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Recommendations for building general analytical skills

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This page describes recommendations for building general analytical skills. These go somewhat beyond verbal skills, which simply involves reading comprehension and skill at expression, and it also goes beyond mathematical skills. General analytical skills rely on both verbal and mathematical skills, but combine these with a deep understanding of how the world works. Somebody with strong general analytical skills can quickly look at a mobile app, a business proposal, a study plan, or an economic development policy and identify possible considerations that would go into evaluating its soundness.

General analytical skills are closely related to what is sometimes termed crystallized intelligence (as opposed to fluid intelligence). They are also related to what people term critical thinking skills.

There are two components to general analytical skills:

  • A strong knowledge base, comprising not just factual knowledge but an intuition for how models in diverse areas work (including models of the physical, natural, and social world).
  • Reasoning ability, both verbal and mathematical.

Some people tend to overestimate the importance of reasoning ability, thinking that a general-purpose toolkit for critical thinking or logical analysis would be sufficient. Other people tend to overestimate the importance of a knowledge base, and construe knowledge largely as caching a large repository of facts in the brain. A truly strong knowledge base involves storing models in the brain that are capable of making predictions about the behavior of simplified system. These models also include a lot of factual knowledge, but the facts themselves are not central.

The following is known about general analytical skills:

  • Most people's crystallized intelligence (a proxy for general analytical skills) improves with age as long as they are reasonably mentally active, even though their fluid intelligence (abstract problem-solving ability) stays roughly constant or even declines with age. This points in the direction of the knowledge base being responsible.
  • It is believed that some types of activities have a larger effect on improving general analytical skills than others. In particular, mathematics is believed to have a larger effect than other subjects, both because of the general proof-based reasoning people are exposed to in mathematics courses and because models seen in mathematics are crucial building blocks for models in other subjects.
  • For the same learning task, it can be done in a way that improves general analytical skills better than the usual way of doing it would. In particular, good study habits are better at improving general analytical skills. Reading books with a contested thesis can help sharpen analytical skills. Regular Socratic questioning activity while learning can be helpful as well.