What is Critical Thinking?

July 15, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

The term “critical thinking” is in danger of becoming a cliche.   In the March 2006 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, Howard Gabennesch worked to put some edges on what type of thinking actually qualifies as “critical thinking.”  I will cite extensively from this article.

For starters, “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.”  Referring to Skeptic Magazine, Gabennesch described skeptics as follows:

  1. Skeptics do not believe easily. They have outgrown childlike credulity 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.

True skeptics leave open the possibility that their foundational assumptions will be disturbed.  “Toes will be stepped on, tempers could flare, mortified members of the audience may stagger from the room.”  Gabennesch cites the following examples of the sorts of claims about which true skeptics consciously work to keep an open mind, despite heavy social pressure to do otherwise:

  • From the beginning, AIDS has been exaggerated as a significant threat to heterosexuals in the U.S.
  • It is far from clear that Abraham Lincoln cared deeply about social equality between whites and blacks.
  • Despite what is widely assumed by professionals in the counseling and education industries, self-esteem has not been shown to be causally related to academic and behavioral outcomes.
  • Whatever intelligence tests measure is related to many academic, occupational, economic, and behavioral outcomes-and it is substantially heritable.
  • It is far from clear that child sexual abuse produces devastating and long-lasting effects in nearly all of its victims.
  • Studies have found that many gender stereotypes contain an element of truth.

Gabennesch argues that to think critically, one must also adhere to an “intellectual due process” that includes the following: 

  1. Being unwilling to subordinate one’s thinking to orthodoxies that demand to be swallowed whole-at the risk of being charged with heresy
  2. Refusing to dismiss possible merits in ideas that otherwise may be deeply repugnant-at the risk of appearing immoral
  3. Being capable of saying, “I don’t know”-at the risk of appearing unintelligent
  4. 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
  5. Being willing to change one’s mind-at the risk of appearing capricious
  6. Being open to the arguments of adversaries-at the risk of appearing disloyal
  7. 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

I would add that being a critical thinker sets one up for accusations that one is not “patriotic” or that one is even treasonous.  Such charges are ironic because, in the absence of critical thinking there is good reason to assume that democracy itself is not possible.  Gabennesch cites Stephen Jay Gould on this point:

Only two possible escapes can save us from the organized mayhem of our dark potentialities-the side of human nature that has given us crusades, witch hunts, enslavements, and holocausts. Moral decency provides one necessary ingredient, but not nearly enough. The second foundation must come from the rational side of our mentality. For, unless we rigorously use human reason . . . we will lose out to the frightening forces of irrationality, romanticism, uncompromising “true” belief, and the apparent resulting inevitability of mob action . . . Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism-and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civic decency. 

Critical thinking is fatiguing and socially unacceptable.  “Subjecting ideas to intellectual due process can require more integrity, humility, tolerance of uncertainty, and courage than most of us find easy to summon.”  

After I finished summarizing this article on critical thinking, I happened to read the July/August 2006 edition of Skeptical Inquirer, in which Kendrick Frazier spells out what it is that it is currently under attack by “deep seated ideologies” in a Comment entitled “In Defense of the Higher Values.”  Frazier also characterizes these attacks as attacks on “democracy itself.”  He writes that the deepest traditions of democracy draw “on the free and open interplay of ideas,” and depend upon “an educated informed citizenry for making wise decisions.”

It turns out that what Frazier describes as under attack overlaps significantly with Gabennesch’s description of “critical thinking.” Here is what is under attack, according to Frazier:

  • The open-minded tolerance of others slightly different from oneself that marks a progressive society.
  • The love of learning and a quest for new knowledge that mark a progressive society.
  • The willingness to entertain and examined new ideas that marks a progressive society.
  • A free and open society’s distrust of authoritarian dogma, what ever the source-Biblical or otherwise.
  • Freedom of expression and the clear separation of church and state on which this nation was founded.
  • Reliance on science-based evidence over unexamined believe and prejudice.
  • The basic rights of women to make their own choices, to be educated, and to shape their own futures.
  • A deep appreciation for education and the nurturing of environments for creativity and achieving novel solutions to problems.
  • A related deep appreciation for not just the useful achievements of science but for the methods of science in determining and advancing provisional new truths, small and large, about the natural world. 
  • An acceptance that those methods of science often result in reliable judgments about what is real and what is not.
  • A realization that we humans-while unique in our humanity-are nevertheless part of the natural world, and derived from and influence by a long co-evolutionary history with the other life forms, large to microscopic, of the natural world.

Frazier characterizes modern attacks as essentially being on “curiosity and learning and on the scientific outlook itself.” 

I have spent considerable time setting out these lists, because I also see these values constantly being trod upon by certain radical segments of American society.  I wanted to make these descriptions of these intellectual (and moral and democratic) values easily accessible for later reference.

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Sujay says:

    A neatly organized post that really resonated with me. It is another matter that the layman may not subject his beliefs to logical rigour, but it really irks me when many of the so-called 'skeptics' are so presumptuous in the confidence of their beliefs!

    Do you folks know of some 'Skeptic' message boards? I've stopped visiting these message boards a long time ago, primarily because of the arrogance displayed by the members of the boards. I find it difficult to qualify call them 'skeptics', as such. To be a skeptic, I believe, one must be skeptical of everything, including one's own beliefs and basic assumptions. The first to berate people who believe in the supernatural, with terms such as 'woos', 'fruitcake' etc. , these so called 'skeptics' are hopelessly inconsiderate of any perspective not matching theirs.

    In my opinion, having a naturalistic worldview does not suffice as a condition for critical thinking. What is required, as the above article mentions,is a 'scientific outlook', in the true sense of the word. And this means keeping an open mind about everything unless contradicted by evidence, and even if that happens, keeping an open mind about the fallability of the evidence. While I do have a naturalistic worldview, and do not believe in the supernatural, that is purely a position for everyday convenience, so as to have a solid foundation to structure my thoughts on. In reality, I am open to the existence of anything, if consistently supported by evidence. While we may presuppose certain worldviews for our convenience, I believe, in theory at least, a critical thinker must have an agnostic approach towards everything. For the spirit of inquiry is fueled only by the words "I don't know", or "I am not sure", or even "I may be wrong".

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another good link on critical thinking, from Free Inquiry. http://www.freeinquiry.com/critical-thinking.html .

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