How Do You Know? Or, Critical Thinking is Hard

Originally posted on August 23, 2011 on my now-shuttered blog, Blue Lyon.

The problem isn’t that we aren’t in the street, or that the Tea Party is. The problem isn’t merely with the people we’ve put into office. The problem is that too few of us engage in critical thinking about the world around us, much less about the society we live in and would like to have. We don’t examine the candidates who stand before us who make declarations about taxes, and education, and science, and sexuality, and reproductive rights, and the environment, and what they’re going to do to “fix” it all.

Many of us don’t think critically. That is, we don’t have a system for gathering and examining evidence to determine the validity of the claim.

But how can we? We aren’t taught to do so.  We think we are reasoning our way through a problem, but most of the time we are taking shortcuts. A respected friend or leader tells us a fact and we believe it.  We see A at the same time as B and assume one is the cause of the other. We engage in behaviors that our parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them engaged in, and we teach them to our children because we’ve always done it that way. We rely on the wisdom of the ages and dismiss the advances of science and technology.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking provides several good definitions of what is entailed in critical thinking, but for purposes of this post I really like this one paragraph summary:

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.  People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.   They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.  They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.  They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking.  They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.  They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.  They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society.   At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so.  They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others.  They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement.  They embody the Socratic principle:  The unexamined life is not worth living, because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.  ~ Linda Elder, September, 2007

We must learn to always ask ourselves: How do I know?

The funny thing? Most of us think it’s the other person who isn’t thinking critically. It couldn’t possibly be us! And yet we all have our blind spots, our own areas where reason doesn’t stand a chance.  We are not Spock. We are human beings.

. . . they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.

Back when I was a believer I would pray for parking spots close to the store. Yes, I am ashamed to admit that. But you know what? I thought it worked! I would remember all the times God answered my prayer in the affirmative and when he didn’t, I rationalized it away by telling myself, There must be a reason why I didn’t get the spot this time. Maybe someone more needy than I got the spot.  In my world, god controlled everything. My holy book told me that he knew the numbers of hairs on my head and that even the tiny sparrow was under his care, so of course he heard and answered my humble prayer. It’s how I believed the world worked.

If someone feels the flu coming on, drinks a hot toddy, heads off to bed and wakes up in the  morning feeling better, how does he know whether it was the drink he took before he went to sleep that made him feel better or just a good night’s sleep gave his body time to rest? Was he really coming down with the flu or just some little achy-ness or stomach upset that would have passed regardless of what he did? Without examining the evidence utilizing a method to determine causality, he doesn’t.  And the easiest thing is to believe that it was the drink  that healed him, so that the next time he’s feeling poorly, he’ll down that toddy again, just in case.

Beyond learning how to think critically, we have to know how we are wired and that we evolved to see patterns that may not be there, to make connections that may be tenuous or non-existent.

More to come.

What does Carl Sagan have to do with Hillary Clinton?

Re-upping this 2010 post from my now shuttered blog, Blue Lyon. The only edit I would make is to add this to the third paragraph: “See also the treatment of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and its aftermath.” 

A Sunday Morning Reading: Carl Sagan, Science and Witchcraft

In The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Ballantine Books, 1996), Carl Sagan stressed over and over again the need for science literacy, critical thinking and skepticism. We need not understand the finer points of each scientific discipline, but we need to understand the scientific method and how to apply it in our daily lives, as well as in our national and international policy-making.witch-torture

Sagan also argued that ignorance of what-came-before can set us up to commit the same errors in the here-and-now. Understanding the past is key to living in the present and planning for the future. To not know our history and our human propensity for unskeptical thinking  is to doom us to continually make the same mistakes, to never move forward, or worse, finish ourselves off as a species.

In Chapter 24, Science and Witchcraft, Sagan revisits the witch hunts of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries that consumed Europe and America.  The parallels in the following passage to today’s political environment are striking: Guantanamo, indefinite detention, military commissions-vs-civilian courts, National Day of Prayer, torture, the run up to the Iraq war, the prosecution of whistle-blowers, even the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Sagan appears prescient. He wasn’t. He was just aware of history.

If we do not  know what we’re capable of, we cannot appreciate measures taken to protect us from ourselves. I discussed the European witch mania in the alien abduction context; I hope the reader will forgive me for returning to it in its political context. It is an aperture to human self-knowledge. If we focus on what was considered acceptable evidence and a fair trial by the religious and secular authorities in the fifteenth-to-seventeenth century witch hunts, many of the novel and peculiar features of the eighteenth-century U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights become clear: including trial by jury, prohibitions against self-incrimination and against cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of speech and the press, due process, the balance of powers and the separation of church and state.Friedrich von Spee (pronounced “Shpay”) was a Jesuit priest who had the misfortune to hear the confessions of those accused of witchcraft in the German City of Würzburg (see Chapter 7). In 1631, he published Cautio Criminalis (Precautions for Prosecutors), which exposed the essence of the Church/State terrorism against the innocent. Before he was punished he died of the plague – as a parish priest serving the afflicted. Here is an except from his whistle-blowing book: Continue reading “What does Carl Sagan have to do with Hillary Clinton?”