stem from the elements of persuasion that Aristotle first put forth in Rhetoric: logos, pathos, ethos, and not to forget kairos.

  1. Logos. Refers to the rational arguments that are presented in support of an idea.
  2. Pathos. Refers to the emotions that are stirred in order to gain support for that particular idea.
  3. Ethos. Refers to the integrity and responsibility of the persuader, as it is known by the audience, and which thus affects the ways in which the audience listens to and accepts the persuasive message.

Kairos, the least explored of the persuasion components put forth by Aristotle, was clarified by the analysis undertaken by Kinneavy (1986, 80) who defines it as “right or opportune time to do something or right measure in doing something,” thus bringing into clearer focus how reliant on the right moment and the right extent of scope or endeavour persuasion is. Moreover, in 2000, Kinneavy & Eskin (2000) employed computer-assisted discourse analysis and identified the two contexts in which Aristotle defined rhetoric: (1) “Its function is not so much to persuade as to find in each case the existing means of persuasion”; (2) “Rhetoric may then be defined as the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” (Kinneavy & Eskin, 2000, 434). Given all these components and the ways in which they interact in order to construct a persuasive discourse, it is of great valour for critical thinkers to focus their attention on rhetorical analysis of discourse, in order to uncover the ways, means and interests which the orator may employ in order to convince their audience.

Rhetorical devices are the tactical tools employed to convey a meaning persuasively and attractively to a target audience. Their goal is to assist the target audience in visualising and conceptualising the delivered message, by stimulating the audience’s imaginations, stirring emotions, creating memorable images.

The table below presents the most important rhetorical devices as well as relevant examples for each:


definitionindicates similarities between the features of objects, situations, events, persons and indicates that what is applicable to one instance, can be transferred to the other
example - “Stereotypes about racism, religion, gender or anything else, they’re like cancer. If you had a tumour, you wouldn’t quietly hope that it slowly disappears. You would zap it with chemotherapy, and cut it out, an try every experimental treatment until it was gone. This is no different.” Arnold Schwarzenegger 17.08.2017

definition - concepts, ideas, events, positions, situations are placed in a clear-cut opposition, so that only one option seems acceptable
example - “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream speech

definition - represent the excessive repetition of a sound or group of sounds in the same sentence to draw the attention
example - “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.” President Donald Trump, State of the Union speech, 2019

definition - the repetition of the same word or syntagm at the beginning of several, consecutive paragraphs/sentences to emphasise an idea
example - “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream speech

definition - transfers human characteristics to inanimate objects or phenomena
example - The financial markets fought hard to secure their gains this week.

rhetorical question
definition - questions that an answer to is not expected or is implied in the way they are formulated
example - “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?” President Barack Obama speech on migration, 20.11.2014

definition - deliberate exaggeration for impact
example -  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugural address, 04.03.1933

definition - a word or several words are repeated to increase their impact and retention
example - “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 04.06.1940

definition - symbolically representing or associating concepts, ideas that would not or have not been associated before to draw attention
example - “This invasion of others is a raw material, efficiently and ruthlessly mined, packaged and sold at a profit. A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity, and shame is an industry.”
“Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop, and it's time for an intervention on the internet and in our culture.”
“Online, we've got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis.” Monika Lewinsky, The Price of Shame, TED talk

definition - unexpected associations, plays upon words, plot twists, situation reversals that generate laughter
example - “The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.” J.K. Rowling Harvard commencement speech 05.06.2008

definition - Something is stated directly, by a different meaning, an evaluation, a judgment, an opposing view is transmitted indirectly and needs to be decoded properly by the recipient.
example - “The Green New Deal calls for the elimination of all airplanes.
This might seem merely ambitious for politicians who represent the densely populated northeast. But how is this supposed to work for our fellow citizens who don’t live between Washington and Boston? In a future without air travel, how are people supposed to get around the vast expanses of, say, Alaska during the winter? Tauntauns: a beloved species of repto-mammals native to the ice planet of Hoth. While not as efficient as planes or snow-mobiles, these hairy, bipedal space lizards offer their own unique benefits. Not only are tauntauns carbon-neutral, but according to one report “a long time ago” and “far, far away,” they may even be fully recyclable for their warmth on especially cold nights.” Senator Robert Lee, Remarks on the Green New Deal, 2019.

definition - deliberate understatement for impact
example - “The planet does not need us to “think globally, and act locally” so much as it needs us to think family, and act personally.” Senator Robert Lee, Remarks on the Green New Deal, 2019.
definition - Introducing an idea, concept, event, etc. while at the same time claiming that it will not be discussed, thus allowing the speaker not to assume responsibility for said idea, concept, event etc.
example - “I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.” Michele Bachmann, 28 April 2009

definition - Replacing a negatively associated phrase with something neutral or positive sounding
example - alternative facts” Kellyanne Conway January 22, 2017 

Govier (1989, 122) explains that what critical thinking students require is a check-list of “discrediting factors” that they could identify in any type of public discourse, not only in argumentation, and which could indicate that there are reasoning issues underlying that particular discourse. The list could include factors such as:
● use of emotive language, meant to elicit an emotional rather than a rational response;
● explanations for phenomena that are not real (the earth is flat) or that are flawed;
● classifications that are based on flawed criteria;
● exaggerations that are presented as the only possible explanations;
● unsupported claims, in which case no evidence is offered to support that particular claim;
● alternative positions are not examined;
● rhetorical questions are formulated in support of various claims, instead of justifications or evidence;
● false dichotomies;
● no appeal to authority or to research results is employed to support various claims.

To these we could add:
● the use of intentionally ambiguous language that does not actually state anything clearly;
● the use of complicated jargon to deter understanding and make the discourse seem scientifically sound;
● the use of buzzwords that reflect issues which people consider important, relevant and current but which actually do not reveal anything of substance;
● the use of smokescreens by which a key point is hidden behind a plethora of irrelevant words.

All these rhetorical devices are important for critical thinkers to understand and evaluate, not because they could mask disinformation in all cases, but because they might be employed in order to detract their attention, to persuade them with respect to an issue which is not sufficiently supported by actual evidence, to elicit emotional rather than rational responses, and, generally speaking, to create the impression that a lot has been said on a certain issue and therefore no further discussion is warranted.

c) Conversation analysis
Walton (1989, 174-175) explains that there are several types of dialogue or conversation that are frequently the subject of critical investigations:
1) persuasion dialogue in which case each participant tries to persuade the other that their position, assertion, etc. is the best and it should be accepted, based on the premises which are presented. This could devolve from constructive persuasive dialogue into a dispute into which the two sides negate each other and one has to be completely abandoned in order for the other one to be accepted. Examples: parliamentary debates; criminal trials.
2) inquiry meant to obtain further information and knowledge on a certain issue, thus gaining the necessary evidence to validate a conclusion. The inquiry is based on obtaining factual premises that demonstrate the conclusion.
3) negotiation is based on promoting one’s interests and conceding the least by obtaining the best deal possible. Negotiation does not require convictions, values, ideas, truths, but rather trade-offs and exchanges in order to obtain the best outcome for oneself.

In all of these cases, critical thinking provides a useful toolbox for the analysis of the claims, assertions, persuasive instances, trade-offs, information, facts presented so as to determine the best course of action or whether the dialogues proceed correctly, transparently, openly, responsibly. However, in many instances, analysing conversations and dialogues could present certain challenges, as they usually take place in real time and might overburden the critical thinker. Govier (1989 123) explains that it is sometimes more facile to analyse written discourse from a critical perspective than it is to apply the same methods to conversations and/or spoken language. Several reasons are presented for this difficulty:
● spoken discourse needs to be analysed faster, the elements that make it up, arguments, rhetorical devices, instances of persuasion, emotional appeals etc. must be identified as the speech or the conversation progresses, which requires more adept, attentive critical thinkers;
● social and personal factors, such as social status and power relations, play a role in this type of analysis as they could affect the critical thinker’s acuity;
● real contexts are fast-paced, images may disappear before they are properly interpreted, the conversation may move on to other points, and thus make effective analysis challenging.
There are also some advantages to direct conversational analysis:
● in face-to-face conversations, speakers could be interrogated further with respect to the claims they are making and the arguments they are presenting, to their assumption and unstated beliefs;
● body language and facial expressions could also contribute to evaluating a person’s credibility and legitimacy in making the claims, their honesty, openness and reliability.

However, public debates require engaged, critical thinkers who can spot reasoning flaws and counter them appropriately. Therefore, courses in critical thinking should also explore this type of interactions so as to better assist students in developing the skillset that they require. Bailin and Battersby (2021, 32) suggest engaging the students in an inquiry-based approach to teaching critical thinking, as they explain that arguments do not exist in isolation and they are often part of debates, which come with their own set of rules and expectations. Reasoned judgment and evaluation in such cases requires that the critical thinker is aware not only of the exchanged arguments, statements, claims, etc. but also of the larger social context in which the debate occurs so that they have all the necessary information to evaluate what is being included, and equally importantly, what is left out of the debate, to weigh the merits of what is stated, based on a relevant set of criteria, while keeping one’s mind open to both sides of the debate. They suggest a set of questions that could direct such an inquiry into the solidity of a debate:
● What is the issue approached?
● What claims or judgements about the issue are made?
● What are the reasons and arguments that each side presents?
● What is the relevance of the reasons and arguments to the issue?
● What is the context in which the issue is discussed?
● How strong are the arguments, explanations, hypotheses, data presented by each side?
● What conclusion could the critical thinker draw on their own from what was presented? (Battersby & Bailin, 2021, 33-34).

Along the same lines, Browne (2021, 221) also explains that a question-based critical thinking process is one of the best methods of approaching critical thinking as it becomes a community-building process, rather than a cross-examination and judgmental undertaking. He terms this process collaborative critical thinking, a communal endeavour, based on mutual respect and friendliness, which fosters the development of constructive relationships, and not a struggle or a competition in which there are winners or losers. Thus, the critical thinking process becomes a dialogue in itself, an active endeavour to identify the strong and weak points of a dialogue or conversation, an active engagement on the part of the critical thinker with the subject matter presented, and the end result is a stronger understanding of the principles of reasoning that enriches and develops the whole community.

d) Narrative analysis
Narratives perform a vital function in human communication as they respond to the human need to understand one’s environment and experiences, to make sense of the world. To this end, narratives expound causal, temporal and spatial relationships that order events and confer meaning and are, therefore, explanatory, correlational and organizational in nature.

Fisher (1987 64-65) explains that the narrative paradigm which underpins human communication, interaction and societal development revolves around five presuppositions:
1. Humans are first and foremost storytellers;
2. Human decision-making and communication are focused on “good reasons” which vary according to the situation, the genre, the medium of communication, the culture, etc.;
3. Good reasons are dependent on history, biography, culture, the characters involved;
4. Narratives are assigned varying degrees of rationality based on narrative probability (the coherence of a story) and narrative fidelity (if the stories ring true to the audience’s life experiences);
5. Narratives construct the human world and people choose among various narratives as they construct and reconstruct the world they live in. Good reasons, along with symbols, are the “communicative expressions of social reality.”

Therefore, narratives rely on good reasons to be convincing and to gain traction with audiences. Evaluating these good reasons is one of the most important tasks of the critical thinker, as well as decoding the symbols and the cultural references they employ.
Halverston et al (2011, 12) posit that narratives are responsible for giving meaning to language, of creating word patterns and phrases which are meaningful and can be decoded appropriately by the audiences. Madisson & Ventsel (2021, 22) further explain that telling a story means that experience is segmented into concrete units which are afterwards ordered in a definitive and meaningful manner, by creating temporal and causal relations. However, this process is based on subjective interpretation and, consequently, one cannot speak of true stories, but only of interpretations which reflect particular interests, values, beliefs, understandings, etc. Colley (2017, 4) defines narratives as “temporally, spatially and causally connected sequence of events, selected and evaluated as meaningful for a particular audience”.
Narratives provide a clearly understandable structure and predictability, which is why they are often employed as the main means of aiding the audiences in comprehending and managing crises, conflicts and other types of threatening events. Gottschall (2019, 47) states that narratives reflect but also exercise the human mind’s associative processes for the difficult situations that it may be confronted with and that it needs to untangle. Halverson et al. (2011, 14) present narratives as “a coherent system of interrelated and sequentially organized stories that share a common rhetorical desire to resolve a conflict by establishing audience expectations according to the known trajectories of its literary and rhetorical form”, which means that narratives operate according to set rules regarding what is plausible and how event could unfold as dictated by the narrative patterns specific to a culture or history.

Holmstrom (2016: 120) also emphasises that narratives are especially important when human beings are confronted with crisis situations, in which information is scarce and which create a void of comprehension. In their attempt to make sense of unfolding events, people are more willing to accept any story that makes some sense, regardless of its merits and validity because “facts alone cannot ease the feeling of being lost intellectually. Narratives answer the basic human need for structure and predictability. If one side fails to provide a meaningful narrative, others will fill the void” (Holmstrom ,2016, 120).

Therefore, it is important for the critical thinker to analyse the ways in which the connections, regardless of their type, are created and how the messages are tailored for specific audiences. More precisely, the critical thinker needs to examine what is being stated in the narrative, but even more importantly, what details are omitted from the narrative, and to what end. This could be done by reviewing narratives regarding the same events from multiple sources, which have different audiences, and parallels could be construed with respect to the missing or altered information in each of the narrative variants.

Colley (2017, 4) explains that narratives have a clear linear structure, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which are socially constructed and involve actors, setting and plot. The narrative is based on a past, which leads to the present and presents a possible future. And in line with Campbell’s myth structure, the narrative gains strength when it is centered around a resolution of conflict, meaning that it starts with an initial disruption, presents and explains the necessary steps to solve the issue and then presents the order restored, thus offering a satisfactory resolution. Miskimmon et al. (2013, 7-10) take over the classical structure of the narrative and apply it to international relations in what they call strategic narratives. Miskimmon et al. (2013) explain that strategic narratives are “representations of a sequence of events and identities, a communicative tool through which political actors – usually elites – attempt to give determined meaning to the past, present and future in order to achieve political objectives” (2013, 7). Tatham (2010, 27) insists on the fact that strategic narratives are tailored and targeted to a specific audience “A thematic and sequenced account that conveys meaning from authors to participants about specific events”. This means that strategic narratives can be employed to shape the understanding and interactions in international relations as well. To this end, they can mold policies, determine strategic advantages, project desired organisational images, induce certain reactions to crises and conflicts, build expectations with respect to certain actors or situations, produce predictions about future courses of action, etc.

Strategic narratives also consist of: actors, events (plot and time), and setting (including space). The actors present their own characters in the narratives, they depict the events, which could be historical or contemporary, but always based on chronology and causality and meant to support and promote the actors’ interests and values. The actors and the events are represented against the backdrop of the setting or the context which involves spatial representations as well as other types of contexts, be they legislative, diplomatic, historical, economic, etc. The setting is vital as it determines the actors’ actions and affects the ways in which events unfold in the audience’s perceptions. Being in control of the setting means that an actor has more chances of promoting their narrative to the audience and of getting the audience to interpret the respective narrative in the desired vein.

Given all these aspects regarding the ways in which narratives are constructed and promoted and to which end, we believe it is necessary to develop a toolkit for the critical thinker to use in examining them as well. We will continue in the inquiry vein, as we believe it is the most likely to produce the desired interaction with the narratives and their proponents, while at the same time allowing the critical thinker to maintain a detached, yet friendly perspective on them.
● What is the narrative about? What crisis, event, situation is at its core?
● Who are the actors involved?
● What are those actors’ interests?
● What events are presented in the narrative?
● What events are not presented in the narrative?
● What causal relationships are constructed? Is there indeed a causal relationship between those events?
● What temporal sequences are indicated? Is that truly the temporal sequence as other sources certify?
● What historical contextual elements are relevant for the narrative? What historical contextual clues does the narrative employ? What historical contextual clues are omitted?
● What spatial setting is included in the narrative? How has the respective spatial setting evolved in time?
● What legislative and/or diplomatic setting is employed in the narrative? Are any relevant legislative and/or diplomatic aspects omitted?

These questions could assist the critical thinker in bringing to light the ways in which the narratives are constructed, the reasons for the inclusion of certain elements as well as for the exclusion of others, and throw light on the involved actors’ interests and the extent to which they could be shaping the narratives to serve those interests, possibly to the detriment of others.  

Exercising critical thinking 

As previously mentioned, in addition to cognitive biases that can occur in the process of interpreting digital content, logical fallacies can also mislead us. These are errors in reasoning that can make an argument invalid or inaccurate. Below are two practical applications of critical thinking for untangling logical fallacies.

The Nirvana Logical Fallacy

For example, the Nirvana Logical Fallacy refers to the tendency to judge a thing or an action in maximal terms, black or white, either/or: either something is perfectly useful, or it is totally useless. Through this cognitive mechanism, a concrete situation in real life is evaluated by comparison with an ideal situation, considered perfect, but hardly plausible. A false dichotomy is thus created between an implausible option, but presented favorably, and a plausible one, illustrated from an unfavorable perspective. In this context, the choice is not between two solutions that are equal from the point of view of plausibility, but between a realistic solution, on the one hand, and an ideal one which, precisely because it is ideal, will never be encountered in reality.

In the case of this error, a false dichotomy intervenes, a choice between a realistic solution, on the one hand, and an ideal one which, being ideal is somehow better. Thus, the Nirvana error can lead to erroneous or dangerous decisions. By pursuing a perfect solution, we can ignore a useful solution; by aiming to completely solve a problem, we may fail to at least improve a situation. Therefore, instead of aiming for the perfect solution, we can aim for a better solution (small improvements will lead to bigger changes in the long run). 

The "slippery slope" argument

The "slippery slope" argument is one of the easiest logical fallacies to spot. It is called the "slippery slope" because it passes, ex-abrupto, without a logical path, from one statement to another, trying to tie the second closely to the first and, thus, to authenticate it. In a slippery slope argument, an action is rejected because, with little or no evidence, it is insisted that it will lead to a chain reaction that will result in an undesirable goal or end. The slippery slope involves accepting a sequence of events without direct evidence that these events will happen.
Often this fallacy appeals to people's emotions or fears. The problem with this reasoning is that it avoids engaging with the issue at hand and instead directs attention to hypothetical extremes. This principle is a pseudo-argument that uses a fear-mongering technique and can induce a moral panic.

This type of argument can have the following structure:
“Premise A leads to consequence B, which leads to C, which leads to D, and so on. The final result is then used to state why the initial premise ('A') is wrong'

If we allow A to happen, then Z will happen, and therefore A should not happen. For example: “If we provide free healthcare, then where do we stop? Soon people will be asking for free cars, free cell phones, free food and free everything. The more people get free stuff, the less they will work, which will ultimately lead to economic crises.”

Although people may unintentionally use fallacious "slippery slope" arguments, either during discussions or as part of their own reasoning process, these fallacious arguments are often intentionally used as rhetorical techniques because they can be quite persuasive when implemented correctly. Consequently, slippery slopes are often combined with emotion appeals, usually with the aim of appealing to negative emotions such as fear or hatred, but sometimes with the aim of appealing to positive emotions such as hope or compassion.

There are various approaches you can take when responding to a slippery slope argument. For example, slippery slope arguments often omit important events that connect between the start and end points of the slope, and highlighting these can help illustrate problems in this argument. Also, the more disconnected and distant the pieces of the slope are from each other, the less valid the argument. Slippery slope arguments can be either valid or wrong; their validity depends on a number of factors, such as the likelihood that the initial event in question will lead to the intended end result and the wording used to convey that likelihood. 

The "straw man" argument

The "strawman" argument is an informal logical fallacy that relies on distorting an opponent's claim so that it becomes easier to refute. He thus places himself in the same rhetorical zone as the "slippery slope" argument.

For example, let's say that a doctor - X - would say: "to avoid getting sick with SARS-CoV-2, it's good to avoid crowded areas". His opponent, Y, would use the "straw man" argument like this: "so, according to Dr. X, the only solution would be for everyone to stay indoors", continuing - "they are using the pandemic to keep us in detention in our own homes". The logical fallacy is easy to spot just by going back to Dr. X's statement, which was not talking about detention, but only about avoiding crowding; doctor X therefore makes a statement that Y does not logically debunk, but distorts it so that it becomes repulsive and difficult for the public to accept.

In this case, one attacks a position that the opponent does not really hold. Thus there is an oversimplification, taken out of context or exaggerated of a perspective. This fallacy in argumentation is meant to distract from the real issue being discussed and is not a logically valid argument. This pseudo-argument is particularly common in political debates and discussions of controversial topics. The basic structure of the argument consists of:
"Person A holds point X, Person B creates a distorted version of point X ("straw man"), and then Person B attacks this distorted version to refute Person A's original claim" 

Measuring critical thinking 

Haines and Stein (2021) explain that the Critical thinking Assessment Test (CAT) is based upon one such contemporary, inclusive, skill-based approach, and the skills that it measures have proven reliable indicators to assess students’ critical thinking competencies. These skills are:

1. Evaluating information
   ● Separate factual information from inferences
   ● Interpret numerical relationships in graphs
   ● Understand the limitations of correlational data
   ● Evaluate evidence and identify inappropriate conclusions

2. Creative thinking
   ● Identify alternative interpretations for data or observations
   ● Identify new information that might support or contradict a hypothesis
   ● Explain how new information can change a problem

3. Learning and problem solving
   ● Separate relevant information from irrelevant information
   ● Integrate information to solve problems
   ● Learn and apply new information
   ● Use mathematical skills to solve real-world problems

4. Communication
   ● Communicate ideas effectively (Haynes and Stein 2021 237) 

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Co-funded by European Commission Erasmus+
University of Malta
University Rey Juan Carlos
Logo New Strategy Center

Project: DOMINOES Digital cOMpetences INformatiOn EcoSystem  ID: 2021-1-RO01-KA220-HED-000031158
The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Ivan, Cristina; Chiru, Irena; Buluc, Ruxandra; Radu, Aitana; Anghel, Alexandra; Stoian-Iordache, Valentin; Arcos, Rubén; Arribas, Cristina M.; Ćuća, Ana; Ganatra, Kanchi; Gertrudix, Manuel; Modh, Ketan; Nastasiu, Cătălina. (2023). HANDBOOK on Identifying and Countering Disinformation. DOMINOES Project https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7893952