Data Analysts Must Be Critical Thinkers

During my many years of teaching, I have often been surprised to discover a lack of essential thinking and communication skills among the educated. Back when I was in graduate school in Berkeley studying religion from a social science perspective, I taught a religious studies course to undergraduate students at San Jose State University. When I first began grading my students’ assignments, I was astounded to discover how poorly many of my students expressed themselves in writing. There were delightful exceptions, of course, but several of my students struggled to construct a coherent sentence. Much of my time was spent correcting failures of communication rather than failures in grasping the course material. Many years later, when I taught data visualization in the MBA program at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, I found that several of my students struggled to think conceptually, even though the concepts that I taught were quite simple. They were more comfortable following simple procedures (“Do this; don’t do that.”) without understanding why. In the 14 years since I founded Perceptual Edge, I’ve had countless opportunities—in my courses, on my blog, in my discussion forum, and when reviewing academic research—to observe people making arguments that are based on logical fallacies. These are people whose work either directly involves or indirectly supports data analysis. This horrifies me. This is one of the reasons why analytics initiatives frequently fail. No analytical technologies or technical skills will overcome a scarcity of sound reason.

Many of those tasked with data sensemaking—perhaps most—have never been trained in critical thinking, including basic logic. Can you analyze data if you don’t possess critical thinking skills? You cannot. How many of you took a critical thinking course in college? I’ll wager that relatively few of you did. Perhaps you later recognized this hole in your education and worked to fill the gap through self-study. Good for you if you did. Critical thinking does not come naturally; it requires study. Even though I received instruction in critical thinking during my school years, I’ve worked diligently since that time to supplement these skills. Many books on critical thinking line my bookshelves.

Good data analysts have developed a broad range of skills. Training in analytical technologies is of little use if you haven’t already learned to think critically. If you recognize this gap in your own skills, you needn’t despair, for you can still develop them now. A good place to start is the book Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking, by M.N. Browne and S.M. Keeley.

Take care,


4 Comments on “Data Analysts Must Be Critical Thinkers”

By David. July 17th, 2017 at 1:30 pm

Thanks for the recommendation, Steve. When I read this post I was immediately reminded of your proposed ‘Course in Analytical Thinking.’ I pulled up that newsletter, and sure enough the recommendation for this book is sitting right there. Hopefully some folks will actually pick the book up and you won’t have to post this again in 2 years.

By Jeff. August 2nd, 2017 at 8:45 pm

Reading Stephen’s comments on the dearth of critical thinking reminded me of a great post a handful of years ago, “Confusion in the Age of Data” (Tuesday, May 1st, 2012). Here, Stephen quoted Marty Kaplan in the context of journalism and an informed citizenry: “Well, the problem with telling the truth is that in this postmodern world, there’s not supposed to be something as truth anymore.” If the end of education is no longer the pursuit of truth, of replacing opinion with truth, then there is nothing about which to think critically. Higher education, with few exceptions, is rampant with the rejection of reason. Logical fallacies can only exist in a world that is ordered and whose order is knowable by reason. Only if there is logic can someone be illogical. Once these tenets of the end of education are removed, then it follows logically that logic and reason are no longer needed. In a world where truth is just a perspective, an interpretation, we should not expect that people will be trained in logic and critical thinking, and so here we are. I am reminded of a saying of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

By Esther. August 4th, 2017 at 4:55 am

This is a very serious issue and not well perceived inside an organization (in my opinion).

Where I work it is just assumed that you are a critical thinker, and, if not, then you are dumb. And dumb people are frowned upon. That’s it. There is no space to get better: or you have the skill, or you don’t. I’m confident that if one even suggested a course in analytical thinking, one would raise a red flag about one’s performance.

(sorry for my english; not my native language)

By Stephen Few. August 4th, 2017 at 9:09 am


I’ve seen for myself what you’re describing. In fact, critical thinking is not only assumed in the workplace, it is also assumed in our institutions of higher learning. The lack of critical thinking skills, not only among graduating students but also among the professors who teach them, is shocking. This varies, of course, from discipline to discipline. Unfortunately, over the last few generations more and more infuence in society is being placed in the hands of disciplines that are not trained in critical thinking–information technologies in particular. As information technologists acquire increasing influence over the course of human affairs, the result of uncritical thinking is potentially devastating. When technologies are created with little forethought, they produce great harm that could have been prevented.

Just for fun, examine the courses that comprise the curriculum of “computer science” programs. A discipline that includes “science” in its name almost never trains people in science or in the rudiments of critical thinking that are fundamentl to science. If you think this is shocking, go on to examine the the courses that students of the actual sciences (physics, biology, psychology, etc.) must take to complete their degrees. Rarely will you see any courses related to critical thinking. While it is true that instruction in critical thinking can be infused into courses that focus on specific scientific topics, they rarely are.

So here we are. We are trained in disciplines that are no longer rooted in critical thinking, we work in organizations that reason haphazardly, and we even elect politicians who can’t reason themselves out of wet paper bags. What a mess! And, as you point out, this lack of critical thinking skills is never addressed because it isn’t even recognized. The responsible few who recognize this lack in themselves dare not mention it, for their honesty and concern will earn them scorn and dismissal. Wouldn’t it be great to work for an organization that is entirely made up of people who were conscious enough to recognize their lack of critical thinking skills and then did something about it. Give me an organization of people like that and we could change the world. Either that, or we would be driven from America by the hordes of the proudly ignorant.

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