(I have a bigger thing coming up here, but it’s going to take a while yet, and it’s about time I posted at least something.)
I have written about critical thinking before. Let us recap: The point of critical thinking is to aim at accepting only credible notions, and to this end, one examines each notion in an objective and aware manner before deciding what to think of it. The worst thing to do would be to accept claims only because one wants to, or to look only for evidence supporting one’s claims.
It is not easy to be objective, however, because one’s old beliefs and attitudes affect what seems credible and sensible, and one is often blind towards one’s worst weaknesses. You may have noticed this while debating with people who disagreed with you. Have you ever felt that they can be really blind to their own bias and error? That’s how it is, of course. No matter how strong evidence you have for your claims, it’s no use if the other’s beliefs are so strong that they can explain away any and all objections, often without really even paying attention to them. On the other hand, the other can present to you evidence that is clearly problematic or about which you already know that it can’t be true, and then refuse to listen when you tell them why this is the case. And as for bad arguments, it would not be unheard of for the other to explicitly deny using a certain erroneous type of argument, and in the same breath defend their own argument that clearly contains such an error. Anything works as a basis for believing something they don’t really want to be critical about.
If you have for example had relatively intellectual debates on the internet, as I have at some point, you’ll no doubt have seen plenty of examples of people who are frankly wrong deceiving themselves. They cannot think critically, and will accept anything as long as it leads to their desired conclusion. You, on the other hand, as a critical thinker, can weigh potential beliefs before accepting them, can spot others’ mistakes, and are appropriately humble about your own beliefs. But do you know what is the most suspect source of all? What you should be the most critical about before you accept anything based on it?
It is you.
Incidentally, did you notice how the above exposition was written misleadingly, even though it was technically true? Well, if you noticed just the thing that I am talking about, you may already know the thing that I’m trying to say in this article. The purpose of critical thinking is not to find ways to counter or belittle the claims of those who disagree with you. For example, the advice that you mustn’t apply critical thinking selectively only to counter arguments you disagree with but not to your own beliefs means the same thing; but even this can in practice be interpreted as follows: “Other people often try to apply the methods of critical thinking selectively; when they do this, they’re wrong again and I’m right.”
As for how the beginning of my article was misleading, by that I mean adopting the wrong kind of perspective. In this perspective, everyone else is making the mistakes and you, supposedly a critical thinker, are spotting them. This is a poor and hypocritical perspective for the purposes of learning critical thinking. Where you should apply critical thinking is when you are about to accept a view yourself. It’s not just for evaluating others. Evaluating others is secondary. In fact, it’s not even ideal for me to be speaking of “you” here. Naturally it’s just as much about “me”, since that is how I am telling others to think, that it is always about oneself. I use the word “you” above to achieve a certain rhetorical effect, but from here onwards, I will speak of “us”. (Yes, the word “you” still gets used a couple of times below. If you pay attention, you should see why it’s not the same thing, as it isn’t in this sentence.)
Back to the topic. When we encounter people who to our mind commit serious errors of argumentation or stubbornly cling to false beliefs, we of course think that they have not applied the principles of critical thinking properly. This is independent of whether we think of it by the name “critical thinking” or generally as the correct way to think that leads to truth. Of course, we have the right to reach this conclusion based on sufficient evidence. But this is not the essential way in which critical thinking should be applied during a debate. What is essential is what we’d like the other side to do as well: to consider the other’s arguments and our own views objectively and accept the most sensible conclusion. But it’s very common that we instead aim all of our criticality to the other’s claims because our own seem so obvious, and at the same time we demand from the other the criticality and openness that we ourselves lack.
There is another problem that comes with being too willing to criticise the other of argumentation errors, self-deception, or similar. (The problem also comes with more serious accusations of outright dishonesty.) We cannot assume that we can simply and effortlessly see inside the other’s head, let alone heart. Sometimes the other’s ideas seem to make no sense because their way of thinking or frame of reference is very different from our own. On the other hand, it may also be that through an open attitude and respectful discussion (or just a couple of additional questions) we could quickly find out what the other really meant, even though we misunderstood it at first. In any case, we cannot analyse the other person’s claims, much less the person themselves, if we don’t understand the claims in the first place. Besides, psychoanalysing strange people whom we disagree with is pretty childish, and if you’ve been on the receiving end (I know I have), you’ll know how annoying it is. Additionally, it’s probably just as annoying and unconvincing even in the event that it happens to be right. We should focus on the arguments themselves.
When speaking of other people being wrong above, I also intentionally dropped in a hypocritical pair of claims: The other people can ignore your evidence, but they can also present to you evidence whose faultiness they won’t accept when you point it out. This is another lesson: From another person’s point of view, there may be good reasons to reject evidence that seems incontrovertible to us, or at least it may appear that there are good reasons. For example, I’m ready to reject as highly unlikely, without even looking into them much, claims that are completely against mainstream science and are proven only by anecdotes. This is because I know much about the history and principles of science — and about what strict criteria science has for accepting claims, and why this is necessary, and how unreliable for example anecdotes have been proven to be. But suppose someone doesn’t know this all, and believes something based on strong personal experience or impressive accounts from others. In that case, it’s no wonder if they consider me a close-minded truth-denier for rejecting their evidence. And if I were to believe in science without understanding it, and didn’t know how surprisingly unreliable experience can be, then I would be narrow-minded and following authority blindly to completely reject everything “unscientific”. There happen to be reasons to trust science, but if you do that only because of authority, you might as well believe priests or something by the same logic.
So, when I say that the thing we should be the most critical about is ourselves, I mean the following:
- We should not trust our own impression that something is obvious. The tools of critical thinking are meant to be used against unquestioned belief and in cases where it’s difficult to see one’s own mistakes.
- If we agree to debate something that is a fundamental belief to us, or examine it — which we should do — we must be ready to really consider opposing views that may undermine it. After all, that is what we demand from the other party in the debate. If we have given them any thought, it would be strange if our most fundamental beliefs could easily be toppled (whether they be correct or not), but we must always try to be open and to understand people coming from a very different point of view.
- If we are inclined to accept a new claim that we like, we still have to stop to think about whether we really have reason to accept it.
- When interpreting what people mean, even those who disagree with us, we should try to more or less apply the principle of charity, not its opposite — try to find some sense in what is said and not just condemn it based on how it appears to us at first sight. Additional questions are more illuminating than accusations of senselessness. Though there exists all manner of self-deception, those who disagree with us (and even those who are wrong) still often have better reasons than they appear to us.
- We must not want to always be right. To notice and admit that we were wrong is a constructive experience that broadens our views, and a critical thinker is not one who never admits to such.
- This is not easy. Everyone is blind to their own nonsense, and this is something we need to remember with ourselves above all. Our own nonsense appears sensible to us.
It is surely useful for critical thinking to learn about such things as different forms and mistakes of argumentation, but the most important thing is to learn to apply them where it’s the most necessary — so close up that we can barely see there. Even though I have for a large part developed these ideas when observing others I perceived as being wrong, I don’t think this lesson can really be learnt without at least at some point having noticed one was wrong or unfair oneself for these reasons, and fortunately, that has happened to me as well.
- Rationally Speaking: “How to Want to Change Your Mind”
- You Are Not So Smart: “The Backfire Effect” (added September 2012)
- Mother Jones: “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” (added July 2013)
- Finnish: Suomen Kuvalehti: “Älykäs järjettömyys: Kognitiivinen suorituskyky ei suojaa ihmisiä typeryydeltä” (added April 2013)
- Huffington Post: “The Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever” (added October 2013)
- Big Think: “The Dangers of Being Smart” (added November 2013)
- Cracked: “5 Reasons You Get Tricked into Believing Stupid Things” (added March 2015)
- Sean Blanda: “The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb” (added January 2016)