Think! don’t Blink!
A number of synchronicites have happened over the last week or so, which have led me to reflect on critical thinking. Warning: this is a VERY LONG post, so if you’re not interested in thinking about critical thinking, don’t read any further.
I usually have a stack of 4 to 5 books I’m reading on the go. I had just polished off Th!nk by Michael LeGault when I realised I was also half way through Simon Blackburn’s book Think – synchronicity No 1, two books with the same title. LeGault’s Th!nk is a targeted critique of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Its full title is Th!nk: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye. Blackburn’s book explores the central concerns of philosophy: what is knowledge; what is consciousness etc aka the Big Questions of Life that get us thinking (and a very fine philosopher he is too, I highly recommend the book).
Synchronicity No 2 occurred when a student in one of the University courses I teach asked me “what is critical thinking?”. And synchronicity No 3 was the result of a recent post I did on the evidence against global warming, where the NY Times linked to my post (in their Sphere Related Blogs & Articles section (thanks!) following an article outlining scientists’ concerns over Gore’s central arguments. In that post, I wanted to examine for myself what the evidence might be against global warming. I did this for my own purposes, to educate myself more on what I truly believe is going to be a dark time ahead – climate change, struggles over water, food shortages.
I’m a great fan of Al Gore. I think he’s done a tremendous job of raising the profile of an issue that needs to be critically and urgently explored. I was a tad concerned though that my post (intended as it was to simply explore the anti-climate change stance) might contribute, in whatever small way, to the argument against climate change. Let me make it clear: I firmly believe we are in the midst of a future climate crisis.
But these synchronicites conflated to the point that I’ve been thinking about critical thinking for the past week. This post is simply exploratory and will no doubt contain flawed thinking – but this is all a part of the critical thinking process.
I very much liked Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point; I can’t say I liked Blink, basically because I think it emphasised to the point of irritation the notion that our minds possess a subconscious ability to soak up large amounts of information and, through intuition, gut instinct etc, correctly size up a situation or solve a problem- without burdening the brain with analytical thinking. There are more serious attempts than Gladwell’s showing the power of intuition,with Gary Klein’s work coming immediately to mind. So I’m not about to dispute the contribution of expert intuition in the critical thinking process because I do believe that emotion and intuition have their part to play (albeit perhaps on the surface level).
But LeGault’s Th!nk raised some very interesting observations I’ve been pondering:
- perhaps there is a mythology that has sprung up over the last few years about the power of first impressions, which has led to more emphasis on snap judgements and fast decisions at the expense of formal thinking skills. Intuition, emotion and gut instinct have possibly been separated from the holistic and interwoven cognitive skills involved in thinking and reasoning; and they’ve become akin to popular New Age beliefs.
- we are bombarded daily by infoglut and the 24/7 pressures of contemporary life: snap judgements have become the norm.
- the rise of highly paid consultants and specialists points to us allowing these ‘experts’ to do the thinking for us.
- there has been a decline of logic and reasoning in today’s society, which seems to be more interested in the banality of reality TV.
- we prefer the easy and thought-free.
- the Age of Reason has become the Age of Intuition.
Have we indeed lost the art of critical thinking? Penn State lecturer, John Bardi, in a 2001 essay said: “Having been a college teacher for more than twenty-five years, I see much to celebrate in the current generation of students. However, if I limit my attention to the intellectual qualities I see displayed in my classes, then it seems students are getting worse every year with the current crop being the worst ever….many students today lack the critical thinking skills necessary for higher learning“. And LeGault lays the blame for the continuing deterioration of thinking ability squarely at the feet of the education system in the US.
What exactly is critical thinking and why worry about it? My own view is that it’s a form of knowledge generation – from facts and observations, critical thinkers, through mental activity and intellectual discipline, carefully analyse and evaluate information. This process involves reflecting on and examining evidence, observations, information, facts and propositions and arriving at the most reasonable, objective and justifiable position on an issue.
Critical thinking is responsible thinking. It is not based on a personal bias or a stubborn belief in a particular position. It is not intentionally setting out to find flaws or fault; nor is it about being skeptical, but it is about being a healthy skeptic. Critical thinking is free inquiry, which results in relevant and reliable knowledge about the world – that’s why I refer to it as a form of knowledge generation. After examining an issue from every angle, you arrive at an objective and rationale version of the truth or as close to the truth as possible. Critical thinking is the scientific method, applied by ordinary people to the ordinary world. And it involves sense-making and pattern recognition, but it also involves asking probing questions about the reliability of the pattern observed or the sense of a story told.
To be a responsible citizen of a democratic society implies that individuals will use critical thinking skills to play a deciding role in governance. To do this, citizens must be able to openly discuss, debate and critique issues and ideas in order to examine them critically. Critical thinking is therefore the foundation of democracy and contributes to the public discourse.
But it seems that critical thinking has become marginalised in a society that embraces the immediate; the disposable; the 30 second sound byte; the Hollywood celebrity; and the banal. We seem to have become a society that needs to be constantly entertained and distracted in the midst of a barren intellectual life. LeGault makes the interesting observation that we have become a society so accustomed to the most surreal rationalisations of behaviour or viewpoints being given instant credibility we have lost the ability to arrive at our own understanding of the truth. And so we accept egalitarian knowledge or the dumbed-down version or the lowest common denominator knowledge or the “whatever” – because then we all feel comfortable in a society that worships consensus-seeking.
I think we’ve all seen the gradual lowering of standards particularly for Universities that once required a very high entrance mark for courses like medicine or law. The result has perhaps been a culture of mediocrity, rather than one which aspires to excellence and critical thought.
LeGault suggests that political-correctness (PC) has a part to play in the sorry tale of the decline of critical thinking. Equating PC with the threat of legal action, he refers to it as the unspoken menace, the “Terror of our Time”, which sets out the rules for the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ way to think. The replacement of rigorous thought with behaviour modification.
There is no doubt that critical thinking is hard work and a life-long journey. Practise makes perfect and the skill of critical thinking is no exception – it requires practise. And if I were to practise what I’ve been talking about, then I should try to apply critical thinking to the notion of Critical Thinking.
Here’s my thoughts so far: it is not an either/or position we should be taking but a both/and. Critical thinking applies the scientific method (observation and description of phenomena; hypothesis to explain phenomena; test hypothesis; analyse results and draw conclusions re hypothesis being true, partially true or false). The scientific method is a modernist project; part of the modernist paradigm, with its rigour, formalism, reliance on inner logic, the importance of truth and abstract reasoning, linearity, order, a grand narrative etc.
Postmodernism – a critique of modernism – is an intellectual movement or set of ideas, which rejects modernity’s rigour and instead emphasises pastiche, parody, playfulness. Postmodernism is about self-consciousness and self-awareness, narcissism and nihilism, ambiguity, diversity, fragmentation, multiple narratives and truth that is fluid. Trust in the scientific method gives way to the notion that reality is a social construction or a story; and the individual is a boundaryless self in a boundaryless world. Knowledge is constructed in the minds of people; not discovered independently through scientific investigation.
In a condition in which individuals are divisible rather than indivisible, there is a search for identity or a sense of the self. Hence, I would suggest, books like Blink, which emphasise the inner self – gut instinct, emotional intelligence, intuition, sense-making – are attempting to reclaim (or rediscover) the subjective that Modernity ignored or suppressed.
The postmodern condition rejected the scientific method and therefore, to a large extent, rejected critical thinking and its reliance on rigour and formality. Critical thinking lost flavour. Rigour and formality do not sit well with our eclectic contemporary society, but as postmodernism embraces the both/and, Critical Thinking needs to embrace both the scientific/Modernist paradigm AND the postmodernist paradigm, which allows space for the importance of emotions.
So…I think maybe LeGault’s book, as good as it is, has forced itself into the either/or camp. Phew….I need a good lie down now!
I am still navigating my way through all this and my ideas will no doubt change; but I’ve found some good resources to help improve critical thinking. Here is a website that offers a Critical Thinking Curriculum; you can find Critical Thinking Mini-Lessons here; Tim van Gelder’s really good article on teaching critical thinking is here; for loads of resources go to LibraryThing.
I’ll continue my explorations in future posts – once I’ve done some more critical thinking!