Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Critical Thinking Redux

Responding to this post from Ken de Rosa:

De Rosa writes,

> Critical thinking skills are domain specific.

This is false.

From the very source he cites:

> Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on.

What makes these *common* pitfalls is that they exist *independently* of domain or discipline,and the habits of attending to them - that is, critical thinking - is therefore *also* independent of domain or discipline.

De Rosa offers an example:

> If you want to think critically about the American Civil War you unfortunately need to know a lot of stuff about American history

Not so. Let me give you an example.

Suppose some history article said:

"If Custer's misunderstanding of Sioux culture had led him astray, then we would expect him to take the Dakota trail, not the Nebraska train. And he did take the Dakota trail, marching into the heart of Sioux territory. So his error was not a military blunder, it was a cultural blunder. He misunderstood Sioux culture."

Sounds great, right? This may or may not be historically accurate. Who knows? The reader would have to look it up.

But a person equipped with critical thinking skills does not need to know one whit of American history to know that the inference is a bad one. He or she would recognize the argument form called 'affirming the consequent' (If A then B, B, therefore A) and would know not to trust the author's assertion that Custer did not understand Sioux culture.

There is a range of common forms of reasoning and inference, and these are as well known and well supported as mathematics. You wouldn't say that American history uses a special mathematics that operates only within the domain of that discipline. Nor would you say that it uses a special sort of reasoning.

It is unclear to me what the political motivations are for the assertion that critical thinking skills are domain specific. But some people - this blog included - evidently have a significant stake in it. But it's a false assertion. And so whatever body of thought rests on this premise is also unsupported.

p.s.

Why is there such a campaign to discredit critical thinking? Maybe it's because critical thinking gives non-experts the capacity to do this to bad theories and propaganda.

2 comments:

  1. I've just read de Rosa's post and all its comments. What would you say is the difference in terms of what you would prescribe for students?

    In my own experience, learning is most effective when I continuously bounce between the abstract and the concrete. Even if ten years down the line I'll be applying those critical thinking skills to some unforeseen domain B, the more facts I know about domain A the wider the context in which I can practice those skills.

    Incidentally, I think anyone interested in math would want to know how to calculate a square root by hand! It gives you a deeper understanding of the square root, and ga reat example with which to explore limits what not.

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  2. Justin, I try to describe this difference at greater length in my response to De Rosa's next post - here

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