Critical Thinking: Too Important to Overlook in Security Studies

April 9, 2017

Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D.



Critical thinking as a practice has arrived into the military-security community riding the wave of social science and interdisciplinary studies innovations that have both enhanced and degraded overall skills requisite for the modern warfighter. But let us not overlook the significant value of critical thinking since other practices have failed to meet the practical demands of a complex, volatile, dynamic and lethal operational environment. Simply stated: mission success requires that USG (United States Government) personnel embrace this art. Too many soldiers and security studies scholars have paid a hard price for slighting it. Let us learn from these mistakes in order to make security studies and service more effective.

DEFINITIONS: What is critical thinking? Critical thinking is defined as “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improve it.” (Richard Paul and Linda Elder, 2014. Critical thinking: concepts and tools. 2). Critical thinking, when broken down to its essence and relevancy, has three main parts that create the practical focus necessary for deepening one’s reasoning and analysis.

Commitment. Critical thinking is “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking” (Paul and Elder)—all terms and aspects that require the individual to commit to thinking more thoroughly, deliberately, and comprehensively while applying structures and tools to test the assumptions, biases, and mindsets so often found in unstructured or “normal thinking.”  A key point should be clear on this subject: without a commitment to “think about thinking” the outcomes of our assessments will suffer significant failures. Given the criticality of the security environment, such failures can be severe.

Mental Process. Critical thinking is also philosophical in that it believes that natural thought patterns are often weak, biased, and incomplete. The human mind is capable of extraordinary feats, creativity, memory, and judgment—as well as intuition and forecasting. But the human mind is also flawed, biased, and incomplete in memory, capable of routinely failing to provide the depth, scope, and comprehensive required for effective security operations and mission success. Disciplining one’s mind to think critically about sources, key assumptions, arguments–and avoiding cognitive biases–is a practice that should be embraced and developed into a habit that becomes reflexive.

Structured approaches and tools of application.  Richard Heuer (1999). The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis rightly notes that a commitment to think more critically is important but not enough. More accurate analysis and judgment requires both “decomposition and externalization”—capturing the key variables and writing them down. Heuer notes on page 88:

It is noteworthy that Franklin over 200 years ago identified the problem of limited working memory and how it affects one’s ability to make judgments. As Franklin noted, decision problems are difficult because people cannot keep all the pros and cons in mind at the same time. We focus first on one set of arguments and then on another, “. . . hence the various purposes and inclinations that alternatively prevail, and the uncertainty that perplexes us.” Franklin also identified the solution—getting all the pros and cons out of his head and onto paper in some visible, shorthand form. The fact that this topic was part of the dialogue between such illustrious individuals reflects the type of people who use such analytical tools. These are not aids to be used by weak analysts but unneeded by the strong. Basic limitations of working memory affect everyone. It is the more astute and careful analysts who are most conscious of this and most likely to recognize the value gained by applying these very simple tools.

Heuer, among others, rightly calls attention to the need to capture and articulate in written form the key variables necessary for more accurate assessments.


But let us not get too conceptual with the notion of critical thinking. The military-security environment requires timely, accurate, relevant, and actionable assessments, and these challenges are met by applying some very important tools. Here are some of the most valuable that can be used quickly and effectively.

Source Evaluation: Evaluating sources for accuracy is essential for critical thinking. Is the source a direct observation (versus indirect or hearsay), reliable (history of proven accuracy), expert (provided from someone with expertise on the subject), corroborative (can be corroborated by other sources), and free from distortion? Testing one’s sources rather than quickly receiving them is important. Applying these criteria will help source evaluation and mitigate the practice of careless acceptance of information.


Key Assumptions Check. Carefully identifying the key assumptions used in any argument or assessment is important. Taking the time to identify, isolate, and challenge key assumptions deepen one’s analytic framework and enhance overall utility of one’s work. Take the time to use this simple tool in your assignments, briefs, arguments, and thought process.  You may be surprised at the benefits even in a short period of weeks.

Deception Detection. The military-security environment differs significantly from the non-military environment in that deception is used more widely, commonly, and effectively. The Soviet Union, Communist China, Cuba, Iran, and many other state and non-state actors practice(d) denial and deception (D&D) and disinformation so effectively that the United States suffered major setbacks in policy as a consequence—a subject too broad to cover in this short piece. I recommend as an overview on the subject, Roy Godson, Strategic Denial and Deception (2000). International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence, Volume 13, Number 4, pp. 424-437.  Deception detection applies equally to our own US public and media sources in print and other formats, which should be examined likewise (Joseph Caddell 2004, DECEPTION 101―PRIMER ON DECEPTION. US Army War College).

Using deception detection techniques is thus critical to thinking critically. The Critical Thinking Handbook rightly notes:

In reality, analysts too seldom check for the possibility of deception, even when there is a well-known history of its use. The search for clues that deception is being conducted is often time consuming and requires extensive fact checking and hypothesis testing. Nonetheless, it can be critical in cases where the stakes are high. Analysts should be concerned about the use of deception when the deceiver would have a lot to gain through his efforts and has strong capabilities to deny or manipulate U.S. intelligence collection assets.(US Army TRADOC G-2, The Critical Thinking Handbook, 142).

MOM (motive, opportunity, and means). The acronym MOM is used commonly to detect deception. Analyzing sources and arguments with these three criteria or key questions on the information is an important start to critical thinking. I urge students to begin to apply this simple acronym to test for deception.

Understanding critical thinking as commitment, process, and practical application of effective tools will significantly enhance both the soundness of one’s assessments and the depth of analysis. Given the high stakes of the security environment, the costs of neglecting the practice of critical thinking is not a viable option.  It should be the objective of every serious warfighter and security practitioner to make critical thinking a habit, a habit directly related to mission success.


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