Critical Thinking: My Friend, My Enemy, Myself

Conversations between “skeptics” and “believers” tend to devolve into an argument over who is truly thinking critically and who is not — to nobody’s ultimate benefit. There is a very good reason why trading accusations of a lack of critical thinking is rarely a winning debate strategy: whether it’s true is purely a matter of perspective, and two parties with fundamentally different world views will never be able to agree on what constitutes critical thought.

We often tend to think of the extremists as those who don’t think very critically, but that’s really only because we don’t see ourselves as extremists. Where I see myself, and where many readers probably do as well, is in a position of moderation: tending to accept most information from trusted sources, and provisionally rejecting extreme claims from the fringe while occasionally being proven wrong. But this is probably also exactly what you’d hear from the person who appears to me to be on the fringe: he sees me blindly accepting the dogma of institutionalized science while rejecting brave new discoveries because they rattle the establishment’s investments. To him, I am as far from a critical thinker as he is to me. We might word our descriptions of each other differently, but in the abstract we’re saying the same thing.

What does this have to do with world view? Mainly it involves the sources we each consider reliable, and the standards of evidence we find persuasive. These tend to be deeply rooted and slow to revise. A Bigfoot believer will always put more stock in the sheer number of anecdotes throughout history. A fad diet believer will always go first to claims supporting the particular fad, be it “all natural” or “chemical free” or “paleolithic”. What is science-driving industry to one is immoral corporatism to another. What is earthly-friendly to one is poorly-informed greenwashing to another. Such parties will never agree on who is thinking critically and who is not, because the ideologies driving their world views are so far apart.

This is why I doubt that many so-called “true believers” have been much persuaded by any Skeptoid episodes I’ve ever done that challenged their particular sacred cows. The type logic I used would be described by them as my sacred cow, and the phrase would carry the same derisive connotation against me that it carried against them in my previous sentence.

So what’s the point of ever presenting a challenging viewpoint, if it’s true (as I seem to be saying) that it will never persuade? Well, it’s not impossible. I believe that these underpinnings are slow to change, not impossible to change. Most of us agree on most things, and most of us find similar phenomena and stories interesting. There is plenty of room for middle ground and discussion that all sides will find engaging, and I suggest that these are the places to begin. Find the topics and perspectives your audience will agree with, and go from there as a starting point. You might find that your own idea of a critical perspective ends up being informed by “the other side” just as much as you hope to inform theirs.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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7 Responses to Critical Thinking: My Friend, My Enemy, Myself

  1. Brian, I really love this post. The few episodes that really confronted some of MY sacred cows (though I try to be critical of them) all left me wondering about your sources, and your “blind acceptance” of them! 😀

    I truly wonder if part of the problem you see with the limited success of the podcast in changing anyone’s mind is that, rather than a 10-15 minute lecture based on your research and sources, the real way to engage someone and, if not change their mind, at least open their mind to other information, is really more of a dialogue, and the ability (and willingness) of both parties to not DEBATE, but really discuss. Debating leads to the need to win, to accidentally use crappy techniques like gish-galloping (<-holy crap, spelling?!), while a real dialogue lets both parties really investigate the merits of a given detail. Chances are, neither is really SO far apart, just viewing the same bit of data from different points of view, coloring how that piece fits into the overall picture. Either way, thank you for Skeptoid, and for all you do. Cheers!

  2. Andries says:

    Hi Brian

    I am a little surprised and I guess I don’t understand the uncharacteristically vague thinking in this piece.

    Here’s why: I would roughly define critical thinking as the method or process of objective evaluation and analysis of an issue by employing verifiable evidence, logical reasoning, avoiding fallacious reasoning and adhering to rigorous examination of personal/social biases.

    It seems to me that you suggest in this article that the differences in your worldview and that of -for instance- a Bigfoot believer is that ‘in the abstract we’re saying the same thing’ and ‘Such parties will never agree on who is thinking critically and who is not, because the ideologies driving their world views are so far apart’, you are doing a disservice to the critical thinking.

    Firstly, you are not saying the same thing at all, you are basing your research on Bigfoot on much firmer empirical evidence -a part of critical thinking- than anecdotal evidence -spotting anecdotal evidence is another facet of critical thinking. And secondly, ideologies are not pertinent to what is true and what is not, at least in so far as the existence of Bigfoot goes.

    In a broader philosophic context I understand what you are saying about what is knowable and how we can know what we know… David Hume’s astounding work on this aspect of epistemology is well knows. However, I think you are skirting dangerously close to drawing equivalences between objective and subjective worldviews. As a comparison, it’s almost as if you are saying science and pseudo-science are equally valid world views and the differences are merely due to varying perspectives in the same way as critical thinking and what I’d call pseudo-critical thinking are equal. I don’t think this it so. And from what I know of your work I don’t think you think this is so… hence my confusion about this article.

    Also, I am not sure you are not convincing people and changing opinions. Admittedly people hardly ever change their minds in mid argument/debate or have the guts to simply say ‘I am wrong, you are right’. But I think most people do process information and quietly adjust their opinions over a period of time. Of course there are those who stick to their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, but that cannot be because of critical thinking, rather the opposite.

  3. I try to find out early on how well informed and open minded my interlocutor is on a complex, disputed issue. There is such a thing as incorrigible ignorance and it’s a waste of time and energy trying to cure someone of it. So I might ask “what’s the best evidence you have for your side?” Or “what’s the best reasons given by the other side for this belief?”

    There are several strategies to use with someone who is reachable. For example, pointing out that they don’t apply the same level of evidence/reasoning for their side that they apply to the other. Think Creationism vs. Evolution. Or confirmation bias when it comes to comparing the evidence for and against a conspiracy theory; a cold winter does not disprove human caused global warming. Or basic assumptions about human psychology; how many people it takes to pull off the False Flag 9/11 conspiracy and, given the failure of the wars it led too, are still keeping it secret.

    As I’ve seen in my own intellectual journey, sometimes it takes a seed of critical thought years to germinate, so I try not to give up hope.

    • I’m rereading my comment almost a year and a half later (Jan. 2017). I have since in my teaching (community college philosophy) given my students a good example of a skeptic changing his mind on an issue. I show a section of the documentary Merchants of Doubt where Micheal Shirmer talks about changing his mind on anthropogenic climate change. Seeing this example helps students cultivate the disposition to change their minds when better reasons or new evidence appears.

  4. David Parker says:

    Equivocation is, of course, a logical fallacy. It is used frequently by true believers, from their bag of tricks (logical fallacies). I’ve read that the feeling of certainty is an emotion, and that’s what I think Brian is addressing. Each side is convinced and defensive of its world view. Each side considers the other side’s considerations hollow, and the emotions and strengths of convictions are definitely equivalent.

    The differences show up, however, when considering standards of evidence–the entire concept of which is regarded in polar opposite fashion by both sides. Terms are continually re-defined by believers, so sometimes it’s difficult to establish definitions for them; communicative discourse can’t happen when the same “language” is not spoken. (Imagine the typical exchange between Deepak Chopra and any physicist.)

    The chasm is between rationality and irrationality, skepticism and true belief, science and wishful thinking. Overall, I agree with Brian that one side can’t often convince the other, and I think it’s because of the way we are “tuned”, to defend our world view. More than once, I’ve been called closed-minded because I was not convinced of auras or extra-terrestrials by peoples’ tales of personal experiences, nor could they grasp the concept of how anecdotes are useless as evidence.

  5. Andries says:

    Thanks David

    I think I see what you mean. If Brain was referring to -as you say- ‘the emotions and strengths of convictions (that) are definitely equivalent.’ I would say in that case we are talking about biases, prejudices and foregone conclusions, we could even broaden the discussion to free speech, but I don’t think these things are intrinsically part of the definition or toolbox of critical thinking.

    Despite people like Deepak Chopra’s -as you rightly cite as an example- claim to be critical thinkers, they do not measure up. Chopra’s willful and disingenuous equivocations simply do not qualify as critical thinking. His insistence about the validity of his views and drawing equivalences between his pseudoscience and what physicists do, is part of his worldview but I guess I am having trouble understanding how that obstinate insistence qualifies as critical thinking. In saying Chopra is not a critical thinker, I am feeling a No True Scotsman fallacy breathing on my neck… I am struggling to pin point what to call his insistence, but it is not -in my view- critical thinking.

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