If there is one thing that people can agree on as a universal good in education, it is that we should seek to increase the critical thinking abilities in people. Actually, that is not quite true. During the days when the debate over intelligent design was raging in Ohio in 2003, one letter to the editor by an ID advocate dismissed as “nonsense” the idea of teaching students how to think and said that instead “students need teachers who are authority figures – role models who impart a firm foundation of basic knowledge and a clear sense of right and wrong.”
But it turns out that while (almost) everyone is willing to genuflect at the altar of critical thinking, people have a hard time breaking down what the phrase precisely means. The question “How will you know it when you see it?” is not easy to answer.
Its meaning not as tenuous as pornography with its celebrated formulation by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio as something that he could not define precisely. He said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of hard-core pornography], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Critical thinking is also not as prone to oversimplification as the concept of intelligence, where mental quickness and verbal and numerical fluency are often given too much weight. When it comes to critical thinking, people tend to be able to accurately sense when it is being demonstrated but have a harder time explaining how or why they knew.
Part of the problem is that it can mean many different things depending on the context and one of the best deconstructions that I have seen is by Arnold Arons in his book A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching (John Wiley and Sons, 1990, Chapter 13) that I have found useful in working with educators. I have modified his list slightly to arrive at the following breakdown.
- Not be intimidated by authority and conventional wisdom.
- Consciously raise “How do we know…? Why do we believe…? What is the evidence for…?” questions when studying anything.
- Be able to distinguish between observation and inference, between established facts and subsequent conjectures.
- Be able to identify the axioms and/or assumptions in any argument and judge their validity.
- Be able to identify the nature of the reasoning being used or required. (e.g., to know whether inductive or deductive reasoning is being used or called for.)
- Be able to identify non-sequiturs and other forms of specious reasoning.
- Be able to recognize when jargon, appeals to authority, or obfuscation are being used as a cover for lack of good arguments.
- Be able to recognize when no firm inferences can be drawn and when an argument has ceased to be fruitful and requires either new evidence or information to advance.
- Be able to recognize circular reasoning.
- Be clearly and explicitly aware of gaps in available information, and recognize when a conclusion is reached or a decision is made in the absence of complete information, and be able to tolerate the resulting ambiguity and uncertainty.
- Be able to carry out hypothetico-deductive (“if…, then…”) reasoning.
- Be able to test one’s own line of reasoning and conclusions for internal consistency.
I am not suggesting that this list is exhaustive. Any list of this sort can be immediately criticized, usually for acts of omission. But it does serve as a useful starting point for understanding what critical thinking is. Furthermore, it enables teachers to select those few specific elements that are most suitable for their particular course and emphasize them, rather than vaguely hoping that critical thinking skills will improve more or less spontaneously.
Some of the items, such as #3 distinguishing between observation and inference or facts and conjecture, seem so staggeringly obvious that one might wonder how anyone can fail to do so. But as a teacher I have tried it out, asking students who have done an experiment what they saw, and their answers are often mixtures of what they saw and the inferences drawn from it. Listen closely to a heated discussion on any topic and you will often observe the same thing.
The item on the list that is perhaps most useful in internet discourse is #8: “Be able to recognize when no firm inferences can be drawn and when an argument has ceased to be fruitful and requires either new evidence or information to advance.”
I think all of us have observed or participated in what seems like an endless argument going back and forth with nothing new being proffered but consisting of merely reformulations of the same stuff. The internet seems to be a fertile breeding ground for such things because there is no moderator. In the olden days, when such discussions were carried out in the letters columns of newspapers and magazines, the editor would at some point step in and end the discussion with a curt “This correspondence is now closed.” But internet discussions can go on and on. People substitute the ratcheting up of rhetoric in place of new information until the limit of Godwin’s law is reached
The problem is that we do not know how or when to walk away from a fruitless discussion. It is easier to do so if one realizes three things.
The first is that in discussions where people have entrenched views, you should realize that even if your case is irrefutable, you will never get the other person to acknowledge that you are right, at that moment. We are all strongly attached to our views. It is not that we do not change them but that the change is usually glacially slow, as a result of introspection that may have been triggered by an argument that is rejected at the time but serves as a basis for later reflection. Once you had have had your say, you have planted the seed in the other person’s mind and you should let it grow by itself.
The second point is that when arguing in a public space, it helps to realize that the primary target audience is not the person you are arguing with but those who are observing, and they will usually have formed their opinions fairly early on, so that the later repetitious rounds are wasted and even tedious.
The third point is that you should not conflate winning the argument with having the last word. That way of thinking is a hangover from our childhood playground days. One should become comfortable with letting the other person have the last word.
If one is willing to do all these things, one can save a lot of time and still achieve the same results because it becomes a lot easier to walk away from an unproductive discussion.