The subject of critical thinking is important. It’s important enough that it drives all of science and discovery and has given our modern culture great power and ability. Everything we have that makes our life easier and better: our technology, our system of government, our entire way of life, is founded on good critical thinking that was and is done by very smart people. It’s important that we have a clear understanding of what critical thinking is, but it’s also important that we show what it’s not. Just because someone says they are a critical thinker doesn’t mean they are. This is a label that actually means something. So let’s talk about this.
What do all of these things have in common:
- Global conspiracy theories
- Anti-vaccination movement
- Climate change denial
- Holocaust denial
- Flat Earth theory
All of these groups, and unfortunately many others, all believe that they are being enlightened and intelligent critical thinkers. Unfortunately, the truth is the exact opposite. To call anyone who goes in for this kind of nonsense as a critical thinker is a misnomer.
Critical thinking is using rational thought and logic to analyze information and make reasonable decisions or conclusions based on facts and evidence. Being critical is also sometimes described as discerning, analytical, diagnostic, exacting, particular, open minded, informed by evidence and disciplined.
Skepticism is popularly thought to be the idea that you doubt the truth of something and is also sometimes described as cynicism, distrust, mistrust, aporetic, suspicion, incredulity, pessimism, defeatism, dubiety, apprehension, nullifidian, disbelief, hesitation, pyrrhonic, inconvincible, ephectic, reluctance, dubiousness, faithlessness, questioning, having qualms, wary, misgiving, mistrustful, wavering, vacilation or lack of confidence. But let’s take an even closer look at this because there are too many people out there who are under the mistaken idea that they are skeptics and critical thinkers but who should be called what they actually are: denialists.
Denialism is a refusal to accept well-established theory, law or evidence. It is not critical thinking, but people who do this tell themselves and anyone else who will listen that they are just being critical thinkers by questioning the accepted party line. They often describe solid scientific consensus and evidence-based conclusions as a conspiracy they are fighting against, having discovered in their internet research that there is some shadowy cabal working very hard to fool the general public for some nefarious reason.
A more precise definition was provided by Mark Hoffnagle on his Denialism blog back in 2007: “Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.” His entire blog is actually dedicated to this topic and it’s quite good.
Denialists will not usually refute the entirety of a scientific claim, but will take digs at parts of it, usually the parts they themselves don’t really understand but can counter in some fashion that will emotionally or even financially appeal to others. For example, someone could counter the monumental evidence of global climate change by saying that coal and fossil fuels are vital because they provide jobs for working Americans which we cannot economically do without. In other words, what do you want to do Mr. Climate Change Guy, deny poor coal workers the ability to feed their families? Now people who are pushing for less carbon emissions in our atmosphere are the bad guys because they’re trying to kill people, a claim as blatantly false as saying that you should wash your clothes with mud.
Another cause of this is the fact that we don’t have answers for many of the problems and questions that plague our daily life. Science is not a catchall, one-stop-shop for every problem, but is a process of discovery which has been and will continue to move forward at a frustratingly slow pace. We don’t know what causes autism or how to cure it, why ice is slippery or even fully understand why sleep is necessary. There are lots of very sound and good explanations for some parts of these things, but final and accepted conclusions still elude us. This can be upsetting to people who need answers and they then turn to totally fake pseudoscience and nonsense in desperation. Just because we don’t always know what causes something doesn’t mean we can’t rule some things out.
In a paper called Manufactroversy: The Art of Creating Controversy Where None Existed, University of Washington Professor Leah Ceccarelli wrote:
“First, they skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the American public alike, like free speech, skeptical inquiry, and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy. It is difficult to argue against someone who invokes these values without seeming unscientific or un-American.
“Second, they exploit a tension between the technical and public spheres in … American life. Highly specialized scientific experts can’t spare the time to engage in careful public communication, and are then surprised when the public distrusts, fears, or opposes them.
“Third, today’s sophists exploit a public misconception about what science is. They portray science as a structure of complete consensus built from the steady accumulation of unassailable data. Any dissent by any scientist is then seen as evidence that there’s no consensus, and thus truth must not have been discovered yet.”
A recent video I posted to take a stab at what are perhaps the lowest hanging fruit in the critical thinking world, the Flat Earthers, demonstrates this. People who believe the earth is flat can be kindly described as a group of people who are either scientifically illiterate or horribly undereducated. Now the truth is that some of them are highly educated but refute their own learning because of religious zealotry, mental health issues or both. The comments that appeared within hours of posting my video were an onslaught of personal insults, logical fallacies and very good demonstrations of people who have no clue how physics, gravity and electromagnetism work but who were happy to expound on their ignorance for paragraphs at a time. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has described the problem this way: “A skeptic will question claims, then embrace the evidence. A denier will question claims, then reject the evidence.” He has discussed at length the issues with science education and how schooling is more about reciting facts and dates and pieces of information rather than teaching the more fundamental basis of science: “Science is a way of understanding what is and is not true in the world.” When this understanding is replaced with religious dogma, conspiracy theories, unfounded opinions masquerading as facts or just totally invented ideas, we have a problem. And unfortunately, we are glutted with all of this for many different reasons.
What these folks have proven to me is that it is not the facts that matter, it’s the way we approach the use of facts and our attitude about what is and isn’t true. When we let our personal biases and emotions get the better of our rationality, we can make really bad decisions. What is the most simple and immediate answer? To always question ourselves. To always be open to consider new or different ideas. When engaging in a debate or argument, the purpose is often to win the conversation by proving how we are right and the other person is wrong but winning arguments is not the purpose of critical thinking. That’s a different subject called rhetoric and believe me, winning arguments can be done without having any truth or facts on your side at all.
Physicst Mark Boslough wrote:
“Real skeptics do not cling to absurd conspiracy theories for which there is no evidence, nor do they engage in obfuscation, misrepresentation, data fabrication, smear campaigns, or intimidation tactics. These are the methods of deniers.”
So my message is don’t be that guy or gal. Keep an open mind, maintain a truly skeptical attitude, and don’t be afraid to accept evidence and facts. If you find yourself having to do a lot of mental gymnastics to make something make sense, you probably don’t understand it well enough to even be talking about it yet. Instead, just learn more about it. There’s nothing at all wrong with acknowledging that you simply don’t know something. In fact, that’s the hallmark of good critical thinking.
Thank you for watching.