Friday, June 30, 2006

Critical Thinking

From the Sckeptical Inquirer (via arts and letters daily): Critical Thinking, What is it good for? (In fact, what is it?)

In short, since it is so easy to misperceive reality, a critical thinker is disinclined to take things at face value, suspicious of certainties, not easily swayed by conventional (or unconventional) wisdom, and distrustful of the facades and ideologies that serve as the ubiquitous cosmetics of social life.

In other words, critical thinkers are necessarily skeptics. Skepticism can be summarized as concisely as this (Skeptic 2005):

  1. Skeptics do not believe easily. They have outgrown childlike credulity (Dawkins 1995) to a greater extent than most adults ever do.
  2. When skeptics take a position, they do so provisionally. They understand that their knowledge on any subject is fallible, incomplete, and subject to change.
  3. Skeptics defer to no sacred cows. They regard orthodoxies as the mortal enemy of critical thought-all orthodoxies, including those that lie close to home.
[. . .]

Like the honest juror, the critical thinker is ethically committed to the concept of due process-intellectual due process-as the best way to increase the likelihood of finding the truth. This code of intellectual conduct demands giving ideas their day in court before rendering an informed and reasoned verdict. It requires such traits as these:

  • Being unwilling to subordinate one's thinking to orthodoxies that demand to be swallowed whole-at the risk of being charged with heresy
  • Refusing to dismiss possible merits in ideas that otherwise may be deeply repugnant-at the risk of appearing immoral
  • Being capable of saying, "I don't know"-at the risk of appearing unintelligent
  • Being willing to judge the truth value of ideas sponsored by demographic and cultural groups to which one does not belong-at the risk of being accused of prejudice
  • Being willing to change one's mind-at the risk of appearing capricious
  • Being open to the arguments of adversaries-at the risk of appearing disloyal
  • Having an acute awareness of the limits and fallibility of one's knowledge-at the risk of seeming to suffer from that dreaded malady, low self-esteem

In short, this aspect of critical thinking can be the most difficult of all. Subjecting ideas to intellectual due process can require more integrity, humility, tolerance of uncertainty, and courage than most of us find easy to summon. No wonder we will join a wild-eyed, slobbering lynch mob from time to time.

[. . .]

Multidimensional critical thinking is not simply a byproduct of something else. It must be taught. Well, then, what about the "critical-thinking" trend that has permeated American education across the curriculum at all levels? Are these efforts succeeding in materially strengthening the quality of critical thinking in society at large? Again, the various indicators of uncritical thought in our society suggest not. It is doubtful that what students learn from those classrooms and texts does much to alter their worldviews and values regarding the truth. A primary cause of this shortfall is the antiseptic nature of the "critical thinking" typically taught to students. Either most teachers and authors do not possess a highly multidimensional conception of critical thinking themselves, or they are reluctant (perhaps with good reason) to approach the perilous territory-way past logical fallacies and weeping Madonna statues-to which full-fledged critical thinking inevitably leads. The result is the commonplace teaching of quasi-critical thinking.

Validity and soundness are not easy to achieve.


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