What is ‘critical thinking’?

Last year, in a piece in Academe magazine, a professor of English at the American University in Rome wrote, “What they teach in the hard sciences might be useful, but for real critical thinking, you have to go to the liberal arts”.

Here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_8n0gLmL9M ), we have another English professor. His premise is that universities can generate better ideas and students by eliminating critical thinking, replacing “Yes, but…” with “Yes, and …”

The core of the problem is the different sematic content in the word ‘critical’. To the artistic mind, this means attacking the idea presented, under the assumption that the best argument is the correct one. To the scientific process, it means determining which idea fits the available date better. In theory, the latter is emotionless, although the eventual results can be viewed in the light of aesthetics.

The basic problem with the former way of problem-solving is that the consensus results are emotionally satisfying, but all too often wrong. Hence the different approaches to dealing with poverty. To the US conservative, the answer is that the poor are lazy, so long-term aid is a waste. This is hard-hearted, and leads to social unrest. To the liberal, the poor are not successful because they are held back by the system, and so supporting them will result in a complete cure. This is naïve, and leads to economic collapse.

To go the evidence-based route was anathema to most of the Greek philosophers, who (with some standouts such as Hero, Archimedes and Eratosthenes) considered actually conducting experiments as ‘mere artisan work’, and unlikely to uncover Truth. An extreme example was the Pythagoreans, who believed that the universe was ultimately logical, and could be defined by geometry. Hence, a rational number was one which could be generated by the classical construction methods. But, the set of rational numbers is just the set of fractions (ratios of integers). According to legend, when a student proved that the square root of 2 could be constructed, but not written as a ratio, they killed him.

In short, trying to discern reality hurts, and most would rather avoid it.

3 comments for “What is ‘critical thinking’?

  1. November 17, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Sounds like to the arts dumb acceptance is liberal thinking. And presumably black is white etc etc.

  2. November 17, 2011 at 10:52 am

    I think the sciences are mostly consensus-driven too. If you are right about something but nobody else agrees, then your idea dies with you.

    If a new idea is to gain traction, then it is always necessary to create some kind of consensus, even within a small group. So truth and consensus are linked, however much we’d prefer them to be independent.

  3. Voice of Reason
    November 17, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    @A K Haart – I respectfully disagree. Scientists are as human as anyone, but if the data supports you more than them, your idea will have a hard time, but it will get through. The main issue is whether that consensus is reality-based or not.

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