What is Critical Thinking?

We hear so much these days about the need for more “Critical Thinking”.  But what is critical thinking?  Critical thinking is many things, but this definition from Wikipedia captures the essence:

“The process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analysing, synthesizing and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion”

This is what we want our Geoscience interpreters to be doing in the workplace.

We could also define critical thinking in terms of the following:

  • True vs False – Can you prove that your conclusions are true or false?
  • Rational Vs Irrational – are your beliefs rational or irrational?
  • Thinking for Yourself – Are you thinking for yourself and using your own reasoning skills?

Why Critical Thinking?

Greg has been teaching a wide range of geoscience-based disciplines to industry for 13 years, from plate tectonics to pore analysis, including geology, geophysics, petrophysics and reservoir engineering.  In that time, it has become apparent that we focus too much on teaching people “What to Think” and not enough time teaching people “How to Think”.  This is a legacy of the education systems that concentrate on “teaching to the exam”, which tends to focus on “remembering”.  If we are to become effective problem solvers, we have to do much more than remember.  We need to work at higher cognitive levels by improving our Understanding, Applying our knowledge and skills, Analysing and Evaluating what we do, why we do it and how we do it, and ultimately Creating innovative solutions.  These are the cognitive levels defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.  But what is cognition?

Metacognition – We Need to Understand Cognition

If we are going to improve our cognitive skills, we really need to understand what cognition is.  This definition sums it up nicely:

“the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and the senses”

“Cognition about cognition” is known as Metacognition.  This is all about “thinking about how we think”, “knowing how we know”, being “aware of our awareness”.  Once we recognise these things, we can improve our thinking, knowing and awareness.  This concept is at the root of the problem with “Common Sense”.  Experienced and knowledgeable people know things from experience that they assume everybody must know, because in their minds these things are so obvious.  They aren’t aware that they “know” these things and that at some point in the past they didn’t know them!   When the experts assume everybody knows what they are talking about, communication breaks down.

But understanding cognition is not enough.  Our cognition is easily biased . . .

Cognitive Biases, Uncertainty and Risk

One of the biggest issues we face with our interpretations is the impact of subjective cognitive biases, which lead to uncertainties that ultimately result in increased risk.  We need to understand why these cognitive biases occur and how to mitigate their effects.  During the workshop we will explore the nature of cognitive bias, identify examples and propose ways to minimise those cognitive biases in our projects.  The key biases that affect our interpretations are Confirmation, Availability, Anchoring and Framework biases.

During the workshop we will investigate these biases, identify examples and their impacts and discuss ways in which these biases can be mitigated.

Critical thinking and mitigating cognitive biases is going to require a wide range of skills . . .

What are the Skills That We Need?

Becoming a critical thinker and mitigating cognitive biases requires a wide range of skills that must first be “recognised and defined”, then “practiced and refined”.  These are the skills that will be explained and practiced throughout this Critical Thinking workshop.

  • Research Strategies – First we need to find information. What do we know, what don’t we know?  How and where do we find the information we need?  Have you searched on Google to find out how to search Google? How do we differentiate good information from bad?
  • Learning Methods – Once we have found all this information, how do we internalise it? How do we decide what to learn and what to file away for later reference?  Even Einstein didn’t commit everything to memory.  For factual knowledge he just had to remember where to look it up.
  • Organise Your Knowledge – Knowledge Management – How do we organise the information once we have found it? What methods of storage and retrieval can we use?  Remember, storage and retrieval starts in the brain, and what we don’t store in the brain, needs to be stored somewhere else.  There are many techniques that we could acquire and develop to help us process and compile the information for later reference, whether in-brain or online.
  • Mind Mapping – It is critical to get the ideas organised in your head, or your “Mind Palace” as Sherlock Holmes would call it.
  • Technical Documentation – A common traditional method is to create technical reports and papers. There are so many means of documentation and so much to document.  We cannot possibly do it alone, so we need to collaborate and cooperate and share the load.
  • Illustrating – A picture is a thousand words and the brain has evolved to recognise images, so creating images that summarise your knowledge is much better than words.
  • Story Telling – Even better is to put the images into a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are engaging and memorable.
  • Videos – A video is a thousand pictures and by far the quickest and easiest way to tell your story. Video making is now so easy, we should all be routinely doing it.
  • Wikis and Websites – There is too much for us all to memorise. We need to collaborate, cooperate, coordinate and share our knowledge in ways that allow everybody to contribute.  What kind of systems could we use?
  • Expert Systems – Decision Trees – Various systems which capture the experience and wisdom of experts, enabling consistent and objective problem-solving
  • Systems Thinking – Everything we study is a system, eg. Plate Tectonic and Structural Systems, Stratigraphic and Depositional Systems, Petroleum Systems and Pore Systems. What exactly is a system and how do we describe and model it?  How can systems thinking help us organise our ideas and communicate them to others?
    • Classifying and Categorising – An important part of understanding systems is describing the components of the system, be they fossils, minerals or rock types. The most important thing in systems analysis is then to understand how the components fit together and interact.
  • Testing Your Knowledge – How much do you understand? The Feynman Test – One of the best ways to test your knowledge is to explain the fundamentals and concepts to others, in a simple way. If you cannot do this, it is because you do not understand.  This used to be how university students were tested, in a “viva voce”, in which the student defended their ideas face-to-face with their teachers.  As student numbers grew, the “Viva” was replaced by the written exam.
  • Applying – Scientific Reasoning – Having acquired the knowledge and set the aims and objectives of our study, we need to know how to systematically evaluate the problem. As scientists, our method is scientific reasoning.  It is assumed that because we have science degrees, we must know what scientific reasoning is, but few have actually been taught scientific reasoning.  This is something we try and do all the time, without realising.  If we do not understand why we think the way we do, or how we think, then we cannot easily improve the way we think.
    • Logical Argumentation – This is the foundation of scientific reasoning. A logical argument provides a conclusion with supporting statements (premises – evidence).  Arguments can be “valid or invalid” and “weak or strong”.  How good are our arguments?
    • Indirect Hypothesis Testing – Once we have valid and strong arguments, supported by models, we can start to make predictions. We often use indirect hypothesis testing to make predictions: IF (Hypothesis) Then (Observable Consequence).  This is something we do all the time in geoscience, but are we applying the logic correctly?
  • Planning and Prioritising – There is clearly too much to do and too little time. We need the skills and tools to plan and prioritise.  Too often people are very busy trying to do everything, because they haven’t stopped long enough to evaluate and prioritise the most important things that are going to have the greatest impact on the problem for the least effort.  How could we do that?

Workshop Format

The purpose of this workshop is to provide a means to explore and practice all of these critical thinking skills on a real dataset, following an exploration workflow from basin- to pore-scale, solving real problems along the way.

The workshop will use a single integrated dataset, and will consider potential field geophysics, through seismic geophysics and petrophysics, down to reservoir engineering and pore-scale rock properties.


The basin analysis workflow will be treated as the analysis of a series of Systems.  We will begin with the large scale Plate Tectonic and Structural Systems, then we will jump from the plate-scale to the pore-scale and consider the Pore Systems.  Having established the nature of pore systems we shall consider how they start life in the Depositional and Stratigraphic Systems.  With a sound understanding of the depositional and stratigraphic systems, we can then go on to consider the petroleum systems.


During the workshop, the trainees will systematically evaluate each of the four selected systems from two main perspectives, using the following two distinct Mind Models:

The Knowledge Mind Model

This Mind Model allows us to consider how we research, learn, manage, test and ultimately apply our knowledge with the Problem Solving Mind Model. 




The Problem Solving Mind Model

The trainees will consider all the possible data sources, the reliability of the data, all the tools that could be used to process the data, the knowledge of the principles that we must acquire, the skills we must attain to use the tools, which experts should have these skills, and what these experts should deliver.

Dr. Greg Samways – Workshop Leader

Greg has more than 30 years experience in petroleum exploration and production consultancy and training, having worked with many international oil companies, on every continent.  Over the last 13 years, he has specialised in the development and delivery of training courses to the petroleum industry, which include subjects as diverse as Basin Analysis, Play Fairway and Prospect Evaluation, Carbonate and Clastic Reservoir Geology, Sequence Stratigraphy, Seismic Interpretation, Petrophysics and Formation Evaluation and Project Management.

In recent years Greg has focused more on the key aspects of Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving in Geoscience, leading to the creation of this workshop which has been successfully delivered to several clients.

Find out more about Greg at www.adinvenio.com and geolumina.org

For further details contact Dr. Greg Samways: gregsamways@adinvenio.com

This workshop has benefitted from the valuable input and support of Dr. Kevin deLaplante.

Dr. Kevin deLaplante – Advisor

Kevin is an independent educator and consultant specializing in critical thinking education and training for individuals, institutions and businesses.  He has a BSc in physics, and MSc and PhD qualifications in philosophy of science and ethics.  Kevin has been a visiting professor at Cape Breton University (Canada – 1998), and tenure-track lecturer at Iowa State University (US – 1998-2009) teaching Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Physics and Introduction to Logic and Scientific Reasoning, leading to a position as Department Chair from 2009-2013.

Kevin left Iowa State University in 2015 to strike out as an independent educator.  You can find out more about Kevon’s online courses at http://www.criticalthinkeracademy.com and www.argumentninja.com

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