The Importance of Critical Thinking

In a column that came out yesterday in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof explored some of the emotional "hot buttons" that separate the thinking of "liberals" and "conservatives." (The column was a follow-up to an earlier column he wrote about how people tend to use the internet to seek news and information that reinforces already-held positions.) Part of the reason the two groups have difficulty engaging in meaningful discussion, Kristof said, was that the two camps don't just think differently. They feel differently. They react strongly, and in different ways, to different scenarios and cues.

No big news flash there. What any of us hold as core values ... emotional or otherwise ... informs our worldview, and influences how we interpret information or events.

More interesting to me was Kristof's take on a solution to the impasse.  "How do we discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical?" Kristof asked. How, indeed?

A prerequisite for any progress, he acknowledged, is an admission that the "other" side of an argument has at least some legitimate concerns. But Kristof also quoted University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who said that "our minds were not designed by evolution to discover the truth; they were designed to play social games." Therefore, according to Haidt, "the best way to open the mind is through the heart." Kristof expanded on this to suggest finding moderates on the "other" side and eating meals with them to build emotional bonds that allow a differing point of view to make it through to the other side.

I'm not sure I agree with Haidt about our minds being designed solely (if, in fact, he meant that) for social games. Our ability to reason is as legendary as our ability to manipulate. By the same token, the number of people who like me very much but won't for two seconds entertain a discussion point that challenges a position they hold is legion. Which means ... what?

Well, for one thing, it means that I'm not sure lunches or emotional bonds alone  ... while certainly helpful additions to the equation ... are enough to tip the balance, or create suddenly-improved communication between opposing camps.

In my experience, there are two factors that seem to make the biggest difference as to whether or not two people can have a meaningful and productive discussion from different points of view (assuming both are fairly self-assured and reasonable beings):

1. The first factor is whether the people involved see the world in black-and-white terms, or in more complex shades of gray. For those who see the world in absolute terms of black and white (on the left or the right), the only choice of movement is all the way to the other side. Which is an awfully long distance to move an opinion. People who are more inclined to see the world in nuanced shades of gray, on the other hand, can consider a slightly different shade without feeling their basic values threatened. The options for movement, and therefore their potential willingness to consider another perspective, are far greater.

2. The second factor is how skilled, practiced, and comfortable both participants are in the art of critical thinking. The website offers more definitions of what critical thinking consists of than anyone probably needs. But at its most exemplary, the site says, critical thinking is based on "clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness." Critical thinkers "avoid thinking simplisitcally about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others." And "they realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers ... 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."

Which is to say, people skilled in the art of critical thinking make a practice of questioning everything. Even their own opinions. They don't necessarily sit in the middle ground of any debate, but they understand the potential fallibility of sources, and acknowledge the legitimate existence of other points of view ... subject to examination, along with their own. Meaningful exploration and discussion of issues, therefore, becomes possible. Even productive.

In theory, this is the strength and purpose of a liberal arts education (one intended to provide general knowledge and foster intellectual capabilities and reasoned, rational thought). And to the degree that this teaching happens, I think it is a strong and important argument for a liberal arts education.

But here's the bad news. How many of us actually put our "gut" opinions or the information that comes at us daily through the rigorous filters of a critical thinker? I don't have the answer to that, but the results of a 1995 study done by the Center for Critical Thinking aren't encouraging. In a study of 140 professors at 66 public and private universities in California, the researchers found that while an overwhelming majority (89%) claimed that critical thinking was a primary objective of their instruction, only a small percentage (19%) could give a clear explanation of what critical thinking was. And from the respondents' answers, the researchers concluded that only 9% were teaching with a view toward critical thinking on a typical day in class. And that's professors tasked with teaching the subject. How must the rest of us fare?

Granted, that's only one study. And clearly, there's a lot more to the subject than one column or post can cover. Like so many issues in the world, it's complex. But developing the ability to step back a step and question where opinions come from; objectively consider and dissect an argument for its strengths and flaws, look at what the source of any information is and through what biases, values, assumptions, or lenses we or others are filtering that information, consider what other information might exist to counter or support any given "fact" ... and, yes, consider that we, too, might have to adjust our views or thinking in the end ... is central to upgrading both the level and of productivity of discourse in this country.

Critical thinking acumen doesn't get mentioned as often as the other skills we test for or examine in education debates. But it's essential if we want to "discipline our brains to be more open-minded, more honest, more empirical." And it's every bit as important as math, science, reading or writing in terms of being an informed, discerning citizen in an increasingly complex world.