What Happened to Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is pursuing real facts and realistically interpreting them -- not turning them over to those who profess to be experts or ask to do your thinking for you.

By MICHAEL P. COLLINS, Author, Saving American Manufacturing

Mike Collins ImageToday in America, our economy is on the slide, manufacturing continues to decline, unemployment is over 9 percent, education is not working for everybody, our infrastructure is crumbling and the living standards of the middle class are in a slow decline. At a time when the world’s economic, social and political problems have become very hard to interpret, I see people opting for simple solutions to complex problems, looking for structure where there isn’t structure, lusting after political prophets who offer one-line slogans, and becoming more comfortable with the black-and-white solutions of a polarized nation.

We live in a complex world where problems and issues are difficult to understand, yet decisions and choices must be made. The concept of critical thinking goes back to Socrates, but in 1906, William Graham Sumner said that the idea of critical thinking is “the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance, in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not.” He goes on to say, “Men educated in it cannot be stampeded. They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices.”

It seems to me that this notion of critical thinking (also embraced by educational theorists at the turn of the 20th Century) is really declining in popularity in this new millennium.

Simple Solutions

Have you ever wondered why simplistic solutions are so popular and why politicians continue to offer simple solutions to complex problems, such as:

  1. All we have to do to stop illegal aliens is build a 2,000-mile electric fence.
  2. A flat tax will bring equality to our tax system and eliminate loopholes for the wealthy.
  3. Privatizing social security will give everybody more money and solve long-term problems.

I have come to understand that people are very attracted to simple answers to complex problems because they appeal to the need for certainty. Chance and ambiguity are not acceptable because they complicate understanding the problems. The simple message is even more appealing if it feeds people’s prejudices and superstitions. In this instance, accepting the simple message simply confirms long-held suspicions and beliefs, and reality is automatically distorted.

What I see happening in today’s election debates is that people begin their argument with a conclusion and then make an effort to find the facts and examples that will support the conclusions. The process ends at this point, and testing, peer reviews and negative criticisms are largely ignored.

Conspiracy Theories & Pseudo Science

Conspiracy theories have thrived for centuries. A popular one today is that unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are assumed to be spaceships that can travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Since there is no place worth landing in our solar system, the spaceship must be an interstellar craft from another star system. A Time/Yankelvich poll shows that most people not only believe in UFOs, but 80 percent also believe that the government is covering up UFOs, and has been storing saucers and aliens at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Other popular theories are:

  1. The FBI actually blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City.
  2. The democrats are totally responsible for the 2007 financial crash and Wall Street is innocent.
  3. John F. Kennedy was killed by the CIA.

I have often wondered why conspiracies are so popular with the public. I found a good answer in a Scientific American article written by Thomas Gruter. He says, “One basic answer is that theories promote a simple message. Whatever has happened, there is a single force — usually an evil one — behind it. Humans tend to drastically simplify complicated issues, reducing them to a lone cause whenever possible. This exercise brings order out of chaos; it makes the complex world intelligible, and once a person believes he or she understands how something works, he or she holds fast to that belief. Trust in a secret master plan created by a powerful organization offers simple cause-and-effect relationships that build along linear chains of events. Chance and ambiguity have no role, which is comforting even in the face of sinister forces.”

People are much more willing to accept conspiracy theories when there is general mistrust and a negative outlook on the future. At this point in time in the U.S., a huge majority of citizens are very mistrustful of Congress and government in general. They are also very fearful of what will happen to them in this economy, which adds to the acceptance of conspiracy theories and simplistic answers.


Another trend today is the movement toward polarization or the demand for extreme solutions without compromise. A good example of this is all the conservatives that have signed the Grover Norquist tax pledge to always vote against any programs that require raising taxes. Or on the left, the people who say that no modification or reduction of entitlements should ever be allowed under any circumstances. Taking these kinds of radical positions simply fuels the move toward more polarization, and eliminates any chance for reasonable and fair compromise.

David Brooks, in a recent New York Times article, said that signing “Grover Norquist’s tax pledge isn’t really about public policy: It’s a chastity belt that Republican politicians wear to show they were not defiled by the Washington culture.” This kind of pledge may appeal to their constituency, but it has also brought any chance at solving the country’s problems to near zero, as was evident in the collapse of the Congressional Super Committee.

Critical Thinking

The answer, in my opinion, is some variation of the concept of critical thinking. But I will admit that critical thinking is not easy to do. It is much easier to float through life, making decisions based on how you feel about a problem, and never having to question your assumptions, beliefs or convictions. It is much easier to turn your thinking over to the ever-present reductionists who will supply you with a black-and-white answer to every problem.

It is this attraction to reductionist thinking and the avoidance of the search for truth that makes me uncomfortable. Critical thinking is pursuing the real facts (the real truth of a problem), facing them and then making a realistic interpretation — not turning over the responsibility of digging out and interpreting the truth to those who profess to be the experts or who ask to do your thinking for you. This means not giving in to the urge to subjugate all current problems to simplistic answers, and most of all, not giving into the notion to let your personal feelings, emotions, unquestioning faiths and fear of change dominate your reasoning.

As a model for critical thinking, I like to use the scientific method because it is simply a way of looking at the world as it is, rather then how we would wish it to be. The scientific method is a disciplined way of digging out facts and using a healthy skepticism in analysis.  People create a hypothesis, describe the facts that support the hypothesis, and then publish their findings as conclusions to be peer reviewed by anybody in the world who doesn’t agree.

If you would like to accept the challenge of becoming a better critical thinker, here are some suggestions:

  1. Reject standardized formats on thinking and problem-solving. Many people want to believe that there are quantifiable solutions to every problem. It isn’t true because all events that are dominated by humans are, at best, ambiguous and unpredictable.
  2. Teach yourself to approach problems with multiple perspectives.
  3. View life and all events as relative rather than absolute or universal. Borrow on Einstein’s example.
  4. Try to see the opportunities in change because change is inevitable. You may not be able to embrace it, but you must learn to accept it.
  5. Learn to recognize how your own beliefs and prejudices affect your thinking. Rather than accept a claim that appeals to you emotionally, pursue the facts wherever they may lead.
  6. Have a healthy skepticism for all politicians and/or media messages. Everyone who makes a press release is pushing a viewpoint and putting a spin on a subject that is in their favor. Don’t accept one side of the story. Pay attention to people who offer a hypothesis and then support it with facts that you can investigate.
  7. Try to develop a baloney meter inside your brain. Fantastic claims require fantastic evidence. It is OK (if not necessary) to question fantastic claims and ask for more evidence, and it is OK to not accept a claim that doesn’t make sense.
  8. Our lives are dominated by ambiguity and uncertainty. My own approach to complex problems is to accept that there is seldom a case for complete certainty. There are only varying degrees of uncertainty, and we must continuously search for the highest probability of truth.

We are in the middle of an election, and are faced with unprecedented economic and political problems. Accepting simple solutions to complex problems only postpones a rational answer. But the most important point of this article is that, unless we can make some headway in understanding the real truth of our economic and political problems, we will continue to move toward a society in which irrationalism prevails.

As I see it, the only real path through our 21st Century problems is to pursue truth, face reality and accept compromise. Continuing with our uncompromisingly polarized society is a road back to poverty and economic decline.

Michael P. Collins is the author of the book Saving American Manufacturing. You can find more related articles on his website via www.mpcmgt.com.