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Critical Thinking: My Friend, My Enemy, Myself

by Brian Dunning

August 3, 2015

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Donate 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.

by Brian Dunning

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