Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Critical Thinking

with 4 comments

I know, I was off on some other subject the day before yesterday.  And part of me would like to rant and rave here about the Percy Jackson books, if only because I find them incoherent.  Of course, they sell like crazy, so it’s probably me.

But Critical Thinking keeps coming up, and I’m fed up with it.  So let me start there.

In the first place, there may once have been a definition for this that made some sense, but by now it’s come down to a sort of reflexive phrase without a lot of content that everybody can declare themselves in favor ot. 

What should children be taught in school?  Critical thinking!  Why do so many people disagree with me?  They lack critical thinking skills!

That second one is, really, what people do seem to mean when they deplore the “fact” that children or students or readers or whoever don’t know how to do “critical thinking.”

My present annoyance on the subject came from reading this month’s issue of Free Inquiry, which is beginning to drive me almost as nuts as those bulletins the American Family Association puts out.  In case you don’t know the American Family Association, it’s a folk-Protestant/largely Biblical literalist/social conservative organization down south somewhere that does a lot of fulminating about “secular humanism.”

Free Inquiry is the flagship publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, and it used to be one of my favorite magazines.  Back when Bill had first died and I was being driven crazy by the nearly endless outpouring of religiosity that landed on me because of it, FI, along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s monthly newspaper, was about the only thing that kept me sane.

Lately, though, all it seems to do is to print endless rehashes of the same old stuff.  This month’s issue had a mind-numbing obtuse argument about how there’s nothing particularly special about human beings, and science teaches us that.  I sat in the Barnes and Noble cafe drinking some caramel coffee thing my son bought for me and making notes on a napkin for an article about how science actually proves just how really special we all are.

But that was, you know, just an opinion piece, and an opinion piece saying the same thing a couple of dozen other opinion pieces have already said in FI over the years.

The kicker–where critical thinking is concerned–was a longish article by a man named James Haught called Fading Faith.  In it, Haught attempted to “prove” that the United States was becoming just as secular as Western Europe.

If “critical thinking” means anything, it ought to mean being able to see where people are making a mess of statistics, but the editors at FI–who are constantly publishing stuff declaring that secular people are “critical thinkers” while religious people are not (or else they wouldn’t be religious)–don’t seem to have caught the obvious problems with this particular thing.

There is, for instance, Haught’s constant use of absolute numbers when they suit his purposes (as in the record of the decline of mainstream Protestantism), and quick switches to relative stats when the numbers won’t work.

He tells us, for instance, that 96% of Americans called themself Christians in the Fifties, while only 86% do so now–but in the meantime, the population of the country has literally doubled in size, and immigration from non-Christian countries has gone way up.  The fact is that there are at least twice as many active Christians in the US today as there were in 1952. 

Then there are the old numbskull refrains:  the Church may say that abortion is wrong, but even most Catholics who go to church don’t agree!  So what?  Science may say evolution is true, but even most students in science classes probably don’t agree.  Science is not a democracy, and neither is the Catholic Church.

Ack.  There’s not really anything unusual in any of this.  And both sides do it, in spades.  I just wish we could get rid of the whole “critical thinking” business.  What we need is not people who know how to “think critically,” but people who are willing to question what they read even when they agree with it.

That would be a start.

Written by janeh

February 19th, 2010 at 11:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Critical Thinking'

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  1. “In case you don’t know the American Family Association, it’s a folk-Protestant/largely Biblical literalist/social conservative organization down south somewhere that does a lot of fulminating about ‘secular humanism.'”

    AFA was founded under the name National Federation for Decency in 1977 by Donald Wildmon,a Methodist minister in Mississippi. Its name was changed to the American Family Association in 1988. http://www.afa.net Although it began in Mississippi, it has state division hq in the following states: Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Begun in the south but spread like kudzu. All fanatics–religious and otherwise– are not located below the Mason-Dixon line.


    19 Feb 10 at 1:47 pm

  2. I read a fair bit at one point in the critical thinking literature, and there’s lots of good sensible stuff there. It was a decent attempt to try to get past facts and rote learning (although I personally have often thought those undervalued), but there were always difficulties in teaching people to do it, particularly people who were members of a fair-sized class containing people with varying levels of mental maturity and natural ability and interest.

    It’s not particularly surprising to me that some of the people who agree with me – as well as some who don’t – are lamentably incapable of thinking or expressing themselves clearly. The situation is only exacerbated when the subject is something the speaker has strong emotional ties to, whether because of religion or atheism or (always a good one) political affiliation.

    It is extremely frustrating to get into a debate with someone who misuses statistics or falls into any one of the usual traps that lie in the way of construction a logical argument. I just don’t bother to do it much any more.


    19 Feb 10 at 2:17 pm

  3. My people have mandatory week-long “critical thinking” courses for certain classes of workers. Some of them come back enthused, but I notice when there’s a real problem to be considered, no one says “let’s get Smitty in on this one. He just got out of the critical thinking course.” They opt, unsurprisingly, for general intelligence and pertinent experience.

    You’ve got at least two separate but related problems here. One is the DNA-deep human tendency to confuse wishes with probability which causes so many people to make silly sports and election bets–not to mention causing males to think she really is interested in them. The second is the tendency to think Joe must be well-informed and benevolent because, after all, he agrees with me, and thus to miss some of the rhetorical sleight of hand. Perhaps what we need is not to teach critical thinking, but to encourage cynical, suspicious thinking.

    I don’t know how you do that. Obviously some writers are better than others. One of the many reasons I’m partial to H. Beam Piper is that his characters are unusually able to distinguish pride from facts and wishes from reality.

    But I would much sooner every schoolchild were given a copy of Huff’s HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS than a shiny new laptop. The fundamental principles in Huff will help them dissect politicians’ speeches and educators’ lectures while generations of computers come and go.

    Which may be why politicians and educators would rather give them laptops, of course. The love of facts and reason does not make for good party voters, nor suitably “enlightened” students. Propaganda, on the other hand…


    19 Feb 10 at 4:55 pm

  4. I second Robert’s comment about “How to Lie with Statistics”. I first read it in the 1950s and its still in print and still good.

    I haven’t trusted any report based on percentage since I read it!


    19 Feb 10 at 6:48 pm

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