Although it's normally associated with the hard sciences like biology, chemistry and physics, the scientific method is actually a process of thinking about the world in such a way as to ask and answer questions through observation and experimentation. To follow the steps of the scientific method, you would ask a question, conduct research, hypothesize, test your hypothesis through experimentation, analyze the data and communicate the results. Most importantly, your experiment and conclusions must be fair and honest.
The steps of critical thinking are so similar to those of the scientific method as to be almost inseparable. Both begin with the idea of questioning. In both modes of thinking, statements are dead ends that simply repeat knowledge that is already known or accepted. The Critical Thinking Community website argues that "questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought." Effective questions lead to the discovery of new knowledge, or of new relationships between accepted facts.
The next step in the scientific method is research. An understanding of what previous researchers have attempted and concluded is the basis of any solid scientific inquiry. In critical thinking, research is also essential. It could take the form of searching for resources and reading about how people have previously dealt with the same issue with which you are faced, or research could be as simple as making yourself better informed by talking to people who are considered experts. Either way, you are bettering the chance of making an effective decision or choice by basing it on knowledge, whether it be your own previous knowledge, as in learning by experience, or someone else's knowledge, as in learning by example.
Once you have collected your information, both the scientific method and critical thinking hinge on your acting on that information, in the form of some kind of experiment or test. In the sciences, this takes the form of actual experimentation. In critical thinking, it could take the form of diagnosing a problem with your car by listening to the noises it makes, searching reputable websites to seek information on repairs, and replacing one part at a time (in the scientific method, this takes the form of changing one variable at a time) until you solve the problem.
If you failed to repair your car, the next stage of critical thinking is assessment. At this stage, you stop and think about how you came to the conclusion to change the throttle valve, to see if you can figure out where your reasoning may have gone awry. You may end up fixing the problem once you've determined your error, or you may reason that the repair is beyond your skill set, so a mechanic is necessary. In the scientific method, this is the stage where you analyze your data to test your original question, or your hypothesis.
Both critical thinking and the scientific method involve absolute honesty at this point. If you were honest with yourself about the car repair, you more quickly realized that you needed an expert. Even in the most well-planned experiment, a researcher may need to contact an expert colleague. Also, being honest allows you to critically assess your thinking method so that in further experiments or decisions, you will not make the same thinking errors. In both modes of thinking, honesty is an integral part of intellectual development.
- Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images