The Myth of Critical Thinking

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by Magical Realist, Feb 22, 2017.

  1. socratus Registered Member

    " spacetime fabric'' is the famous Minkowski 4- dimensions spacetime.
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  3. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Thank you, Magical Realist, for pointing this thread out to me. I missed it when it was originally posted because I was rather busy with other things at the time.

    Not sure whether the topic has run its course, so I'll just say a couple of things, for now.

    Quite a few reasonable definitions of "critical thinking" were posted early in the thread. But just as there is no single "scientific method" that we can set out in recipe form, there is no single procedure for thinking critically. However, processes of critical thinking about various topics do share have common features.

    One thing that I think is important is to distinguish critical thinking from its opposite. The opposite of critical thinking would be something like rote learning.

    Take an example. Suppose you read an article that claims that global warming isn't happening. It presents some arguments, and refers to some evidence that supports those arguments, and the overall argument is used to support the conclusion.

    There are two ways you might read such an article. You might read it uncritically. That might involve just accepting that everything in the article is true, and that there's nothing more worth saying about global warming. You might even commit the arguments of the article to memory, and be able to repeat them to other people when you want to argue the point.

    Another way to read the article would be to read it critically. You would ask yourself questions as you read it, like "Could this be wrong?" and "Is this an oversimplification of the issues?" and "Does the author exhibit any bias?" and "Are the arguments that are made logical and reasonable, based on the evidence that is presented?" and "Is the author cherry picking his evidence and leaving important information out?" If you were trying to get an overall view of the consensus on global warming, you might then compare the article to other sources. You might actively search out sources that argue the opposing point of view. You would then carefully weigh up the arguments on both sides and form your own opinion.

    If you're a rote learner, then you might be great at regurgitating the opinions of other people. You might even do well on exams, if you learn to repeat your teacher's opinions. But you will not once have engaged in critical thinking, because that requires that you apply your own brain power to assess the value and truth of the material you are reading.

    Although it's hard to sum up what critical thinking is in a few sentences, it is something that can be taught and learned. In fact, arguably, the primary aim of universities in undergraduate education is to teach students how to think critically. A good university teacher (and, indeed, good school teachers, too) should not so much teach students what to think, but how to think. Usually this is done in the context of teaching particular knowledge about a particular subject, because critical thinking is a method (or set of methods) rather than a subject of its own in isolation. Of course, there are a lot of bad teachers out there as well as good ones. The bad ones can actually encourage rote learning and regurgitation of preferred "facts".

    The last thing I'd like to say is that there is a lot of material online that can introduce you to critical thinking. There are sets of materials and notes from universities that are available, and there is a lot of excellent material produced by all kinds of different people, who rely on critical thinking in their professional (not to mention personal) lives.

    In a democracy, critical thinking is a very important thing to encourage, because it acts as an innoculation against propaganda. Critical voters ask questions about what candidates (and the special interest advertisers, and the paid propagandists) are telling them. They consider motives and who has what to gain from putting a particular argument. They are equipped to evaluate the arguments on their merits, rather than taking them as rote.

    I find it interesting that Magical Realist chose to post the critical article in the opening post before going on to demonstrate by his follow-up responses in the thread that he actually has no idea what critical thinking involves. It's a good example of what happens when you're a rote learner. You just blindly accept the stories that people tell you. In the 5 months since posting this thread, it is clear that Magical Realist has not engaged in any critical thinking about the article in the opening post. Probably he has just rote-learned its conclusion.

    I end with some advice. Anybody who tells you that you should not think critically is trying to take advantage of you. If you believe them when they tell you that you shouldn't think for yourself, then they'll be able to play you however they like.
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2018
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  5. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    And now, a few thoughts on the opening post, specifically.

    Critical thinking is a general process about thinking. Is it really surprising that it is hard to talk about it in general terms? It works best when applied to particular subject matter. That's not to say that it can't be discussed or defined, and indeed several definitions have been posted in this thread.

    "Critical" and "skeptical", in this context, amount to the same thing. The opposite of "critical" is "uncritical" or "accepting". And, in this context, the opposite of "skeptic" is something like "gullible".

    You need to drill down into it more and ask what being not "critical enough" means. It might mean that the logic is flawed. It might mean that reasoning is faulty. It might mean that one part of the line of thought doesn't logically follow from another. It might mean that there are unspoken biases or assumptions. All of these are failures of critical thinking, and they are valid ways to invalidate a line of thinking.

    This is correct, but it's not mysterious. For example, logic is a well-studied topic, and logical fallacies can often be identified unambiguously.

    Indeed. A little effort now might save a lot of wasted time and long-term heartache later.

    There are good scientists and bad ones, as in any other profession.

    On the more general point, critical thinking doesn't automatically translate from one domain to another, for everybody. From time to time, we even see scientists who make valuable contributions in their own field of study utterly fail to think critically about things that are out of their specific areas of expertise.

    Critical thinking is a learned skill that requires a conscious effort, and people rarely think critically about everything.

    This, of course, is a common lie that is told, because True Believers in such things have a vested interest in promoting rote learning over critical thinking.

    Of course. They are thinking critically about critical thinking! Well done, O minority of pedagogical scholars. More power to you!

    A regrettable omission from the curriculum, if this is true.

    In the Australian curriculum, where I live, critical thinking is mentioned in many parts of the documentation.

    Interesting that the evil skeptics are always painted as having an evil agenda. After all, it must be harmful to encourage people to be able to sort the guff from the valuable. And, remember, we're talking about a method here, so "acceptable facts" don't really come into this particular picture. Acceptable facts would need to be rote-learned, which is actually in opposition to the philosophy of critical thinking and skepticism.

    As for dismissing things as misperceptions, etc., that should happen after the critical thinking is done. If it happens before, then we're talking about bias - the very thing that critical thinking is supposed to guard against. It would be odd indeed for skeptics, hell bent on teaching people to dismiss certain things without thought, to encourage people how to think, would it not? (N.B. the words "how to think", there, not "what to think".)

    It is thinking, but it's more than that. The author here obviously overlooked the part about intellectual discipline, the active engagement (as opposed to rote learning), the analysing, the evaluating and so on.

    When it comes to critical thinking, the real problem is not just the youngsters. There are plenty of functioning adults who don't have a clue how to think critically about a lot of things. To be fair, a lot of them don't need to think critically about a lot of the things in their lives. But then again, everybody has something to gain about learning to think critically.

    Sure, it can help with that. It's not content-free, though. Critical thinkers can usually point out exactly where a process of reasoning is going wrong; that's part of the skill set of the critical thinker. Failures of logic, for example, are objectively verifiable, and not just a matter of conflicting opinions.

    Critical thinking doesn't guarantee certainty, by any means. All it does is to reduce the incidence of avoidable error.

    I completely agree.

    All discussions need reasonable boundaries. If we are to have a debate, we must agree in advance to play by some rules. If, for example, debaters are allowed to simply make stuff up, then whatever comes out of the debate is not likely to be very productive.
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  7. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 72 years oldl Valued Senior Member

    I am critically thinking about my critical thinking knowing it is critical to think about UFOs

    WHAT is critical to think about UFOs I hear you ask?

    Well it is critical that NO UFO be put down to any proposed mundane explanation
    That's a critical no no

    It IS critical it has compelling aspects

    Then it is critical a exotic origin to be assigned to the UFO

    How would critical books or critical compelling videos sell without "from outer space - from the ocean - forth dimension - from the future" some critical place on the cover

    It's critically coffee time

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  8. Write4U Valued Senior Member

    Can't have a debate with Trump....

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  9. river

    Critical thinking is not a myth .

    Critical thinking is based on the ability to push aside ones ego .
    Write4U likes this.
  10. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    I'm going to respond to JamesR because what he writes is often interesting. Provocative always and sometimes even convincing.

    I thoroughly agree. Like with science, there's a grab-bag of concerns that arise as circumstances warrant.

    Yeah, sometimes. I like to contrast critical thinking with thought that's dependent on a whole host of unexamined and unjustified assumptions. Of course any demand that we rectify our reliance on unjustified assumptions threatens to entangle us in an infinite regress.

    Rhetorically that's less of a problem than it is philosophically. In rhetoric arguments usually arise when there are disagreements. So the demand for justifications of premises only extends back to some point where both parties agree. Then the implications of what is agreed upon can be explored.

    But if we really want to think critically, we need to acknowledge that both parties might still be wrong about whatever premises they find agreement on. After all, many Christian theologians find their basis of agreement in the Biblical text, but atheists or adherents of other religions aren't likely to accept that. If every premise needs to be nailed down, we have the infinite regress again.

    Maybe, I'm less sure about that.

    Most of the content in 'critical thinking' classes seems to consist of common-sense platitudes such as 'Don't believe everything you are told' and 'Ask why'. That's combined with an examination of the informal fallacies just to fill things out. There's lots of talk about 'logic', except that formalized first-order predicate logic isn't really all that useful in assessing everyday thinking. (It lacks modality, tense, plural quantification and many things used in everyday thinking.) So the idea (often suggested by participants here on Sciforums) that thinking needs to conform to logic becomes problematic. It's probably more defensible to insist that logic needs to conform to what people do in real life when they think well.

    One might even question whether formal fallacies must be avoided in real life thought. There are patterns of thought that don't hold together with deductive certainty but do seem to have value. Scientific induction seems to be a textbook example of that. Inference to the best explanation (something scientists do every day) might be another. I'm not arguing that people should run out and embrace fallacious argument patterns, I'm just saying that it's complicated.

    I don't believe that people out there on the street are incapable of thinking unless they have attended a university and taken a 'critical thinking' class. Thinking comes naturally to people and many untutored people are very good at it. (It's a product of evolution and of how our nervous systems work. It might even be a model of how reality is, at some deep metaphysical level.) What logicians do is try to identify and formalize some of the patterns observed in natural thinking. Not all of them, since natural thought is a far more powerful and flexible instrument than formal logic. It's a work-in-progress.

    But while doing that it's possible to observe some of the ways that thinking can go off the rails and students can be warned about them.

    That adds to the complication since each subject tends to have its own problem-solving methods. Physicists don't attack problems in the same way that biologists do. And historians and literary critics are miles away. What universities do is teach students to think like physicists, biologists, historians and literary critics. And that education in turn often consists of study of paradigmatic examples of thought in each discipline, drawn from the past.

    My worry is that these narrow discipline-specific techniques don't necessarily equate to general problem solving ability, let alone to the ability to assess arguments in fields very remote from the field in which the education occurred. Getting a good physics education isn't necessarily going to make somebody a good art historian. The physicist might not be any better situated than a layman in evaluating the arguments of art historians.

    There's a big difference between

    1. You should not think critically.

    2. Critical thinking is a coherent body of knowledge that can be taught.

    3. Those who have not been taught critical thinking lack it.

    I disagree with all three of those propositions.

    'Critical thinking' can very easily become a unexamined self-serving slogan. It's not something that one can boast about or use as a rhetorical club to berate others, but something that one must display in their own thinking.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2018
  11. river

    Really J.R. ?
  12. Write4U Valued Senior Member

    Ignorance is the Devil's playground (from an atheist debate perspective)...

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  13. river


    Yet you have lines drawn of thinking critically .
  14. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    Likewise anybody who tells you you're not thinking right and should think like they tell you to think is trying to take advantage of you. If you believe them when they tell you that you shouldn't think for yourself, then they'll be able to play you however they like.
    river likes this.
  15. Kittamaru Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Adieu, Sciforums. Valued Senior Member

    So... much like how we should just believe that your posts are authentic aliens, instead of using critical thinking, logic, and analysis of the evidence to come to a conclusion?
  16. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 72 years oldl Valued Senior Member

    Anybody in this thread think MR is playing him / her?

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  17. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    True. The whole concept of 'critical thinking' is too often used as a rhetorical cudgel, to beat opponents on the head. (There's something about telling other people how to think that seems faintly totalitarian to me.)

    If somebody tries to tell somebody else how to think properly, it might be instructive to reply with a little critical thinking of one's own, asking the critic (1) what proper thought consists of, (2) precisely how they think they know this, and (3) whether they can justify it.

    Those are deep and fundamental philosophical questions. It isn't something that can be dealt with by presenting a bunch of slogans and homilies to a classroom full of bored freshmen. Exploring how best to think carries one into dark and little understood corners of psychology, cognition, pragmatics, epistemology, metaphysics and the foundations of logic.

    I don't doubt and I'm certainly not denying that there are better and worse ways of thinking about various subjects, or even that many of those ways can be justified in their contexts. As JamesR suggested up above, that's what university educations are intended to impart. The idea isn't just to teach students a bunch of facts about physics, the goal is more importantly to teach students how to think like a physicist. Typically an entire bachelors program is devoted to that.

    Of course we still don't really know why thinking like a physicist is a good way of understanding the physical aspects of reality. (Nor can we really be sure that it's the best way of knowing those things.) Nor do we know how well thinking like a physicist applies to thinking about other areas of life. (Maybe thinking like a biologist is better for understanding living organisms. If so, how do these ways of thinking differ and why?)

    Is there any way of thinking that's universally applicable to all subject matters? I'm inclined to say 'yes' and even give it a name 'common sense'. It's basically the cognitive tool-box that we employ while living our everyday lives, how we think when we are hungry and look in the fridge and why we walk through doors and not through walls. Oftentimes 'critical thinking' seems to me to consist of a very skeptical common sense.

    But... if we think critically and inquire into the fundamental assumptions inherent in thinking like a physicist, thinking like a biologist, or even employing skeptical common sense, little of it is going to be justified by anything stronger than intuition. It's hard to see how it could be, since if we produced any justification, we could simply iterate again and ask how the justifications are justified.

    Our cognition just seems to float in the air.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2018
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  18. sweetpea Valued Senior Member

    I have to laugh at some of the long windy posts on this thread about people telling you how to think...
    Here's MR telling us ''We have already established that. '' Before checking out the info in my post for himself on Google Earth, MR straight away calls me a liar. Luckly JamesR knows how to use Google Earth.

    Of course, people can check these things out for themselves instead of taking MR's word about ''We have already established that. ''
    Since MR never apologized for calling me a liar, I get to call him a DICKHEAD again.
  19. sweetpea Valued Senior Member

    MR is playing with himself in thinking he's a real defender of free thinking.
  20. Michael 345 New year. PRESENT is 72 years oldl Valued Senior Member

    Free thinking????

    Don't tell me someone has found a way to sell it?

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  21. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    16,706's amusing watching all the idiots here strut around and brag about performing critical thinking and telling me if I just thought like they did I'd see that there's no such thing as ufos or ghosts or bigfoot. It's like critical thinking is this magical esoteric process that can reveal the truth even against all the evidence. Most of it appears to be just quibbling over semantics and then constantly doubting sources. I don't think that is very good thinking. In fact I doubt if it's thinking at all. Seems more like a refusal to think.
  22. sideshowbob Sorry, wrong number. Valued Senior Member

    Critical thinking works best when done collectively. We are more likely to be seeing clearly when somebody else sees what we see.

    The real arrogance comes from those who think they're right and everybody else is wrong.
  23. Magical Realist Valued Senior Member

    "Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.

    Groupthink requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. The dysfunctional group dynamics of the "ingroup" produces an "illusion of invulnerability" (an inflated certainty that the right decision has been made). Thus the "ingroup" significantly overrates its own abilities in decision-making and significantly underrates the abilities of its opponents (the "outgroup"). Furthermore, groupthink can produce dehumanizing actions against the "outgroup"."---

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