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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

On Critical Thinking (Again!)

It the age of social media the virtue of critical thinking--and I mean here questioning not just others but our own beliefs and convictions--often takes second place to the echo chambers built into Google searches, Facebook news threads, YouTube video choices, that give us back only what we want to hear.

Moreover, the gradual under-funding and diminishment of philosophy departments and courses for the sake of what is “practical”, “efficient” or apparently more financially rewarding, reflects a crass utilitarianism in perfect step with the kind of short-sighted thinking and myopia of financial executives, stock shareholders and hedge-fund managers. But it is entirely detrimental to human freedom and democracy. That is most especially true in the present day where polarized opinions rather than reasoned debate proliferates.

It is true: critical reasoning and questioning are disruptive, disturbing and troublesome to those who want to teach conformity and compliance with existing ideas, traditions, prejudices or rules. Our high schools prize narrow standardized testing and rote vocational training above critical thinking and argumentative, rhetorical and debating skills. And, in the work world, employers don’t want employees asking uncomfortable questions or examining existing institutional structures or company assumptions. They want employees to serve the system. Those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority are rewarded. The rebellious, the questioners, the artists and independent thinkers are weeded out often because they think across or against the grain of what is considered 'normal'.

The problem is that when such thinking is absent in society, rather unattractive consequences can follow. The great political philosopher Hannah Arendt has rightly said that “the greatest evil perpetrated is the evil committed by nobodies…by human beings who refuse to be thinking persons.” In dark times critical reasoning is essential. It is, one might say, critical! It is not something you learn like you might learn a passage from Shakespeare, by rote memory; or the kind of intellectual skill that allows you to suddenly grasp a scientific theory or mathematical formula. Rather, critical reasoning is something that is practiced over time. It takes patience, perseverance and exposure to all kinds of different perspectives and points of view—to both good and bad arguments--in order to develop precision in articulation and clarity in thinking.

The problem is that the internet and social media overwhelm our ability to thoughtfully interact online, and instead encourage the dissemination of half-truths, unverified fact-free opinions and truly bad argument. There is no shortage of superficial messaging, emoji's, shrill and caustic rejoinders, snide comments and dismissals on any given FB thread. Rather than encouraging us to critically question powerful interests, Facebook continuously nudges us toward shallow, happy thoughts that can be easily converted into advertising dollars. Instead of actual news about what is happening on the ground around the world, we are given click-bait. Instead of meaningful, perceptive analysis and argument we are inundated with useless data, propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, outright lies, and specious argumentation.

This applies, as well, to what is thought of as more serious journalism and so-called 'expert opinion'. Most of us don’t recognize the faulty premises, the skewed logic or the conclusion that does not follow—and when we do suspect something has gone wonky we cannot really put our finger on what precisely it is because this is a skill many of us just are no longer schooled in. It is not a core educational requirement like learning to read and write. It used to be--and should be again.

However, a lack of critical capacity can be corrected even later in life. We can, with guidance, become more adept at distinguishing the lousy argument from the good one, more capable of discriminating between lies and truth, fiction and reality. A critical questioning mindset involves looking at facts on the ground and weighing evidence, looking for bias, questioning assumptions, searching for hidden premises, ferreting out ambiguities and fallacies and asking 'in whose interest' is this argument, idea, policy, program, initiative, proposal.

In a critical and democratic culture, reasoning skills are highly valued because they bolster and sediment the idea that in a free society we are obliged to question the powerful, whoever they may be, and track the negative effects and consequences of powerful institutions and private corporations. Indeed, critical thinking is the foundation of a flourishing democracy, and the condition of possibility for human freedom.

So why does it appear to be less and less valued in our own present world? Without verging too deeply into psychology or neuro-physiology, it is clear that the human brain is vulnerable to all sorts of distraction and emotion-based propaganda. Powerful corporations and individuals use image and emotion to influence and manipulate us into thinking or perceiving the world in particular ways. It need not be outright and it may even riff of some small point of truth. In the world of social media these messages are often subtle, hidden and subliminal, wending their way through our thought process, hacking and rewiring our brains, validating prejudices, affirming conspiracies, and spiking dopamine levels by supplying us with easy answers and gratifications. All of this is anathema to genuine thinking and reasoning which is always challenging and requires close careful readings and sustained attention.

But it is not just overt forms of messaging and propaganda we need be wary of: when something is said in print, on television or an internet news site we often accept it because it has a certain aura of truth and authenticity in virtue of it being in the newspaper, on television or 'shared' by numerous individuals. News and social media present us with opinions that appear intrinsically true because they issue from powerful figures. Without cultivating a critical capacity we easily become unquestioning and deferential to these opinions, whether they derive from politicians, scientists, newspaper columnists or celebrities.

Prejudice, distorted perspectives run deep--often to the core of who we are. Sometimes there just IS no persuading those who adamantly refuse to ever question their own beliefs or convictions. At that point, there is a clash of fundamental perspectives that neither the citation of empirical facts nor the best argument will be able to settle. Against deep-seated hatred, thoughtless prejudice and wretched stupidity reasoning provides no cure. However, I suspect that most of us do, in fact, value sound reasoning, want to extend the democratic impulse, and do not wish to contribute to polarizing perspectives or engage in vicious or perverse invective. Aside from being rather pointless, getting involved in a vitriolic and vacuous tit for tat verbal exchange is exhausting, disturbing and psychically harmful to oneself and others.

However, for those who participate in argument and respectful dialogue, reason is a great leveler. The first lesson in a critical reasoning philosophy class is that bad arguments do not become good arguments because they issue from experts, Presidents or Prime Ministers. Fallacies do not cease being fallacies because some important, famous or powerful person does not want them to be.

In the end the development of critical reasoning skills is a defense against the aura and abuse of power—they help us to become less vulnerable to various forms of propaganda, and enable us to counter distortions of fact, truth and reality. In the end, they are not just essential for evaluating ideas, theories, beliefs, convictions and opinions, but truly indispensable if we value human freedom and the democratic impulse--an impulse that can be easily overwhelmed by fascist and authoritarian ideas and proposals.

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