Why Critical Thinking is Good, and this Post is Bad

I saw this post on Facebook. Please read it before continuing.

Finished? Good. Now, at first reading this post might seem reasonable, but it is not. It is an attack on critical thinking. I do not know who the author is, but they appear to have attempted to craft a criticism of the practice of critical thinking that the reader might accept. However, the author does not appear to hold the reader in very high regard to begin with. It is there in the very first sentence, couched in a rather derogatory fashion.

The first assumption is that everyone reading the post is an average citizen. The second assumption is that an average citizen cannot be an expert. The truth is that anyone can acquire an expertise in almost anything. The real point is though, that becoming an expert in one or two fields does not mean that you are no longer average in other areas. The majority of us are only average, but there is nothing wrong with that.

The reveal is in the second sentence and it concerns what the author seems to see as people’s unwillingness to accept without question their opinion as an expert. This is the real subject matter at the heart of this piece. The author does not like the idea of their expertise being evaluated by the application of critical thinking, reduced to being just the opinion of an Average Joe. They want you to accept the word of an expert without question.

And that is a really dangerous thing.

Experts are not always right. Experts have contributed to some of the worst disasters to befall humanity. Experts had a hand in building the Titanic, in the creation of the drug thalidomide, in the formation of the false science of eugenics, to which the expert naturalist Charles Darwin provided intellectual support. They have also contributed to some of the wonders of our age, but they are not infallible.

Critical thinking is the means by which propositions are examined and evaluated through questioning, and even challenging, accepted knowledge. This accepted knowledge often resides with experts, of course. Contrary to popular belief, many experts, be they scientists, academics, technicians, or practitioners, do not necessarily agree on things even within the same fields. If they did, we probably would not have any innovation. It is because expert views can be contrary that we need to judge the information that they present critically and not just accept it at face value.

Of course, the real target of this post is, to borrow a euphemism used by the author, the graduate of Google University. The Average Joe. The person who has an interest in, but perhaps lacks the knowledge of, a certain field or subject, nevertheless they wish to express an opinion for whatever reason. Good for them, I say. Google is not a university; it is a gateway to a massive repository of knowledge. We may not like the way some people use the knowledge that they find through Google, and their interpretation might even be totally wrong, but there is no discussion where everyone agrees about everything. As William Blake said, ‘Without contraries is no progression’. Teaching people how to think critically is far more important than attempting to shut them up and get them to just accept the opinion of an expert without question. Only the people who want to keep others ignorant do the latter and they are not genuinely smart people.

10 thoughts on “Why Critical Thinking is Good, and this Post is Bad

  1. If you’re not a trained boxer, you should not step into a ring with a professional boxer. I mean, you could but you’d pay the price of your misplaced arrogance with blood and bruises, and likely a bad concussion and more permanent injuries. Thinking, like boxing, is a skill that needs disciplined training and guidance to master. The post you reject in your poor attempt at explaining critical thinking is correct: the value of someone’s statement of fact can only be measured by their familiarity with and proximity to that fact.

    Opinions are not facts.

    In fact, your article is perfectly uncritical.

    “Critical thinking is the means by which propositions are examined and evaluated through questioning, and even challenging, accepted knowledge.” Not exactly, it also necessitates that one accepts the consensus when the knowledge is verifiable and true.

    Again, opinions only have subjective value, and very little of that depending on the vantage point of the individual expressing them.

    Here is my critical analysis of my own circumstances. Even with my two masters, one in computer sciences and another one in philosophy (with an emphasis on epistemology), I would never be tempted to argue with an engineer about how to build a bridge. Why? Because I’m not trained in engineering. I wouldn’t even argue too much with philosophers in other branches I have not spent time studying properly.

    Critical thinking starts with self-reflection. It needs a commitment to meta-cognition. It needs you to understand the limits of your knowledge so we can transcend them.

    It is exactly the opposite of what you propose.

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  2. The definition of critical thinking I used is forming a judgement after a study of the facts. You seem to be suggesting an a priori system as a starting point, which appears somewhat counterintuitive. At what point do we know facts, when we experience them or after we have understood our own thought processes? Granted, there is always a subjective element in the interpretation of any fact by any single individual, but that does not alter the objective nature of the fact. If it did it would not be a fact.

    I agree that we should learn the limits of our knowledge but avoiding rather than engaging in argument is not the way to do that. The ‘argument’ is an essential device of reason. You make a premise that supports a conclusion, do you then expect it to be accepted prima facie?

    At its heart critical thinking is challenging what we are told, not in a slavish manner, but in order to achieve a greater understanding. A good teacher draws questions from their students, not avoids them. They inculcate critical thinking as a process of education. Theories do not always change with the discovery of new facts, occasionally the consensus will hold onto a position irrespective of new interpretations of empirical evidence. A good example is that of the ectothermic or cold-blooded dinosaur that continued long after the evidence failed to support the proposition. Palaeontologists like John Ostrom and Robert Bakker eventually replaced the ‘giant lizard’ representation of dinosaurs with the more active and even feathered creatures that are seen in popular culture today. They did not do this by shirking arguing with colleagues in other branches of palaeontology that were not their particular areas of expertise.

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    • You’ve thrown several philosophical terms around and I’ll give you one more: non-sequitur.

      You do understand that those people, to whom you aptly refer as paleontologists were trained in the science of the topic in question. At the very least, they were trained in science.

      Just because experts in a field correct each other it doesn’t follow that non-experts – especially uneducated people – can do the same.

      It isn’t “slavish” to respect the eminence of people who by trade, training, or empirical experience know more than we do, it’s intellectually honest, it’s a sign of intellectual humility and integrity.

      The “question everything” mantra, as is adopted by conspiracy theorists and other pseudo-intellectuals on the internet, is not virtuous. It’s an excuse for cynical denial of established truths. It’s a toxic “justification” for ignoring facts and proper evidence of how the world works.

      It’s a slippery slope at best.

      Critical thinking might be about challenging what we are told, as you put it, but there is a framework that keeps it honest and Critical. Without the rules of that framework, it’s no more than a tantrum.

      Yes, everyone has the right to an opinion, but that opinion is meaningless without evidence or at least good logic to back it up.

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      • I am beginning to suspect that you wrote the original post to which I referred in my blog! You are certainly evincing some of the characteristics I highlighted there.

        Is there a law somewhere that stipulates that ‘uneducated’ people cannot question an expert? You might wish for such but as far as I am aware no such thing exists. Indeed, since the beginning of science, many people, educated or otherwise, have commented on the propositions put forward by the experts of their day, and good for them. Science succeeds by the challenging of propositions.

        However, I do not think that your argument concerns the scientific method itself but rather by the elitist attraction of being recognised as an expert, particularly a qualified expert. In using words like honesty, humility, and integrity you appear to be attempting to elevate the expert over the uneducated and making the latter servile in the process. However, I contend that education is not a precise indicator of intelligence. Charles Darwin never graduated university but his contributions to science are recognised all the same.

        As for a framework for critical thinking I use that advocated by Rene Descartes, only more than once in my life. What do you use?

        The fact is that the expert is not infallible and that they should not fear being questioned by anyone if they are right. They might not like it, but it comes with territory of being and expert and being fallible.

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