The Death of Critical Thinking


I’m repeatedly getting into exchanges with people who seem to be incapable of critical thinking. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia definition of Critical Thinking.

Critical thinking calls for the ability to:

  • Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems
  • Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem-solving
  • Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information
  • Recognize unstated assumptions and values
  • Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment
  • Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments
  • Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions
  • Draw warranted conclusions and generalizations
  • Put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives
  • Reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience
  • Render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life

They are all important points, but there are some bits that jump out at me. I could write about all of them, but that would get a bit boring, and these are the bits people seem to really struggle with.

Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information

It’s surprising how many people don’t go back to the source material, and are happy to rely on someone’s interpretation of it. That’s problematic, as people often focus on what they think is important, and have a habit of conveniently forgetting about material that contradicts their view point. You can twist almost anything to agree with your perspective if you carefully omit some of the content and context of the source material.

It’s important you check the source material to make sure it actually exists. In a recent interaction someone was using a quote by a university professor in support of their argument. I checked on the professor in question, and they did indeed say those words, but they were citing sources that did not exist. The professor’s statements were pure fabrication, and they’ve subsequently been removed from student interactions. I suspect they will lose their job at some point. It’s not good when scientists openly lie…

You also have to consider the source of the information. Is the person really qualified to be speaking about the issue in question? That can be quite difficult to determine for some people. If we were talking about cancer, a doctor would be the correct person right? Well, I would take the opinion of an oncologist over my general practitioner any day of the week. When discussing a virus, would you take the opinion of a doctor (unspecified discipline) over a virologist or immunologist? It’s easy to be fooled into thinking someone is a credible source, when they may have lots of qualifications, but in the wrong field. I have a PhD in genetic engineering, so I’m a doctor, but you probably shouldn’t ask me for gynaecology advice. 🙂

Gathering the pertinent information does not mean finding the one paper or person that agrees with your point of view. You should consider the available information as a whole, not cherry pick what suits you.

Recognize unstated assumptions and values

Ultimately, you need to go back to the source material, and then look for unstated assumptions and values in that. You might for example assume a bias if the writer is employed by a specific company, or has a long history of pushing a certain message. You can’t totally discount this information, but you do need to take that context into account when coming to any conclusion about it.

When you start using “second hand evidence” this gets really tricky because you can lose some of the original content and context. We all come with our own set of biases, whether conscious or unconscious. If I suspect someone has a strong bias in favour of a specific stance, I am less likely to listen to their interpretation of the source material, because I’m expecting their bias to influence their interpretation. If I see something that reads as a balanced argument, I will usually give it more weight. That could still be a mistake, as it is not the source material. I may still be getting fooled.

Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment

People often quote scientific papers as a means to justify their point. When you check the source material, it’s clear the person in question has totally misunderstood it. Scientific papers can be quite difficult to read. Different disciplines use language differently, and it’s easy to get the wrong end of the stick. That’s why it is super important you have more than a passing understanding of the subject matter before you launch into reading scientific papers. You need to be able to question your own understanding of what you are reading, to confirm you really do understand it. Even an abstract for a paper can be quite misleading when taken out of context.

As you read more source material, you will get a better feeling for the language used, and you will also be able to go back and check your previous understanding of things you’ve read. This is why it’s really problematic if a newbie reads a single paper and decides that is definitive proof of their opinion.

Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments

The process of appraising evidence is really important. It comes back to the point about source material verses other people’s interpretations. The source material could be considered the highest quality, but it will include outliers. Meta-analysis is often considered superior, as it reduces the importance of outliers. Most information on the internet is not source material. It is many layers divorced from the source material. Using a news story, blog post or tweet as part of your data set could be seriously skewing your results because of the volume of content written by unqualified people.

The weight of evidence has to be taken into account. If 99% of the quality material says X and 1% says Y, it would be a brave person who assumes that Y must be the correct answer. There is a thing called consensus. A conclusion has been made by a group of qualified people based on the body of evidence as a whole, not just a couple of outliers. Remember what I said about meta-analysis.

Consensus can change over time. As more information is gathered, the weight of the evidence may change. It’s perfectly fine to find out what you believed is wrong. You made the best judgement you could using the information at your disposal. As more and better quality information arrives, it needs to be evaluated, which could in turn alter the consensus.

Reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience

What I believe today may not be what I believe tomorrow. Today I side with the consensus. I am willing to adapt as that consensus changes, based on new information.

I don’t just fall in line with the opinion of a specific spokesperson. They have their own beliefs and biases. It is the underlying consensus that matters to me.



PS. I’m not trying to make out I’m the boss or gatekeeper of critical thinking. We all jump to conclusions based on little evidence from time to time. You’ve just got to get enough self-awareness to notice you are doing it, or accept you’ve done it when someone challenges you on it.

Author: Tim...

DBA, Developer, Author, Trainer.

5 thoughts on “The Death of Critical Thinking”

  1. I know what you’re really getting at here but I’m using this for PostgreSQL troubleshooting 😉

  2. Excellent post Tim.
    Unfortunately, I don’t think most people are very good at critical thinking, it does not seem to be a natural way for most people to think (there’s been a lot of study into the two models of how we process information – the first is the fast, reactive, make a decision on just past experience/what seems obvious; the second is to consider more factors and apply logic, i.e. critical thinking). I’ve long held the opinion it’s the need for the harder, critical thinking that makes being a scientist difficult and puts a lot of people off science, let alone really understanding science. The effort of going through the process and constantly checking if your own biases are leading you astray is considerable and even many professional scientists struggle with it (well, the ones I’ve known).

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