A Primer on Critical Thinking: A Response to Richard F. Miniter’s “The Great Critical Thinking Dodge”

About a month ago, I landed on a site called American Thinker. I noticed “critical thinking” in the title of an essay by investigative journalist, Richard F. Miniter: “The Great Critical Thinking Dodge”. Because I routinely conduct critical thinking courses in my discipline, my curiosity was piqued. I was disappointed, however, that the essay was more a superficial political attack than a genuine engagement with an interesting topic: critical thinking and the politics of education.

Minter tells us that, for progressive educators, “developing a child’s “critical thinking” skills always seemed to be the excuse for some absurdity in education”. Despite this, he continues, “I had always taken the term to mean an intellectual proficiency which helps one sift through available evidence until arriving at the truth of some matter.” His main complaint is that critical thinking has now been entirely co-opted by the left. In their hands, critical thinking is the “means by which they shut out and shout down a procedure which should be both taught and encouraged in the young: the scientific method.” In the left’s hands, he claims, critical thinking is mere conflict resolution.[1]

The inspiration for Miniter’s derision is a Guardian online article by U.S. Congressman, Bobby Scott, in which the phrase, “critical thinking” is used: “learning in diverse environments improves critical thinking and problem solving.” Miniter thinks that Scott, rather than referencing the benefits of critical thinking skills in the classroom, should have made the claim that black students’ academics improve with white students in the classroom.

Unfortunately, Miniter offers no evidence that the left’s notion of critical thinking is, in fact, enlisted to shut down the scientific method, which, he asserts, is “the way knowledge advances.” The inference, if Miniter were correct, is that critical thinking diverts us away from knowledge, leaving us with the aforementioned conflict resolution. Unfortunately, there are several problems with Miniter’s approach. First, his use of “scientific method” is wildly oversimplified. The literature on what it is to “do” science is vast.[2] Not only that, but it does not occur without critical thinking skills, which demand far more of our intellectual capacities than those required for conflict resolution. Consider, for example, the problem of confirmation bias, the ethics of experimentation,[3] or the history of using male biology as the for certain medical “norms.”[4] Lastly, to claim that the scientific method is the way knowledge advances is to overlook large swaths of what we call knowledge. Two examples illustrate this point: We often claim moral knowledge without believing it has been derived from scientific methodology. There is also an ongoing debate about how much science can teach us about the nature of consciousness.[5] Consequently, his claim about how knowledge advances doesn’t make much sense.
Rather than enumerate and analyze the points in Mr. Miniter’s piece that I believe are problematic, I’m going to offer a bit of historical context and some current academic usage of the term. Like so many concepts we take for granted, “critical thinking” is often used without any real understanding of its origin and meaning, so this primer may prove helpful to a beginning analysis of the concept.

If we think about critical thinking as a general skill that involves sharp reasoning according to logical principles, both experiential and non-experiential, the individual who is an adept critical thinker will be able to distinguish good reasoning from bad. Here’s an example of bad reasoning:

Don’t listen to Mr. Miniter’s claims about critical thinking! After all, he’s one of those narrow-minded, knee-jerk white-privilege-having conservatives who think gay people should have no rights, who think pregnant women should never be allowed the choice to have an abortion, and who think everybody should carry semi-automatic weapons. On top of all that, the only reason Miniter criticizes Rep. Scott is because Scott is black. Conservatives are racist!

Why is this reasoning bad? If you haven’t developed the technical knowledge to identify the ways the reasoning goes wrong, or if you don’t have the analytical sophistication to draw and articulate conceptual distinctions, you’re not likely going to explain your response clearly and exactingly. At best, you might say something like, ‘Just because Miniter is a conservative doesn’t mean he’s a racist.’

In this case, what critical thinking skills allow the critical thinker to do is identify what the argument is and explain why it’s flawed. The argument I made up above goes essentially like this: ‘Since Mr. Miniter is apparently politically conservative, it follows that we should reject what he has to say about critical thinking.’ This reformulation shows the main problem with the reasoning is that it commits an ad hominem, a personal attack. Rather than accurately representing Miniter’s position and then offering relevant reasons to reject it — in other words, mounting a counterargument — I merely point out Mr. Miniter’s social or political affiliations, which I assume but do not prove are bad, and then use those to discredit him and his position. The fact is, however, that what Mr. Miniter claims is true or false irrespective of his affiliations.

Nested within the ad hominem is a straw man. The ad hominem is the main error, but in the enumeration of what a conservative is, which I use to dismiss Miniter’s position, I have wildly distorted what it is to be a conservative. Misrepresenting another’s position — in this case, being a conservative — is a way to set up a dismissal of that position. A more obvious straw man would look like this:

Mr. Miniter is a conservative who advocates for limited government. Of course, conservatives are narrow-minded, racist, knee-jerk white-privilege-having Bible-thumpers who think gay people should have no rights, who think pregnant women should never be allowed the choice to have an abortion, and who think everybody should carry semi-automatic weapons.

These are examples of egregious reasoning. Of course, because they’re all too common, if we don’t know how to deal with them, we will be hamstrung, unable to participate in, and elevate discourse essential to our civic and other responsibilities. Worse yet, we may fall prey to them. Just consider how attractive it is, how good it feels, to hear someone else voicing ideas we already believe. If I feel animosity toward a political group, stoking the flames of that feeling using the tactics employed in the examples above just confirm me in my bias. That, just as much as the fallacies deployed, is antithetical to critical thinking.

Part of what I take Rep. Scott to claim about critical thinking is that we’re essentially forced into it when we are around people different from us. When people from different backgrounds interact with each other, they’re forced to consider ideas outside the scope of their daily experiences. Indeed, confrontation with another mind typically forces us outside our comfort zone. One of the reasons why it’s good for students to be in a diverse environment early on is that it teaches them how to think about and engage with points of view that are different from their own, life experiences that are different from their own, and so on. This certainly happens at some level in a homogenous environment — it is part of the socialization process in education — but that same homogeneity breeds its own set of presumptions. Simple confirmation of your own view, by way of being around those who are like you, does not help you to develop the most robust position you can have. Being challenged, investigating and examining what you think, does.

So just what is this thing called critical thinking, and where did it come from? Chronologically, it started with the first philosophers, individuals like Thales, who observed and contemplated nature, then concluded everything was fundamentally water. It started with Confucius, whose theorizing ranged over education, morality, politics, and more, preserving, clarifying, or upending traditional beliefs. These and other thinkers wanted to understand the universe and our place in it, critique social structures or analyze the nature of virtue — in short, they were developing revolutionary ideas —often dangerous ones — that threatened the status quo.

An exemplar of the practice was Socrates — so much so that it got him killed. He exhibits a unique question and answer method of examining ethical concepts and claims. For example, a self-professed theologian named Euthyphro[6] claims to know what piety or holiness is. Like almost every other interlocutor, Euthyphro soon finds that he cannot clearly and coherently explain what he so cavalierly claimed to know. He becomes confused and frustrated, and in the end, he abandons the conversation. Indeed, the dialectical process is a painful one, but because it trains us to be better critical thinkers, it is worth submitting ourselves to it. As Socrates so famously declares, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”[7]

The Socratic dialectic is a particular type of dialogue in which the purpose of question and answer is to uncover knowledge. It is a maieutic process, or ‘midwifery’ — Socrates referred to it as such himself[8] — because it is a process of question and answer in which the interlocutor ‘gives birth’ to ideas with the help of his partner, the midwife.

In what does midwifery consist? Just what are these ‘labor pains’ through which an individual goes to ‘give birth’ to ideas? Midwifery most often consists of elenchus, which is cross-examination for the purpose of refutation. It has a negative aspect to it, its first phase, but if successful, it leads to a second, positive, phase of dialectic, psychagogia, or soul leading.

The method roots our false opinions to clear the ground for truth — it is important, therefore, for the participants to engage in sincere discourse, so that false and true opinions can be expressed and discerned. Socrates begins with a preliminary question, the answer to which is examined and found wanting, either in completeness or truth. By virtue of elenchus the individual is thrown into a state of confusion, or aporia. This confusion is brought on by the individual becoming aware that he holds conflicting opinions, that his accounts are wanting. He also, however, has no conceptual principles to sort out which ideas should remain and which should be jettisoned. The willing individual is led out of this confusion by psychagogia, and on to knowledge. Unfortunately, Socrates’ interlocutors become frustrated and angry with him, leaving the conversation, as Euthyphro does, before ‘soul leading’ can take place.

What we see in Socratic method is a process of disentangling concepts, finding threads that provide a solid line of reasoning, and the expectation that we will work through our own emotional responses to being wrong. This dovetails nicely with at least some of what “critical” has meant over the years. A cursory etymology[9] might give us a useful way of thinking about the significance of the term in what we call the critical thinking process.

Kritichos is the transliteration from the Ancient Greek word we now know as “critical.” Verbs such as ‘to separate,’ ‘discern,’ ‘distinguish,’ ‘pick out,’ ‘choose,’ ‘decide,’ ‘judge,’ ‘estimate,’ ‘bring to trial,’ and ‘accuse’ are associated with it. Nouns such as ‘judgment,’ ‘standard,’ ‘criterion,’ and tribunal also derive therefrom.[10] All are variants of chrino, a term associated with, or originating in medicine. Here, the connotative emphasis is on the decisive moment, or turning point distinct from others in the way that it determines what happens next.[11] Both Plato and Aristotle extend this notion to include ‘purge’ and ‘catharsis,’ which later also enter into religious discourse. Aristotle also develops judging and judgment, as related to knowledge, in terms of sensual, imaginative, and intellectual capacities.

Speaking of Aristotle, it was he who first codified a system of logic that is the foundation of critical thinking, one that held sway for centuries.[12] Aristotle built his system from belief that empirical observation is the best starting point for reflection. That reflection, in turn, enlists a method that Aristotle thinks will unify our knowledge of the world into a coherent system. Aristotle’s logic, which involves rules for correct reasoning, becomes the instrument whereby this knowledge is achieved. He also provides us with an analysis of fallacious reasoning, that is, erroneous reasoning, such as those provided in the examples above.

An example may help flesh out what the basics of Aristotle’s logic looks like. First, I may make the following inference from observing multiple instances of four-legged, pad-footed, hairy canines that go, “woof”: All dogs bark. Now suppose I have the further claim, made from additional observations, that no dogs go “meow.” I conclude from these two claims that no meowing things are barking things. Formally, the reasoning looks like this:

All dogs are barking things.

No dogs are things that meow.

No things that meow are barking things.

The next step in the process is to determine if the first two propositions (the premises) guarantee the third proposition (the conclusion). You might think it’s an obvious yes. After all, the premises are true and the conclusion is true. Cats don’t bark and dogs don’t meow. Unfortunately, however, you are not correct — at least so far as the relationship between the premises and the conclusion go. In other words, you’re correct that we accept the premises and the conclusion are true, but you’re incorrect if you think the conclusion must be true, that is, that it’s guaranteed by the premises. Here’s the same form of the argument above, but with different content:

All iPhones are smart phones.

No iPhones are Androids.

No Androids are smart phones.

Notice that the premises are true, but the conclusion is false. That counterexample shows us that the reasoning from premises to conclusion is flawed in some way. We see, then, that the form of the dogs and cats argument won’t let us infer the conclusion. Here’s one more example of the same form with different content:

All oranges are fruits.

No oranges are apples.

No apples are fruits.

When we study logic, we learn, among other things, techniques for evaluating arguments. This is part of the larger critical thinking picture.

In my discipline, philosophy, critical thinking courses cover concepts and topics like argument, induction, deduction, strength and weakness, validity and invalidity, categorical logic, propositional logic and natural deduction, causal and scientific reasoning, analogical reasoning, and fallacies. There are critical thinking courses in other disciplines, and those may include some of what we do in philosophy.

Whatever we do — be it chemistry, electrical engineering, public policy, jury duty, medical research, paying taxes – we involve ourselves in processes of reasoning. We need to know when we should suspend judgment, when we have drawn a suspect inference, or when our assumptions blind us to our biases. Consequently, it’s not accurate to say that critical thinking is “just conflict resolution.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with conflict resolution skills, but as mentioned earlier, critical thinking is broader than that, and it demands much more of our intellectual capacities than problem solving.

Regardless of our political affiliations, religious beliefs, social or economic status, and the like, we all share one thing: our rationality. We can commit ourselves to developing that rationality by developing the critical thinking skills that will aid us make better judgments in all aspects of our lives, from whether or not the latest “scientific” study was a good one or not to whether or not we should choose cancer treatment A over cancer treatment B.

Absent our critical thinking skills, we won’t make good use of the scientific method, which is a term for systematic techniques for learning from sense-experience. Of course, that oversimplification leaves out important details, such as the role of hypothesis development, experimentation, redundancy or reproducibility, and so forth. It is worth pointing out, however, that all this assumes we already know what science is, and whether or not our values and biases alter the picture that emerges from employing the method.

This is not to say that there’s something wrong with science — the gains made in human well being and knowledge are evidence enough that this practice of developing knowledge is enormously successful. The point is more that the history of the scientific method dates back to Aristotle, and includes all sorts of discussions and disagreements. To suggest, as Mr. Miniter does, that it’s antithetical to critical thinking and that it’s somehow a monolithic activity inexorably making progress, is inaccurate. Critical thinking is involved in scientific activities, and must also be used to evaluate their results. That’s how we got to the moon — and got home safely.

[1] This is a befuddling set of claims that Miniter should take time to analyze, but does not.

[2] Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an accessible overview of what we call the scientific method: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-method/.

[3] See, for example, http://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/resources/bioethics/timeline/.

[4] See, for example, https://genderedinnovations.stanford.edu/methods/standards.html.

[5] A nice piece on Live Science summarizes the history of the debate: http://www.livescience.com/37056-scientists-and-philosophers-debate-consciousness.html.

[6] Plato, Euthyphro, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Princeton University Press, 1989.

[7] Ibid., Apology (38a). [Editorial note: The numbers and letters immediately to their right are known as Stephanus numbers. They’re in almost every translation of Plato’s works as universal pagination, so that people with different editions of the text can easily find the same page number.]

[8] Ibid., Theatetus (150b-d).

[9] Tonelli, Anthony, “ “Critique” and Related Terms Prior to Kant: A Historical Survey”, Kant-Studien, Volume 69, Issue1-4, pp.119–148. 1978.

[10] I borrow here both from Tonelli (p. 120) and Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, and Sir Henry Stuart Jones, Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: 1968). (Under kritikos, p. 997).

[11] In order to show the pervasiveness of the connotation, Tonelli traces the concept across a number of languages that derive this meaning and use of, e.g., ‘critical’ from the Greek.

[12] For the sake of some claims Mr. Miniter makes about scientific method, it’s worth noting that Aristotle is also our first proto-scientist.

Author: girlzillawrites

I am a philosophy professor and writer with a diverse set of research interests. My favorite courses to conduct are all introductory: critical thinking, symbolic logic, ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and ethics. My philosophical loves are Kant and Kierkegaard, but I happen to be smitten pretty much with whoever I'm reading at the moment.

What do you think?