Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

The Foundation for Critical Thinking has an excellent definition of “Critical Thinking”:

[T]he intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

Note that the above definition is no less accurate when we separate it into two elements:

Element #1:
The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication.

Element #2:
The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing evaluated information as a guide to belief and action.

Element #1 skills, also known as critical evaluation skills, are not usually required to judge the quality or veracity of the information students receive in class; schools and teachers do not deliberately provide students with nonsense or misinformation. Outside the classroom environment, however, the skills reflected in Element #1 are essential to avoid falling for falsehoods and following false prophets.

Element #2 above describes the processes needed to find solutions and patterns in academics and in life. These are the processes used for solving problems in mathematics, grammar, the sciences, daily conundrums, and more. These are also the processes for understanding and developing perspectives in the arts, history, psychology, sociology, other social sciences, and more. Element #2 skills are the processes needed for creating good strategies in sports, games, relationships, and endeavors throughout life. Element #2 is rightly the core of our educational system.

The importance of Element #1 skills – critical evaluation skills – has skyrocketed with the advent of the Internet. The Internet has created “a world where people of all races and creeds and nationalities can share ideas and communicate freely,” but it also disseminates disinformation, falsehoods, unsubstantiated theories, and ludicrous claims more readily than it disseminates truth, facts, and well-founded science. Partly because of the Internet, the majority of our population holds at least one belief that fails to meet a minimum level of evidence. To list a few: astrology, UFOs, homeopathy, QAnon, vital energy, anthropogenic climate change denial, biofields, ghosts, Chakras, Bigfoot, reflexology, Deep State, psychic powers, chemtrails, Illuminati, technology suppression, election fraud, immigrant lawlessness, creationism, etc.

I am positing that:

  1. The majority of adults do not employ the tools of critical evaluation sufficiently to avoid the acceptance of well-crafted falsehoods, myths, and conspiracy theories.
  2. Our secondary schools provide the best opportunity and, in most cases, the last opportunity for people to acquire critical evaluation skills and the desire to use them throughout life.
  3. Secondary school curricula are often praised for their inclusion of “critical thinking skills” even though the skills of critical evaluation [Element #1] are mostly ignored.
  4. By teaching the tools of critical evaluation to secondary students and instilling a desire to use those tools throughout life will result in citizens better able to contribute positively to society.

To become skilled in critical evaluation, it is necessary to become familiar with fallacies, biases, and properties of information sources. Even a simple statement can be the result of fallacious reasoning and a host of biases held by the source of the statement.

Students need to be taught how to:

  • Recognize fallacies in communications
    • straw man
    • appeal to emotion
    • appeal to tradition
    • ad hominem
    • association fallacy
    • (among others)
  • Recognize and evaluate biases in themselves, in the community, and in communications
    • confirmation bias
    • implicit (unconscious) bias
    • availability bias
    • egocentric bias
    • optimism/pessimism biases
    • authority bias
    • political bias
    • (among others)
  • Recognize and evaluate properties of information sources
    • source ownership
    • source affiliations
    • source mission
    • source reputation

There are dozens of distinct fallacies and biases that have been academically identified, but a secondary school syllabus need only cover a representative sampling in priming students to be on the lookout for any and all fallacies and biases.

The syllabus must highlight a diversity of information sources and their properties. Some important sources for students are:

  1. friends
  2. family
  3. teachers
  4. school administration
  5. books
  6. political rhetoric
  7. podcasts
  8. advertising
  9. video games
  10. websites
  11. social media
  12. radio and TV stations
  13. government
  14. news outlets
  15. magazines
  16. newspapers
  17. Wikipedia, and other ‘-pedias.’

Critical evaluation skills along with other critical thinking skills are essential tools for everybody in making real-life choices in the real world. Here is a short list of choices that confront all of us:

  1. diet and health
  2. education
  3. friends
  4. intimacy
  5. organizational affiliations (from street gangs to trade unions)
  6. partners
  7. purchases
  8. sports & recreation
  9. trade/profession
  10. use of drugs
  11. volunteering
  12. voting.

There are powerful institutional realities that work against equipping our students with solid skills in critical evaluation.

  1. Secondary school curricula are already packed with requirements and testing. Finding time to expand the curricula is daunting.
  2. There may be concerns that a population using critical evaluation skills would question – and perhaps threaten – the following cultural norms:
    1. Patriotism – This is true if patriotism is meant to include nationalism and exceptionalism. Patriotism as an expression of duty to protect and improve the nation is not endangered.
    2. Devotion to the local community and local sports teams – This is similar to patriotism but on a local scale.
    3. Religion – A belief in a deity that is active in personal and global affairs may suffer when one applies critical evaluation skills to religious matters. Christian Deism (a form of Christianity held by George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, among other Founding Fathers) is not threatened.
    4. Respect for parental authority – In households with authoritarian attitudes, a teenager using critical evaluation practices could experience punishment. Awareness and counseling by instructors are important.
    5. Respect for civic authority – Democracy requires the ceding of certain regulatory powers to civic authorities over individuals, organizations, and commerce. It is the duty of the governed to examine, define, and refine the nature and extent of those powers through democratic processes – of which peaceful protests sometimes play a role. The whole panoply of critical thinking is important throughout this arena.
    6. Hierarchical standards – Social movements have struggled to diminish attitudes of status and privilege based on sex, skin color, native language, immigration standing, wealth, and many other conditions. Status conferred by education, profession, governmental standing, and other earned measures are not threatened.
    7. Miscellaneous idiosyncratic protected interests and sacred cows – These exist in families, organizations, communities, regions, and nations. They can be as harmless as showing calm respect for an ancestor or as insidious as acquiescing to gangs extracting ‘protection money.’

In considering “cultural norms,” it is prudent to point out that critical thinking is “a guide to belief and action,” not a mandate for belief and action.

Parents: Ask your school system whether they are adequately teaching the critical evaluation skills outlined here. ¿Are they adequately inspiring students to employ those skills throughout life? As a minimum, consider this the process of inoculating our future citizenry against repeatedly making poor life choices, accepting falsehoods, falling into rabbit holes of conspiracy theories, and blindly following autocratic leaders.

Education Professionals: Step up. There is little that can be done for the gullible who have completed their formal schooling, but seize the opportunity now to create a better future. Consider this endeavor essential and patriotic.


Photograph courtesy of Tyler Merbler

Many thanks to Dr. Eugenie Scott for her assistance with this article.

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