How can we develop our critical thinking abilities? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Allen Lobo, corporate finance executive and former physician, on Quora:

I'll give you just one very short but sharp analytical tool.

A mere four words that will eat up most intellectual egos, including your own.

"Who is Number Two?"

This pertains specifically when you or someone else are tempted to throw around superlatives in describing someone/something.

Claims like -

"X is the most qualified presidential candidate in all of history."

"Y is the greatest strategic genius in the annals of military records."

"Z is the worst business decision ever made."

The cold question I ask in a discussion/debate when someone seriously makes such a tall claim is -

"So then who/what is second on that list?"

In virtually all cases, there is no answer.


A list of just one.

But this isn't mere rhetoric or a "gotcha" kind of question.

It is a deadly serious probe into gauging whether the claimant has truly weighed up several candidates before making a reasonable assessment and isn't just using the term "best" when s/he merely means "very good" or "worst" in place of "really bad".

Now this isn't something to use to start checkmating people when they talk about something obviously casual as "the best pizza in New York" but all too often we tend to throw around these superlatives in a serious discussion, very casually just for hyperbolic/dramatic effect.

In fact we'll do it ourselves even when we're thinking.

But hold it at such times.

Every time I am tempted to use a superlative to describe a certain phenomenon or person, I ask myself

"Who/what are next on that list?"

If I have no answer to that, I merely say

"X is really good/bad".

But if someone can then actually give you those other ones on his/her list, you know that you are dealing with a person who has seriously taken the time to analyze a number of candidates. Not someone who is throwing around superlatives for effect.That person likely knows his/her stuff.

Lastly, it is meant first and foremost to be a powerful check most of all on your own tendencies to throw in big words.

When one starts quietly asking that one simple question before the temptation to throw in words like "most/least/best/worst", it is a very humbling lesson on the limits of one's own knowledge and expertise.

Personally speaking, in the vast majority of cases I struggle to make it past No. 3/4, if even that.

Now a true expert would have a list of a dozen or more.

It's not very comforting. But then again, the purpose of critical analysis is not to merely feel good.

And few questions expose the limits of one's knowledge in such quick and plain a fashion as those four simple words -

"Who is Number Two?"

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Published on: Apr 19, 2018