Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Critical Thinking: What it is, and Why it's Not Just a Catchphrase

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. 
- Thomas Jefferson
Once I had a bumper sticker that said, “Think for yourself, or you're not thinking at all.”  I admired this sentiment a great deal, which is not surprising, since I had come up with it myself. Yes, I'm a little embarrassed to say it now, but I made my own bumper sticker.  I even bought some special paper to print it on. But the ink wasn't made for life in the elements, so it faded pretty quickly, and I didn't replace it. It's not that I didn't still believe it; it's just that I thought it was incomplete. After all, what good does it do to tell people to think for themselves, when so many people are terrible at thinking? I briefl considered making a twin bumper sticker that said, “...but think carefully.”  And then I thought, “That's ridiculous!”, and peeled the first one off.

As silly as my twin bumper stickers would have been, I do think both ideas are important. We live in a country where people are allowed, and even expected (in theory), to think for themselves. That being the case, you would think we would put more effort into teaching people how to think; not what to think, but how think, and how to think clearly and effectively. This sounds like a good idea, but it's pretty vague.  What exactly would we teach?  One of the first step in clear thinking is to define terms, so let me start by doing that.  The word “thinking" covers a huge range of mental processes, including concept formation, memory, decision-making, visual thinking, creative thinking, and so on.  I'm talking about something more specific. I'm talking about the kind of careful thinking that's aimed at deciding what to believe. This kind of thinking proceeds by carefully and honestly weighing the evidence for beliefs before accepting them. I'm tempted to call this “rationality” but that term, like "thinking" is also a little ambiguous. In economics, rationality is used to mean something like “optimal decision-making or action.”   Economists imagine ideal worlds in which there is an optimum way for “rational agents” to proceed in order to “maximize their utility”. This optimal strategy could easily include lying, and need not have much to do with what's true or morally right. That's not the kind of rationality I'm talking about here. What I'm interested in is honest, deliberate thinking aimed at finding what is really true, or what is really right...or at least getting as close to those things as possible.

Critical Thinking

This kind of deliberate thinking is already taught in school, though not nearly enough. It was once known as informal logic or reasoning, but these days it's usually called critical thinking. Most people have heard that term, because it's become an educational buzzword.  That's unfortunate, because it means it's in danger of being emptied of meaning by people who repeat it--parrotlike--because they like the sound of it.  But critical thinking isn't just some new educational fad that will soon go the way of New Math. It has roots going back as far at least as far as Socrates, and still has some very important lessons to offer.