/ philosophy

The decline of Critical Thinking

In this opinion piece, I'll define critical thinking as being able to:

  • See things from multiple viewpoints;
  • Accept evidence contradicting your beliefs;
  • Deduce conclusions from the available data
  • Solve problems in a structured manner

I believe that critical thinking a priori can't be taught. Sure, you can teach various methods that are used by successful critical thinkers, such as the "scientific method" of forming hypotheses, designing experiments to prove and disprove them and evaluating the results. However, you will already stumble at the
first step, the forming of hypotheses.

Moreover, arguably the most important step of any method for critical thinking, the step zero, is to know when and which method to apply. This can only be learned through a lifetime of trying.

To form good, valid and (dis-)provable hypotheses, you need to start out with a lot of domain knowledge and background knowledge in general. Without those, you simply can't conceive of alternative options or valid experiments. To be able to see an issue from multiple viewpoints, you need to be able to place yourself into those different viewpoints, which again requires a lot of background knowledge.

There used to be a time where we went to school to be filled up with all kinds of facts and knowledge, but not anymore. There used to be a time where people would read books (fiction and non-fiction are equally useful), but not anymore. There used to be a time where, when you didn't know the answer to some question, people would spend a day at the library researching, or discussing with other people, but not anymore.

It is worrying that in this age, were a virtually infinite amount of information is available at one's fingertips, people seem to be less interested in learning than ever. When you don't know the answer to some question, instead of discussion and research, you type the question into Google and accept the first answer as fact.

While it is wonderful to have so much information available to all, it robs people of two of the pillars of critical thinking: practising methods and building a solid background knowledge. I argue that, while the answer to a question is important, the way to arrive at the answer is equally important.

What is even more worrying is that the instant answer from Google not only "kills" the discussion, it reinforces the misconception that there is only one answer. While this may be the case for simple math problems, it certainly isn't the case for the real interesting problems in life, such as human conflict.

Reinforcing the notion that there is only one right answer can easily lead to the more dangerous notion that my answer is the right one, therefore everyone else is wrong. In other words: "If you are not with us, you're against us."

I have mentioned Google a couple of time now, as if they were the problem. This, however, is not the case. It's an easy example, but the real problem is the ever shortening attention span. Google caters to that, but so does the media in general. I would like to put "social media" at the top of that list.

Think about how many times you've "liked" a post out of some kind of automatism, or because it's "the thing to do"? How many times you've shared or re-shared an article after reading only the title, or at most the first paragraph? How many selfies or food-pics you've shared to show of how awesome you are? And then felt insulted or discouraged because not enough people "liked" it?

Think about the time you spent mindlessly flicking through your smartphone while you were out with friends or family. Think about all the discussions you killed with a "let me Google that". Think about the last time you actually read an article from start to finish? The last time you picked up a book on something you didn't know.

If you've read this post all the way to here, I salute you. You're on the right path! I have but one challenge for you: try to learn something, anything, new each and every day. And help safe humanity by sharing that information. A little less cat-video's, a little more knowledge please.