Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

                                                                                You are being overly critical!

                                                                               You are being overly critical!

1. Isn't "overly critical" a different concept from "you are not listening well", "You are dogmatic." or "Are you not confusing the perfect with what is reasonable to expect?

2. In all seriousness, what could be so outlandish, so devoid of evidential support that 1/3 of our species would not believe it?

3. If our nature is to, in the words of Jerome Bruner, be homo credens, the entity that believes, should we not all do disbelief exercises right along with hamstring and neck stretches?

Sensitive teachers of critical thinking always wonder: am I going too far in urging my students to doubt and question? The process of doubting is so painful to so many of them.  Maybe I should assist their development in some other manner.

This bewilderment about how critical any of us should be is made all the worse by the social pressure mentioned in an earlier post for us to "be positive." I am not sure even what such a mandate would mean, but I surely know that being agreeable is generally regarded as a huge compliment.

Clearly, one can be critical in a dysfunctional manner. Having a strong sense that you have the one and only correct position with respect to a dilemma quashes any interest you might have to listen patiently to those with whom you disagree. (See, MISTAKES WERE MADE, BUT NOT BY ME.)  Why would I listen to people who are wrong? 

Certainly being an effective critical thinker requires diplomacy and formidable tact. I have never felt very skilled in that regard, but I certainly have felt the need to learn to become a little more skilled. However, unskilled critical thinking is quite distinct from too much critical thinking.

In at least one other regard a person might taint his critical thinking by demanding more perfection of a person or a decision than is realistic in a world of fallible humans. However, that failing is distinct from "being too critical." 

Given our hesitancy to disagree or to be lost in reflection, don't we need to err in the direction of habitual critical thinking? Look all around us at the zeal for belief of our sisters and brothers. What would they not be willing to believe?  You have seen the numbers. A large minority of people in one poll believed that the American on the moon was a media contrivance. Maybe they had heard about Orson Welles' INVASION FROM MARS and were not going to be fooled a 2nd time. A majority of one political party believes that the President belongs to one religion, even though he claims allegiance to a different religion and behaves consistently with his claim. A U.S. President consults his astrologist before deciding on an optimal date for meeting with a world leader.

I am certain you could fill a page with similar examples. Gullible, Gullible, Gullible would be a fair assessment of our clan.

If instances like these were rare, then they would just be unfortunate or amusing. But some 70% of respondents to a survey believe that their are angels in our midst, and I do not think they are being metaphorical.  Yes, I know, who WERE these respondents. Good question, and there are many more good ones you could and should ask. But the numbers need not be accurate.  The point is that substantial numbers of people embrace conclusions where the evidence is either non-existent or wishful fantasy.

If we care what others and we believe, do we not have an obligation to be critically skeptical on a regular and systematic basis. We see the fruits of failing to honor this duty all around us.

1. But could we become so habitually skeptical that we would lose sight of our need to make, not just ponder, decisions?

2. Is the critique of critical thinking as being over-wrought, simply a reflex action in response to a word, "critical" --a word that is threatening and reeks of evaluation?

3. If we all agreed to never use the term "critical thinking" ever, but to substitute "dependable thinking" or some other "helpful" sounding word, would many say "you are being too dependable"? I don't think so.

AuthorM Neil Browne