Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

The Facade of Critical Thinking

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 6, 2010

Schools often claim to teach critical thinking, but do quite a poor job of it. Critical thinking is an essential skill, on which there should be much greater emphasis.

I define critical thinking as the process of determining which ideas will and will not work. The most important part of this definition is the “will not” part. Every time you see an astrologer or an urban myth, you are seeing a failure in critical thinking. Failures in critical thinking abound, and on many different levels. This seems like the very sort of thing that a good education could fix. So why isn’t critical thinking being taught in high school?

I have to cringe every time the College Board mentions that the SAT tests critical thinking ability. Reading a passage and identifying the meaning of a phrase is only critical thinking in the most useless sense. Reading a book in English class and analyzing it does require some critical thinking, but that sort of critical thinking is not enough. A critical thinker must be able to do a great deal more than just analyze.

An effective critical thinker is scientifically skeptical. He must not accept claims without sufficient evidence. This is an important part of critical thinking and a useful life skill, but it is not emphasized in school. In the science classroom, we would do well to spend less time learning about the phases of mitosis and more time learning about skepticism.

An effective critical thinker is able to identify bias. This is related to scientific skepticism, but applies to statements a priori as well. A student on the debate team will likely be familiar with cognitive biases, but teaching about bias is not in the normal high school curriculum. Someone who can identify her own biases and the biases of others will be a much more powerful thinker than someone who cannot.

An effective critical thinker is able to draw conclusions from data. Something like this often happens in high school with the analysis of literature. But drawing conclusions from literature has certain limitations in its ability to expand one’s critical thinking skill. A conclusion drawn from a work of literature (e.g. this particular symbol has this or that meaning within the story) cannot be proven true or false. In fact, drawing conclusions about the meaning of a story or poem could counteract critical thinking in that it heightens one’s ability to believe in perspectives for which there is very little evidence. An effective critical thinker is able to draw objective conclusions, not just subjective ones.

When all is said and done, scientific critical thinking is far more valuable than literary critical thinking. So why is it that high schools spend so much time on the literary side of critical thinking and so little on the scientific side?


3 Responses to “The Facade of Critical Thinking”

  1. Elsa said

    As a long-time college prof, I know only too well the massive lack of critical thinking. I could call it an epidemic – something spread, highly contagious. At bottom, I see that, at present, my students – many of them bright and motivated – have been taught that critical thinking is unacceptable. They must accept, for example, that all opinions, cultures and religions are equal. (Yet that all opinions are equal is a logical fallacy, as it contains its contradiction, that they are not equal, and is therefore not valid.)

    Critical thinking is a skill that means, as you say, looking at all the evidence possible. Instead, there is a huge drive to avoid looking at evidence, to avoid confronting facts, to avoid possible problems. Imagine doing this with a cancer diagnosis – in order to avoid unpleasantness, we would avoid the diagnosis.

    In fact, I was so frustrated by the lack of critical thinking that I created a site for good thinking on anything and everything, from the opinions that we are all where we are meant to be, to the West, to political correctness, to the ultimate reality. You might enjoy it. I’d love your response. I think critical thinkers benefit from connecting, instead of being lone voices in the wilderness.

    The Idea Emporium:

    Good Thinking – and Great Thinking, the Cogni Sutra:

    Again, I’d love to hear back from you.

    • I never considered that our current cultural meme of openness to opinions was actually inhibiting critical thinking, but I think you are right. All opinions are not equal, but people will often get offended if you tell them so.

      Your website looks like it has some interesting material, but it does seem awfully insistent on wanting me to register. I read some of the articles that don’t require registering, and they were pretty intriguing.

      • Elsa said

        Hi Michael, I’m glad you found some of the material on my site pretty intriguing.

        Then, re the emphasis on getting people to register – there’s something very different when people don’t just come, browse, and leave – but register, get updates, maybe write back. It’s a bit like the difference between a talk and a class – often much more happens (if it’s a good class), in a class. More than that, there comes to be a bit of a sense of community.

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