Critical Thinking for Optimists

When I was an undergraduate student at Florida Atlantic University, I remember being told by my instructors that they were going to try to develop my critical thinking skills. The concept was an abstraction to me. Actually, I’m one of those people who really doesn’t get a concept until I’m given an example. So I really didn’t get what critical thinking was for a long time. And by the time I got it, it turns out I’d already been doing it for awhile.

Initially, I thought that analyzing something critically meant being critical about it. Since I am in general a polite person (more so when I was younger), I wondered if I’d be able to manage doing critical analysis. What if I didn’t have anything negative to say? I was doing mostly film analysis at the time, and I really liked movies. So I felt particularly stymied by the idea that I had to find something critical to say about what I was watching.

When I started teaching, I realized that many of my own students were making the same mistake I had made and even taking it a step further. They were hyper-critical to the point of being cynical about practically everything. Cynicism is too often passed off as intellect. When students are trying to impress, they think that the best way to proceed is to say something cynical: “Well, I don’t believe anything I read on the Internet.”

Really? You don’t believe anything posted online? Well, how fruitless is that! Do you really mean that after determining that the source of the information you have been given is a valid source and after confirming the information with a few other reliable sources, you still don’t believe it?

The cynical approach is not critical thinking. A cynic doesn’t evaluate anything; he simply rejects everything out of hand.

Critics of ideology in the media (here, see Frankfurt School as one example) warn us that the masses are made gullible, spoon fed “facts” by the mass media to make them more politically malleable and docile. Critical thinking lies somewhere between this gullibility of the masses and the knee-jerk mistrust characterized by the cynic.

Critical thinking is neither about receiving information as it’s given nor about rejecting it out of hand. It’s fundamentally about asking questions in order to evaluate what you are being told or shown. At the end of the critical process, you will hopefully wind up knowing something more than when you started, perhaps even something emancipatory and enlightening.

Learning always begins by asking questions:

  • Who are the sources of this information? (i.e., political leaders, academics, corporate magnates, alternative media producers, insurgents?)
  • Who gets to count as a valid source for this kind of information? (e.g., a government official but not a political dissident?)
  • Why is this considered valuable information? (e.g., is it of value to individuals or only to politicians in a position to implement macro-economic policies)
  • Why does it matter? (For example, does it matter if such and such a senator is gay?)
  • Why is it presented in this way? (e.g., if it’s a news item that is sentimentalized, are we being manipulated?)
  • Why were these terms used to describe it and not some other terms? (e.g., how does “pro-abortion” differ from “pro-choice”)
  • What other sorts of questions could I pose here? (am I raising only methodological questions to the exclusion of epistemological and even ontological questions?)
  • What if I looked at this from a different perspective? (e.g., are “objective” test questions really objective if we consider how minority students from different ethnic cultures interpret those questions?)
  • Why was this study conducted this way? (e.g., as a quantitative survey instead of a qualitative analysis based on interviews)
  • Why does this study include only this date range and would we get different results with a more inclusive set of data?

An example of the last question is provided by Justin Wolfers’ March 2011 Freakonomics blog, which critically analyzes a scatter plot as a form of “advocacy science.” Wolfers shows that the dates used by John Taylor to demonstrate correlation between unemployment and investment are selective and that very different results (in fact, no statistically significant correlation at all) are given when all the available data are plotted. What I love about this example is how something as ostensibly self evident as quantitative analysis is shown to be skewed as a simple function of the scope of one’s sample. As Wolfers warns, “Be wary of economists wielding short samples.”

This also reminds me of a joke my professor for a course on research methodologies told me when I was an M.A. student at FAU: Two statisticians were off hunting and spotted a deer. One fired and missed the deer 20 feet to the left. The other fired and missed the deer 20 feet to the right. And then they both looked at each other and yelled, “We got him!” (The moral: stats are seldom on target. Their truth claims are based on mathematical principles that may not adequately reflect real-life circumstances.)

Okay, so what does all of this mean for critical thinking? It means that we also need to ask about how data is gathered and presented. “Facts” are not these things that are just out there waiting to be discovered. “Facts” are constructed. How do we know that this is a fact? What makes it a fact? These are fundamentally critical questions. The point is not to ask questions endlessly, of course, but to ask at least some relevant questions before accepting or rejecting the thing you are analyzing.

It also helps to know when to ask questions and who to ask. For me, the time to start asking is when we’re told we shouldn’t ask questions. This is where it gets tricky in relating critical thinking to politics. For example, for some people, demanding your leaders explain why we’re at war is considered unpatriotic.

Patriotism: now there’s a term that needs to be unpacked and subjected to a little critical analysis. Have at it.

One Response to Critical Thinking for Optimists

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright 2017 -, Diana Saco and Saco Media LLC. All rights reserved.