Critical Thinking: Restoring the Ancient Art of Scientific Understanding

Donald NorfolkAnyone but a total idiot can amass facts. That’s a task that can be carried out today by everyone with access to data retrieval websites like Google and Wikipedia. What the modern world lacks, and urgently needs, is people with the nous to make creative use of this massive data base of un-coordinated knowledge. Man is superior to other animals, not simply because he has a larger brain, but more particularly because his brain has infinitely more synaptic links. An ape can create simple tools. It can bang a gourd to create a ringing sound; use a stone to crack a nut, and wield a stick to fish out honey from a bee hive. But it hasn’t the intelligence to create a primitive musical instrument by beating the gourd with a hammer made by attaching the stone to the stick. It needs a human to contemplate such an imaginative leap. This was done by Johannes Gutenberg, in the middle of fifteenth century, when he realised that he could create an automatic printing press by adapting two existing technologies, the carved blocks utilized to print textiles and the presses used to express fruit juices.

Nowadays the world is full of knowledge handlers, but woefully short of people like Gutenberg who have the vision to make 1 1 make more than two. Diligent reading and studying alone are not enough. In fact the random gathering of facts can often confuse, rather than clarify, our thoughts. We need to question the accuracy of the data bombardment to which we’re constantly being subjected, which comes from spin doctors and snake oil salesmen as well as relatively unbiased academic sources. We must analyse its significance and decide how it relates to our existing concepts and ideas before we can bring it alive and turn it into a meaningful whole. What’s the point of learning by rote a series of letters like G-A-E-I-N-M-N, unless we recognize that they are an anagram for ‘meaning’?

Until relatively recent times, critical thinking was a key part of the training of every   child. Nowadays it’s either ignored or actively discouraged. The prime objective of education today is to teach facts, chiefly those laid down in the national curriculum. One British teacher recently gave a revealing account of this humiliating process. ‘If there is a box for it, it must be ticked and if something doesn’t have a box, it’s ignored,’ When she challenged one inspector on a contentious point, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said that his job was ‘to follow the rules and tick the boxes.’ In my review of this report I commented: ‘This approach is incompatible with the true process of education, which is less the force feeding of children with a catechism of facts and figures than a drawing out of their individual potential…. Every child is unique. They develop at different rates and have their own talents, strengths and weaknesses. They can’t be pigeon holed and turned out on a conveyor belt like sausage rolls. Lessons, likewise, can’t be formalised, otherwise children might just as well stay at home and be tutored by a correspondence course.’

Some teachers have allowed themselves to become enslaved by this regimented process of education, which is designed to meet the government’s performance targets, rather than bring out the best in the children under their care. They know that bureaucrats feed on figures, culled from examination results, pass marks, grades and IQ scores, so that is what they supply. In the words of one browbeaten chemistry master ‘we teach for results. I want the passes, the scholarships, and all those things. Tests all the time, and scrub the teaching methods, forget about the educational side.’ When pupils ask questions which raise interesting issues, but might take some while to answer, he ignores them, knowing that he must get on with the set curriculum. But advancement in life is not closely related to IQ scores or the results of SAT tests. George W. Bush had an IQ of over 120, which puts him in the top ten per cent of the population of the Western world. But he wasn’t good at joined-up thinking. Even one of his loyal aides said he was glib, incurious and ‘as a result ill-informed’. Egg-heads may have wonderfully retentive memories, yet lack the essential skill of critical, analytical thinking. This was shown when a survey was carried out of members of the Canadian branch of Mensa, a select club which admits only individuals who have an IQ in the top two per cent of the world’s population. The results showed that forty-four per cent of these ‘intelligent’ beings believed in the accuracy of astrological predictions and fifty-six per cent in the existence of aliens from outer space.

High IQ scores don’t protect us from folly. On the other hand, there is clear evidence that the greater our powers of critical thinking, the more accurately we perceive the real world, and the more successful we are in tackling the problems of every day life. This was demonstrated by research carried out at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, which revealed that adolescents who score high on ‘decision making competence’ are less prone to take drugs, drink to excess, or engage in acts of risky behaviour. A parallel study of 360 Pittsburgh adults revealed that regardless of their IQ scores, those who displayed better ‘rational-thinking’ skills suffered significantly fewer negative events in their lives, such as being in serious credit card debt, having an unplanned pregnancy or being suspended from school. To cite a further example of the futility of IQ tests, one reader of New Scientist magazine reported that when he left university in 1965 his IQ was in the lowest quarter in his year. Despite this low-grading, he started working for the General Electric Company and within his first ten years had been credited with more than ten international patents, and a further twenty over the next decade.

Anyone can develop the skills of critical thinking, a talent which must be returned to the school curriculum. To begin with we must accept the twin axioms of Socrates: the first of which is to recognize our own ignorance, the second to accept his famous declaration that a ‘life without examination is not worth living.’  We must be prepared to question, not only everything we’re told, but also every belief we currently hold. This is best done, when time permits, by using the dialectic process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. This is a scheme of analytical thinking developed by Johann Fichte, the eighteenth century German philosopher who believed that we should make a clear distinction between ‘things in themselves’ (nouema) and ‘things as they appear to us.’ (phenomena). To arrive at the truth, we must first advance a concept; then challenge it by proposing its diametrical opposite, and finally arise at a conclusion based on our critical analysis of the contrasting views. This is the classical method taught in law schools, where students are ask to stand up in class and state a particular case. When they’ve finished their presentation, the teacher, or another student, will act as devil’s advocate and argue the opposite view. This forces the student to defend, and possibly rethink, their arguments. A similar process is followed by doctors in general practice. Here the length of a consultation is frequently limited to a few minutes. The GP lacks the time to take a detailed case history, carry out a thorough examination and perform exploratory tests, which can take an hour or more. Instead he makes a preliminary diagnosis based on his experience and gut reactions. Generally the patient recovers, if only because of the passage of time and the inherent power of the vis medicatrix naturae. If not, he returns to his doctor, who now has time to reconsider his initial judgement.

Knowledge workers, whether they’re doctors, lawyers, scientists or engineers, need to have wisdom as well as factual information. There’s a vast difference between content knowledge and process knowledge. We need to have independent minds and be capable of making a coherent whole of the plethora of information that comes our way. This was one of the prime gifs of Henry Kissinger, which raised him head and shoulders among his fellow international diplomats. When Kissinger was at Harvard University, his roommates recalled that he would start each day by reading the New York Times and Boston Globe. This he did in a critical manner, occasionally giving vent to angry shouts when he disagreed vehemently with the arguments expressed. ‘He said he had to form his own opinions, not those of the editors,’ one of his friends reported later. The beliefs we hold must be ours, otherwise they are valueless. This was stressed by Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, who provided a graphic analogy: ‘A truth which has merely been learnt adheres to us only as an artificial limb …. But a truth won by thinking for ourselves is like a natural limb: it alone really belongs to us. This is what determines the difference between a thinker and a mere scholar.’

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has offered further advice on developing the power of critical thinking. ‘As an exercise take one of your strongly held opinions, and challenge it. Spend a week, or better a month, researching it. You may find that you were mistaken. And if it turns out you were right, then so much the better.’ Every time we pick up a non-fiction book we should ask ourselves what we already know about the subject. What do we expect, or hope, to learn?  Since life is short, and the annual output of published books continually increasing, we must guard our time and become highly selective in our reading. Once we’ve read a book’s introduction and its concluding pages we should make a decision whether to read it in full; skim through to extract its salient points, or put it in the discard pile so we can move on to works with greater promise.  As we delve into the text, we should reinforce our understanding by making notes and list of questions that need answering. Many of my friends make these notes in the book itself, which as an author I consider an act of unmitigated sacrilege. As an aide memoir, once you’ve finished reading the book, it helps to summarise its content in three sentences and then discuss one or two of its key points with your friends. One of the greatest mistakes of all is to contend that ‘facts speak for themselves.’  They don’t. We’re creatures of habit and long for consistency and order, which means that anything which disturbs

that harmony meets with our instinctive opposition. We don’t like it when ‘our beautiful theories are killed by nasty, ugly facts.’

Another major enemy of critical thinking is the fragmentary nature of our lives. This point was powerfully made by Nicholas Carr is his recently published book ‘The Shallows’  In this he argues that modern technology – mobile phones, text messages, multi-tasking and TV channel browsing – is leading to cognitive overload. We are unable to concentrate for any length of time. Yet we need to focus our attention, for this is the only way we can transmit information into our long-term memories and activate the mental processes that give rise to creative and conceptual thinking. As Carr warns, ‘if you are suffering from perpetual cognitive overload, you’re not going to engage in deeper, more critical modes of thinking.’ Further problems arise when we ‘anchor’ our judgements, and ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit in with our cherished, long-term beliefs.  This is a major failure of politicians, who find it difficult to make decisions based on evidence rather than on ideologies, hopes and political agendas. This was demonstrated in the case of Professor David Nutt, the Chairman of the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs. He was supposed to be leading an independent advisory body, but was sacked because he didn’t give the government the scientific backing they wanted, to support their decision to reclassify ecstasy to show the electorate that they were taking a tougher stand on the use of recreational drug. Professor Nutt had fallen from favour because he had written an editorial in a peer-reviewed medical journal providing evidence to show that horse riding was more dangerous than taking ecstasy. That was not what the government wanted to hear. To make matters worse, he then wrote an article in the Lancet showing that cannabis, LSD and ecstasy were less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.  This put him beyond the pale, a risk that scientists face if they provide evidence to contradict the theory of man-made climate change. They also stand to have their research funding cut. Politicians are rarely critical thinkers, but somehow they must be urged in future to generate ‘evidence based policy’, rather than find biddable boffins willing to provide them with ‘policy-congruent evidence’.

To promote the development of the human world community we must foster the skills of critical thinking. We must be like ‘Bill’ Hamilton, the world famous evolutionary biologist, of whom it was said at his memorial service that: ‘While the rest of us think in single notes, he thought in chords.’

Copyright Donald Norfolk 2010

Print This Post