The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking

There is perhaps no more importance task before us than teaching critical thinking to young people.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid #45
May 16, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we're going to do something a little bit different. Rather than talk about any one specific phenomenon, I want to talk in general terms about the importance of teaching critical thinking to young people, and how and why it can and should be done better. A skeptical approach to life leads to advances in all areas of the human condition; while a willingness to accept that which does not fit into the laws of our world represents a departure from the search for knowledge.

We had a critical thinking class at my high school as an elective, and I think it was generally considered to be the most boring and useless class you could take. If memory serves, the bulk of the class involved reading and studying Plato's Socratic dialogues. If you read them as a teenager, you may recall your reaction was to find them pretty darn dry. They were dialogues between Socrates and other people about such riveting subjects as ancient politics, philosophy, and even mathematics. I don't mean to criticize Socrates; it's just that studying the man and his 2,400-year-old writings is about the least interesting and relevant way for a modern young person to get excited about what Socrates was communicating. Nobody I knew who walked out of that class ever remembered a single concept, or applied it to their life. You can disagree with me and say that you find the Socratic dialogues to be brilliant and fascinating. My point is that the average teenager does not.

But the concepts Socrates introduced, such as the Socratic questions, are brilliant and fascinating when we apply them to things that interest us. More significantly, they become relevant. Take a few Socratic questions:

What if we encouraged young people to ask these questions not of early Greek politics, but of the issues they're hit in the face with every day? Global warming. Television psychics. Alternative medicine. New Age religions. Popular assumptions about alternative fuels. Alternative foods. Alleged correlations between Xbox violence and actual violence. Magnet therapy. Isn't it more useful to encourage better ways to think about the subjects that people are already thinking about?

I have a favorite example of an older, less interesting critical thought exercise that was made more relevant and interesting. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, in criticizing major religions, conceived of what became known as Russell's Teapot, a small china teapot allegedly orbiting the sun. Since nobody could disprove its existence, Russell argued that the only reason its existence shouldn't be taken for granted is that there are no ancient texts written about it. He applied Socratic reasoning to point out that ancient texts do not constitute proof of an unprovable concept. Russell's Teapot was freshened when a grad student named Bobby Henderson wrote to the Kansas Board of Education in 2005, which had just mandated that the Christian story of creation should be taught instead of science. He insisted that by the same logic, his non-disprovable Flying Spaghetti Monster deity's myth of creation should be taught with equal time. Fans appreciative of Henderson's logic have since formed the parody religion known as Pastafarianism. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is goofy and glib, but it is a valid example of using critical thinking to analyze the value of a real phenomenon that we face today.

Teachers, what would your students come up with if you asked them to apply similar reasoning and invent an alternative to television psychics, founded upon the same assumptions that Sylvia Browne asks us to make?

Finding fault with television psychics or the Kansas Board of Education is not, by itself, a positive contribution. Skepticism should not be merely a negative influence. Skepticism is not about debunking, disproving, or ruining anyone's faith. Skepticism is about applying the scientific method to arrive at a conclusion that is evidenced to be beneficial, like curing cancer. If, during this process, it first becomes necessary to debunk an unsupported alternative that's in the way, such as treating cancer with magnets, then that debunking serves as a stepping stone to the final solution. Debunking should never be an end in itself, because that alone creates nothing useful. As scientists, we are interested in learning, and often that involves replacing an older hypothesis that's found to be wrong.

Some people criticize science by pointing out that it does not know everything and doesn't have all the answers. Case in point: the popular movie What the Bleep Do We Know. Obviously, this criticism is true. Science is all about the fact that we don't know everything. Science is the learning process. There are ideologies that do offer all the answers, often divine in nature or based on ancient philosophies. When you have all the answers, there is no longer any need to learn, and thus no use for science. If we want to improve the world, improve the human condition, improve technology; learning, and thus science, is the essential way forward. Ideologies that offer all the answers are the essential route to developmental stagnation. When your hear someone criticize science because it doesn't have all the answers, don't argue with them; instead point out that that's the strength of science. We couldn't be learning more every day if we presumed to already know everything.

Some people criticize skepticism because it doesn't leave well enough alone. Many paranormal beliefs and alternative systems, even though they may lack hard scientific evidence, bring comfort to those who practice them and are a positive force in many peoples' lives. There is value and enlightenment to be found in life that isn't necessarily found in a science book. It is often argued that skepticism is not merely unimportant, it can even be harmful. Young people should not complacently accept this short-sighted argument. First of all, happiness and enlightenment are all around us in our world; they are not found only within a given pseudoscience. But moreover, once we begin investing our faith in unsubstantiated or supernatural phenomena, we are contributing to the redirection of attention, influence, and funding away from technologies and concepts that have been evidenced to be beneficial to humanity and to our world. As my good friend says: "If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny; consume you, it will." The choice between pseudoscience and science is the choice between stagnation and progress: Progress toward long life, health, happiness, a cleaner planet, bountiful food, knowledge, and peace.

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Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Clayton, Chuck W. The Re-Discovery of Common Sense: A Guide to: The Lost Art of Critical Thinking. Bloomington: iUniverse, Inc., 2007. "The Critical Thinking Community." Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <>

Federal Trade Commission. "Bureau of Consumer Protection." Bureau of Consumer Protection. Federal Trade Commission, 27 Oct. 2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2009. <>

Jones, Debra. Exploring the Internet Using Critical Thinking Skills: A Self-Paced Workbook for Learning to Effectively Use the Internet and Evaluate Online Information. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1998.

Kaminer, Wendy. Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety. Hopkinton: Vintage, 2000.

Lord Moran. "On credulity." Lancet. 23 Jan. 1954, Volume 263, Issue 68: 167-172.

Pierce, Charles P. Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Wiseman, R., Watt, C. "Belief in psychic ability and the misattribution hypothesis: a qualitative review." British Journal of Psychology. 1 Aug. 2006, Volume 97, Part 3: 323-338.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Importance of Teaching Critical Thinking." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 16 May 2007. Web. 13 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 25 comments

""The above quote is a bald face assumption. The Soviet Union was an atheistic society.""
What on earth does atheism have to do with teaching critical thinking?

""How well did they deliver the rest of your list?""
As most dictatorships, Christian or atheistic, they did fairly poorly. Do you have a point to make, or are you just saying science, rationality and critical thinking is automatically bad because the Soviet Union was atheistic? That's like saying basketball is bad because Somalia is African, and Somalia is doing rather poorly right now. Makes no sense whatsoever.

""All science does is give people more choices""

Right, so all the advances in medicine, rationality and technology was thanks to other things than science. Gotcha.

""by no means does it guarantee that people will make the right choices.""

It's not meant to. You seem to be confusing it with organized religion or something.

""The problem is not now nor has it ever been religion or any other superstitious belief, the problem has been in the human nature which gives fertile ground to such flaws.""

And you back this up how?

Safe-Keeper, Bergen, Norway
January 9, 2010 2:59am


January 19, 2010 2:51pm

When I was a teenager I saved up to buy "WFF 'N PROOF: The Game of Modern Logic," which turned out to be a dice game based on propositional logic. It was dry and tedious -- more a variety of math than a way to be smarter at assessing arguments.

However, the package I bought included a bonus called "The Propaganda Game" and that was much more to my liking. It wasn't a good game (neither was WFF'N PROOF) but the instruction book had a great list of logical fallacies with examples that I read and reread.

I wondered at the time why I wasn't taught these fallacies in school. I still do. Just knowing "Ad Hominem," "Slippery Slope" and "Excluded Middle" can take you a long way when reading op-ed columns.

But I'm glad that no one tried to teach me critical thinking in high school by assigning Plato's Dialogs! That sounds rough, Brian. That might have killed my interest back then.

jack, San Francisco
July 5, 2010 5:42am

Hi Brian. I think you meant to say "important" where it says "There is perhaps no more IMPORTANCE task before us than teaching critical thinking to young people". I noticed this when I went to share this episode on FB. It looks funny to see the title of this podcast just above this obvious error. Cheers.

Phil, Concord
August 12, 2010 3:14pm

Just shows you that science IS powerful!

Karlie, Canada
August 25, 2010 10:34am

Karlie, science is everything.

Henk van der Gaast, Sydney
October 14, 2010 6:35pm

Hi Brian:

Thanks a lot for all this. It is a great pleasure to hear your podcasts and a source of inspiration for teachers like me.

marco, mexico
September 8, 2011 10:59am

Yes, games can influence they way you look at life, in fact Armis is a game that is specifically designed to develop critical thinking skills so that students have a greater appreciation for life.

Permit me to introduce Armis to you. Armis is played online in over 130 countries, as I mentioned earlier it is designed for critical thinking, and to develop the skill of critical thinking, such that it may become second nature. When you are working with children you see in them their parents, their teachers, their friends, and so many others that impress them. As you teach them critical thinking skills (the skill of knowing how to know) you see a different them, one that isn’t as much their parent, teacher, or friend but more of an intellectual amalgam of them that they are keenly aware of.

At Armis we teach critical thinking using our 5 step program because we believe:

'A' students are those who know how to know and consistently apply it,
'B' students are those who know how to know but don't regularly advance it,
'C' students often don't know how to know but benefit greatly by their genuine interest in various academic subjects,
'D' students often don't know how to know and have low interest in academic subjects,
'F' students often don't care to know how to know,

The 5 step program is as follows:

1) Analysis and Assessment
2) Planning
3) Risk Assessment
4) Action
5) Reaction, Effect, and Experience

Marvin, Virginia
December 19, 2013 8:35pm

Skeptoid quotes a few Socratic questions :

•What is the source of your information?
•What assumptions are you making?
•Is a different conclusion more consistent with the data?
•What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?

Skeptoid itself and many of its posters (myself included) would be well served by reviewing the above four questions, especially the first and third.

There are many Skeptoid articles where such reviews would aid critical thinking.

"Some people criticize science by pointing out that it does not know everything and doesn't have all the answers."

That might well be true, but the question is often caused by those that seem to regard science as the all and end-all when it comes to defining reality, forgetting that science itself was devised by the Mind, and is not some primordial universal truth stumbled over in the course of Man's evolution.

Science is a wonderful tool for the extension of our senses, critical thinking, and physical benefits, but to regard science as "everything" is to assign it a form of religiosity which it certainly does not possess, except perhaps in those minds that regard it as such.

Such minds end up becoming unresponsive to any explanations of reality that do not involve the "scientific method", and just like those who "have all the answers", they stop learning, not so much in the textbook accumulation of scientific facts, but in the critical thinking and vision that I thought science was supposed to encourage.

Macky, Auckland
August 24, 2015 2:14am

Skeptoid heads this article with the statement "There is perhaps no more importance task before us than teaching critical thinking to young people."

I totally agree.

There are posters to Skeptoid who are quite obviously well-qualified scientists who carry out their jobs competently. Their ability to absorb the necessary facts of their calling and pass exams is unquestioned, and commendable in its own right.

But outside of their professions, either in spite of (or because) of they channeling their minds for years down the required subjects for their academic achievement, they appear to have lost a great deal of their critical thinking ability (maybe they never had it) and there are numerous instances of that displayed in their posts on Skeptoid.

In addition, those that are not scientist posters have continued to make assertions that there is simply no evidence for, whatsoever, demonstrating not only a lack of critical thinking, but a desire not to even try using said faculty.

The bulk of mankind moves on Belief, not Logic (a tool of critical thinking).
Belief has caused untold grief and misery in this world, whole nations going to war based on unevidenced stories put out by the war-mongers and/or beliefs that one group of people are superior to all others, whether religiously, racially, or politically.

The only defense the ordinary citizen has against criminal exploitation of unevidenced belief is critical thinking, noticeable by its absence on Skeptoid among many.

Macky, Auckland
August 29, 2015 2:21pm

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