I’m typing away the pain tonight so I aim to be a bit crappy and annoyed.
I often read on various websites, blogs, mailing lists and other propaganda (yes, this blog is propaganda: look it up) that this or that person or organisation is devoted to “critical thinking” and “rational thinking”. Obviously these are noble goals and imply that their views are the result of critical thinking and rationality. It’s often a trick, though. What they seem to mean by that is that they have a set of views that are baptised as critical and rational. As Lincoln once said, calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one. Just naming a view critical and rational doesn’t make it one if it actually isn’t. That’s a fallacy.
What then is it to be critical and rational? We get all kinds of definitions in the literature and around the web. Here’s a couple, with key terms bolded:
From the Hong Kong Critical Thinking Web:
Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following :
- understand the logical connections between ideas
- identify, construct and evaluate arguments
- detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
- solve problems systematically
- identify the relevance and importance of ideas
- reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values
Critical thinking is the identification and evaluation of evidence to guide decision making. A critical thinker uses broad in-depth analysis of evidence to make decisions and communicate his/her beliefs clearly and accurately.
Reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do. In addition to 12 CT abilities, CT also includes 14 dispositions. Namely: to seek a clear statement of the thesis or question; to seek reasons; to try to be well informed; to use credible sources and mention them; to take into account the total situation; to try to remain relevant to the main point; to keep in mind the original or basic concern; to look for alternatives; to be open-minded; to take a position when the evidence and reasons are sufficient to do so; to seek as much precision as the subject permits; to deal in an orderly manner with the parts of a complex whole; to use one’s CT abilities; to be sensitive to feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others.
From the standard definition in education (Facione 1990):
… purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which judgment is based.
Everything but the kitchen sink! I think these are either too vague, too heterogeneous, or simply false. I would rather say this:
Critical thinking is the application of careful analysis and rational reconstruction to arguments, so that the correctness of the reasoning and the truth of the premises can be evaluated and the support for the conclusion determined.
Rational thinking is the assent of the reasoner to any conclusion that is both correctly reasoned and founded on known to be [added: see comments] true, or likely to be true, premises.
In short, a critical and rational thinker is one who accepts the conclusions of good arguments.
If you are rational and presented with a good argument, no matter how objectionable, then you must accept the conclusion. Even if that means accepting that God exists (or not, depending on what you find objectionable), abortion is right (or wrong), or some political or scientific proposition is correct. If the premises are known to be  true and the reasoning is strong and you don’t accept the conclusion, then you are, by definition, irrational, no matter how your favoured community or ideology views you and your beliefs. If you analyse an argument and find no errors or strong objections, but nevertheless fail to assent to the conclusion, then you are not a critical thinker.
At once, the notion of objections comes into the picture, and this shows us how the game plays out a bit. An objection is an argument for a conclusion that is contrary to or inconsistent with one of the premises or the conclusion of another argument. It is an argument in its own right. If you have an argument for the existence of God, and I have a stronger argument against it, I am not required to assent to the existence of God because I cannot fault the pro-argument. Now I weigh the rational likelihoods and accept (assent to) the stronger conclusion. That is also rational.
Okay, with that machinery and definitional apparatus in place, let’s contrast this with what is sometimes called sophistry, after the target of Plato’s and Aristotle’s attacks, the Sophists. Another term for this is rhetoric, although that isn’t necessarily bad on its own. Sophistry is the attempt to gain assent without good arguments, usually through emotional and linguistic tricks. We call these “fallacies”, but that’s just a fancy way to say “mistake of reasoning”, which is how these are often taught these days. I call it “marketing” or “public relations”, or better: “spin”.
These tricks aim to change attitudes by misleading or manipulating the audience. They make a presumption about those who hear them, that they are not adults, nor rational. Rhetoric is fundamentally an end run around the critical faculty. If it is linked to critical thinking, then rhetoric becomes a useful communication tool. When it is unlinked, and even antithetical to reasoning and critical thinking, then it becomes sophistry. Reasoned arguments treat the audience as responsible, thinking, adults. They are respectful, not patronising the way sophistry is.
So let us think somewhat about how some of the so-called skeptics behave. Most people – I would say everyone, including myself, just on first principles – have beliefs they hold dear and which they did not arrive at through rational or critical reflection. Sometimes these turn out to be reasoned ideas. But what is arrived at uncritically will be defended uncritically, and this is, on average, a recipe for irrational beliefs. Here’s one: nuclear power is always a bad thing. In fact bad engineering is a bad thing, and not balancing risks against benefits is a bad thing. Nuclear power is often a very good thing. I would personally like to see a lot more, even if there are risks, to counterbalanced the many actual deaths from coal generation and hydroelectric environmental damage, and so-called renewables won’t cut it. But you cannot argue that with many “skeptical thinkers”.
Here’s another: religion poisons everything. The evidence is against that, and it can only be supported by cherry picking the data like Bjorn Lomborg cherry picks ecological data. But to challenge it is to commit an act of ideological impurity, and the so-called skeptic often won’t even discuss it; just attack. I can multiply the examples without effort, although I won’t, because this is about reasoning, not these specific cases.
Of course those who these “skeptics” attack also commit many failures of reasoning. One well known fallacy is the false dichotomy; I am not suggesting that if one side makes mistakes the other side is correct. Everybody makes mistakes. And mistakes are relatively evenly distributed across all groups, so long as the groups aren’t gerrymandered.
Ennis, R.H. 1987. A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. In Teaching thinking skills: Theory and practice., edited by J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg. New York, NY: W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co: 9-26.
Facione, Peter A. 1990. Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Research Findings and Recommendations (“The Delphi Report”). Millbrae, CA: American Philosophical Association.