Critical thinking is a term referred to frequently in the massage profession. Educators and clinicians tout the benefits of this process. But what exactly is critical thinking? In the simplest terms, it is reasoning.
Reasoning involves rational (logical) thought, evaluation or consideration of something, possibly to form a conclusion or judgment, or make a decision. It is a way of thinking with broad applications in all aspects of our lives.
Critical thinking, or reasoning, is simply thinking on steroids. Critical here is not the equivalent of negative. The critical component does not mean that one is negatively evaluating something; it just means that one is applying more substantial elements of thinking in their thought process.
The types of substantial elements one might use to think critically about something can include a wide variety of variables. These variables can be information, evidence, facts, ideas from experts, or other tangible knowledge. Critical thinking applies reflective thought, evaluation, questioning and exploration to the presented content, argument or conclusion.
However, critical thinking also evaluates the argument or presentation of information. It considers its structural validity. When we think critically, we consider how those variables are presented. All presentations of information, facts, evidence and ideas are housed in some kind of argument. Here, argument simply means the presentation of ideas.
From commercials to articles to research to a conversation with a colleague, every presentation of ideas follows some kind of logical form—or lack thereof. Evaluating whether that form follows sound thinking is the second part of critical reasoning.
Critical Thinking is Essential in Massage Practice
In the massage profession, we can apply sound critical thinking, or reasoning, to many types of situations, from clinical to educational to professional; and from political to social to philosophical field-wide ideas.
Clinical decision-making: In a health care context, analyzing problems to find solutions is called clinical reasoning. Clinical reasoning is a subset of critical thinking. Effective clinical reasoning is possible only when you have developed a certain level of critical thinking skills.
Evaluating content: Critical thinking has applications in how we interpret what we hear, read or learn. We should keep our thinking caps on when assessing any content regardless of source. Additionally, in education, there is a slew of offerings today. Critical thinking is a valuable skill-set when evaluating the quality or substance of an educational opportunity.
Reading and evaluating research: Not all published research is of good quality. Quite frankly, conducting quality research in massage therapy is challenging.
Just a sample of critically thought-out questions for research are: Is there a coherent reason for the study? Are the methods sound and well-designed? Does the study design fit with general massage therapy practice? Are the conclusions and analyses well-reasoned and plausible? Critical thinking will help you evaluate research and its applications in practice.
Making coherent, informed presentations of ideas: Identifying potential logical fallacies or errors in thinking in your arguments or communications requires a high degree of self-reflection. Although difficult, it is beneficial for your own personal development.
Sharpen Your Critical Thinking Skills by Recognizing Logical Fallacies & Errors
Massage professionals can always benefit from enhancing their critical thinking skills. One way to sharpen these essential skills is to pay attention to logical fallacies and failures of logic.
Here, I define several fallacies and provide a brief example of how that might occur in our field. There are far more failures of logic and fallacious arguments than this list. Some of the following examples of logical fallacies and errors are common on social media sites, while others apply to the information, content and conclusions presented to us from various sources.
1. Post hoc: The post hoc fallacy is short for the Latin phrase post hoc ergo proctor hoc, which means “after this, therefore because of this.” The fallacy occurs when we look at two events and assume one follows the other and that the second event was caused by the first. The post hoc fallacy is one commonly seen in health care disciplines.
Example: Sue performs deep friction on a client’s lateral hip muscles. After the session, the client reports improvement in foot pain. Sue believes the hip treatment resulted in reducing the foot pain. It is possible the hip treatment relieved the client’s foot pain, but we really should consider other explanations as well.
To rationally conclude the treatment directly improved the foot, we should remove as many variables as possible. We should be careful about making such assertions without more information.
2. Appeal to authority: Arguments can wind up being about who said/taught/wrote what, thus focusing on the originator’s ideas as the basis for legitimacy. Expert knowledge can be valuable and valid; however, it is best to not rely on authority alone but also critically evaluate other aspects and elements of what is being claimed or presented.
Example: John claims that a particular technique he teaches causes a specific tissue response. One of John’s instructors teaching that method is questioned by a student because it runs counter to what that student learned elsewhere. The instructor argues that he does the technique because that’s what John developed and promotes. The argument uses John’s authority rather than other reasoned support for validation.
3. Appeal to tradition or bandwagon: In this case, the argument suggests that something, such as a technique or approach, is performed because “that’s the way it has always been done.” Similarly, a bandwagon argument falsely rationalizes that something is done because everyone does it. While the technique, idea or approach may be correct or effective, it would be best to provide more reasoned support.
Example: Jane has used a particular technique for 20 years. When challenged about its effectiveness, Jane defends her use of the method, claiming that is how she’s always done it. Something having been done some way historically or traditionally is not proof of its validity.
4. Appeal to ignorance: In this fallacy, something is argued to be true because there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that it isn’t true. These arguments seem a bit silly, but they do exist. A lack of proof is not proof.
Example: Bob argues that his particular technique stretches the pelvic ligaments. Ellen disagrees with this concept. Bob defends his position by saying that Ellen cannot prove that his technique doesn’t do what he claims. Arguing that something isn’t true because it cannot be proved wrong irrationally shifts the burden of proof.
5. Red herring: In this fallacy, an argument or point of view intentionally distracts from the particular matter at hand by making an irrelevant argument.
Example: Regina is debating with a colleague about whether her particular technique increases hip range of motion. George argues that Regina’s technique is more commonly used to address nerve entrapments in the foot. Here George has diverted the argument to a different topic, thus creating a red herring argument. This is an argumentative tactic to move attention away from direct discussion of the matter at hand.
6. Overgeneralization: In this fallacy, a finding, result or instance of an effect is generalized so that it is applied too broadly. Overgeneralized claims lack sufficient evidence to be applied generally. It is interesting how many research studies—or those who write about that research— actually do this.
Example: Study A finds that massage helped some of the study individuals reduce pain and increase range of motion following rotator cuff repair surgery. Study A is then cited as proof that massage is beneficial for decreasing pain and improving range of motion after shoulder surgeries.
Massage might help with shoulder pain and range of motion after surgery; however, one study with limited cases and several variables cannot logically be applied to all clients with shoulder surgery. What are the specifics of the study? Sample size? Study methods? More research would be needed to make such a broad-based claim.
7. False dichotomy: This fallacy relies on an either/or dilemma. Essentially arguments like these pose false limitations on the variables that should be considered. It is an insidious form of limiting quality discussion or consideration.
Example: Sunny is discussing the best way to treat a pregnant woman with a hypertonic iliopsoas. She argues that it isn’t viable to use the abdominal approach, so addressing the psoas through the back must be the preferred approach. Daniel disagrees and suggests that working the psoas through the back is not very practical, and there are other ways to address the psoas. Here, Daniel escapes the false dilemma by expanding the variables (options).
8. Weak analogy: This fallacy in argument or thought occurs when someone compares two things with broad or superficial similarities but nothing relevant to the issue at hand.
Example: Massage is helpful in pain reduction. Proper joint mobilization is also effective for managing pain after a joint dislocation. Assuming either one of these would be a proper treatment because they are both pain management strategies would be a weak analogy fallacy. Clearly, massage is not the preferred treatment for joint dislocation.
9. Slippery slope: This fallacy assumes that one action is destined to lead to a particularly negative or exaggerated outcome.
Example: Meredith and Ellen are discussing the educational requirements for entry-level schooling. Meredith argues that if the hours increase from 500 to 750, the hours will soon expand to over 2,000. She adds that a master’s and eventually doctoral degrees will then likely be required. Meredith has gone down the slippery slope of exaggerated outcomes.
10. General errors of reasoning: There are numerous ways in which thinking and arguments can be faulty or problematic. Along with a whole host of fallacious arguments, there are more subtle and specific failures of logic. Every argument or presentation of ideas can be separated into premises, or the statements that support the conclusion, and the conclusion. Do the premises support what is being stated? The fields of argument and logic dive into this kind of analysis.
You can too.
Practice Critical Thinking
Recognizing a logical fallacy or failure in reasoning, either in your own perspective or one presented by others, develops your mental acuity. It makes you smarter. So, go on out there and practice critical thinking by giving whatever you are reading or hearing some critical thought.
About the Author
Whitney Lowe, LMT, directs the Academy of Clinical Massage. He teaches continuing education in advanced clinical massage through the academy, and offers an online training program in orthopedic massage. He is a regular contributor to MASSAGE Magazine and is also a MASSAGE Magazine All-Star.