It’s fair to say that Einstein was using critical thinking skills during the 10 years that it took him to create his Theory of General Relativity. Other physicists assumed that the differences in the ways that bodies fall were too small to be of significance, but Einstein—a 28-year-old clerk at a patent office—could see that these details deserved further investigation.
He had to come up with another, more creative, solution.
“Suddenly a thought struck me,” he recalled. “If a man falls freely, he would not feel his weight… This simple thought experiment… led me to the theory of gravity.”
From this he predicted the existence of gravitational waves, which control how every sun, planet, and object in our universe behaves.
In 2016, the LIGO collaboration proved him right: they announced their first direct detection of gravitational waves in “the scientific breakthrough of the century.” Professor Stephen Hawking said the discovery had “the potential to revolutionize astronomy.”
“Being bold enough to let your mind go where good arguments take you, even if it’s to places that make you feel uncomfortable, may lead you to discoveries about the world and yourself.”
(Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument, by George W. Rainbolt and Sandra L. Dwyer)
Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity places him among the most influential nonconformists, mavericks, and free-thinkers in history. Charles Darwin might also spring to mind. Maybe Galileo, Marie Curie, or Simone de Beauvoir.
We know them as geniuses, eccentrics, independent spirits, or even rebels. But what they all have in common is the ability to think creatively and critically about the world, putting aside their peers’ ignorance or assumptions to see new connections in the most mundane situations and change our view of the universe. They are critical thinkers.
1. Albert Einstein
C.P. Snow put it best: “One of [Einstein’s] greatest intellectual gifts, in small matters as well as great, was to strip off the irrelevant frills from a problem.”
If you take one critical thinking tip from Einstein, make it…
If something looks wrong, then it’s probably worth finding out why. Trust your own judgement based on the facts, not the assumptions of others, and look for a solution within the details.
2. Charles Darwin
Darwin’s ability to see new connections in mundane situations led him to map out a new theory—evolution—that changed the way we saw the world.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Darwin, make it…
Sometimes the most profound discoveries are hidden in seemingly unlikely places; look where others don’t, and enjoy the sense of discovery and excitement.
3. Galileo Galilei
Pioneering astronomer, philosopher, and—after his discoveries caused uproar in lazy thinkers within religious circles—“defender of truth in the face of ignorance.”
If you take one critical thinking tip from Galileo, make it…
Great critical thinkers evaluate arguments to see how they stand up, putting to one side the conclusions and assumptions of others—and filter for themselves what resonates as right or wrong.
4. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Inspired millions with his talent for argument; his “I have a dream” speech—a rallying cry for equal rights—still resonates 50 years on.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Martin Luther King Jr, make it…
Developing a strategy, organizing an argument, and learning the art of persuasion are the keys to changing the world.
5. Simone de Beauvoir
The most radical feminist thinker of the 20th century; The Second Sex was the first work to argue for equality that respected a woman’s individuality and voice.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Simone de Beauvoir, make it…
Don’t be afraid to think differently, even if that means challenging the basis of society itself.
6. Edwin Hubble
Discovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way—and proved that they were expanding—simply by gathering and analyzing more data than anyone else.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Edwin Hubble, make it…
Evidence, evidence, evidence. The more you have, and the more you can filter it to get to what’s really going on, the better your conclusion will be.
7. Marie Curie
Paved the way for x-rays and cancer treatment; her sense that pitchblende must include unknown radioactive elements led to the discovery of polonium and radium.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Marie Curie, make it…
Critical thinking is nothing to do with negativity or nitpicking. It’s about asking questions—the right questions. It’s about not accepting things on trust.
8. Sir Isaac Newton
Discovered universal gravitation “by thinking on it continually.” A genius known for a relentless passion for putting everything to rigorous test.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Sir Isaac Newton, make it…
Persistence in thinking and questioning the world around you is the key to more creative solutions where others see only masses of information.
9. Stanislav Petrov
Saved the world from a nuclear disaster during the Cold War; Petrov spotted a false computer report of an American missile strike and, trusting the facts at hand, halted a mistaken counter strike.
If you take one critical thinking tip from Stanislav Petrov, make it…
Form your own judgement based on the facts, and—once you’re sure of your ground—be willing to back it against all comers.
10. W. E. B. Du Bois
Inspired American civil rights movements by refusing to accept that some inequality could be exchanged for legal rights—a view held by other black intellectuals—and publishing his ideas in The Souls of Black Folk.
If you take one critical thinking tip from W. E. B. Du Bois, make it…
Critical thinking is important because it is what makes us adaptable, enables us to act independently, and allows us to move beyond what we already know or guess.
Can you suggest any other great critical thinkers or examples of great critical thinking? Let us know in the comments section below: