At one time critical thinking was one of the primary lessons learned as an undergraduate. This was taught in a variety of ways but was always viewed as a fundamental learning technique. The rationale was that in order to learn one must think and thinking must be disciplined because undisciplined thinking led to poor learning while a disciplined and structured approach led to better thinking and thus better learning. Good teachers cultivate critical thinking and encourage it in their classrooms frequently using the Socratic Method of questioning and some common questions are:
a) What did the text say or what was meant?
b) What is the source of your information?
c) How did you arrive at that conclusion?
d) What assumptions have you made or what assumptions were made by the author?
e) Are there alternate interpretations?
f) So why is this relevant?
This form of thinking lies at the heart of the “Scientific Method” which rests on these basic facts. These are “Observation” – the phenomena or topic of inquiry must be observed. The second is “Description” so that data presented to describe the phenomena must be repeatable and pertinent. “Prediction” is third so that the data must be consistent through time and the phenomena predictable. The fourth is “Control” meaning that the data sample must be across all possible occurrences and not dependent on selected or opportunistic data. The purpose of this step is to prevent falsification – intentional or unintentional – of data in support of the original postulation. This means that a “theory” must remain a “theory” until there is a sufficient body of evidence that demonstrates the postulation and allows for a predictable result in every case.
Alas this seems to be where the educational system has gone astray because increasingly the classroom has become a bastion of “belief” rather than a center of skepticism. This begins with what is perhaps the most egregious example of “belief” rather than “science” and this is “Evolution”.
This debate began with Charles Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution” as described in his seminal work “The Origin of the Species”. The first problem of course is that Darwin’s book did not address or describe the origin of species, it simply described how existing species “adapted” to their environment. At the time of it’s publication critical thinking was alive and well in the universities and there was widespread skepticism at the time about his conclusions. Darwin himself established criteria that must be met in order for his theory to be proven. To date none of those requirements have been met. Yet “Evolution” is taught in the classroom as a fact and any questioning or critical analysis of this is not permitted. This is a vivid example of how critical thinking is rapidly approaching extinction in our universities.
Most recently there is the issue of “Global Warming”. While the reality of global warming is really not questioned, the debate on causation –as allowed in the classroom – is restricted to human activity. Data from climatologists is dismissed as irrelevant and popular opinions, none of which meet the test of scientific investigation as outlined above. Another example of how critical thinking is being abandoned by our educators in favor of “belief”. However, while these are two of the most obvious examples they are not the only ones.
Perhaps the one that has most impacted our society is that of “side smoke” or “environmental tobacco smoke”. It is widely reported that anywhere from thousands to millions of people die each year from the effects of “side smoke” yet there is not a shred of empirical evidence to support this belief. The entire foundation for this conclusion rests on “statistics” but even these statistics – such as they are – are highly suspect because their source is not disclosed and not disclosed for a very good reason. No death certificate has ever read – cause of death – side smoke. These statistics are almost always couched in terms of “smoking related” but then the statistics almost by definition are suspect because everybody dies of something and virtually everyone on the planet has been exposed to side smoke in some form. Therefore, every death on the planet can be ascribed to “smoking related”. However, does anyone challenge these figures? No - -because students are taught to believe what they are told and not to think for themselves.
But then we get into the metaphysical realm, where challenge is certainly not encouraged. In spite of numerous examples and scientific studies, life after death is not accepted nor discussed, even though it meets enough of the scientific method to at least qualify as a theory. It must be remembered that all reasoning has a purpose and all too frequently the reasoning in our classrooms is aimed at conversion or indoctrination to a belief rather than leading to an independent conclusion. Educated people, schooled in critical thinking cannot be stampeded or swayed by demagogues or those given to flawed and fallacious thinking, so it is no surprise that critical thinking is dying in our bastions of learning where the objective no longer seems to be education but the espousal of belief.