Richard Bornet
Started: November, 2011

One of the things I hear over and over is that we need to make sure that students have developed the ability to think critically. I have concluded that critical thinking is something we say we want but in reality we are quite strongly opposed.

How did I come to this conclusion?

The first inkling came in an interaction with the mother of one of my son's friends. She kept repeating that the most important skill the school needed to teach was critical thinking. She would complain that the school was failing at this. She would complain to me, other parents, teachers and even went as far as bringing the issue to the school council.

I finally decided to help her out. I gave her a copy of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" By Bjorn Lomberg. This is probably the best example of what Critical Thinking looks like. If any book is the bible of how to apply critical thinking this is it.

The weeks passed. She had not read the book. Finally she gave me back the book with the comment that she could not read the book because she did not agree with the points the book was making. Lomberg had challenged some of her pre-conceived notions about the world and the environment but rather then apply critical thinking she preferred to keep her views no matter how incorrect and not based in fact. Her inability to get past her fixed views, did not allow her to take a look at what Critical Thinking looks like.

Though, she did stop talking about critical thinking.

This is the first problem we have with critical thinking. We are all for it until it challenges one of our precious theories or might shake up a rigid view of the world. For too many people when they argue for the necessity of teaching critical thinking, what they are saying is "I want people to critically analyze the world , so they come to the same conclusions that I have."

The second problem with critical thinking is what it looks like in practice, or rather how good critical thinkers behave, when they choose to be critical thinkers. The real critical thinker’s fundamental stand is that not only do I not believe you until you can substantiate what you are saying but there is probably a better way to analyze and better solutions than whatever you are advocating. A good critical thinker will look at the boss and ask why should I trust anything you have to say. The fact that you are my boss does not make you right. Few people can stand-up emotionally to really good critical thinkers. I have personal experience with this dynamic.

Now imagine a class full or a room full of critical thinkers. "It says on the Internet that you got your facts wrong....The relationship you quote is spurious, it could just be variance..... You don't have enough data points to extrapolate.... This is just your personal opinion.... and so on." Just imagine saying to your class, "We are going to teach you critical thinking." And the first thing you hear is "Do you have any concrete measured evidence, that this course succeeds in those objectives." Followed by "How successful are you at practicing what you preach?"

Given this most hang out a sign which says, “Please don’t disturb my fixed view of the world." These people do not even realize that to be a good critical thinker, you have to suspend that fixed view of the world, at least long enough to have some grasp of the facts and issues. Too many people believe facts should be organized in such a way as to fit their pre-conceptions.

It is even worse. The goal of the good critical thinker is to get to the truth. In life the truth is obscured not by a lack of facts but by the fact that most people have personal agendas. So for example, the reason a specific problem is not being solved is because the boss wants to undermine another manager. The critical thinker will figure this out and then what?

Many people can not see the difference between critical thinking and criticism. They both are experienced as an attack on their psyche. Thin skinned people can be devastated by a large dose of critical thinking because they perceive it as criticism.

Another type of people who have real problems with critical thinkers, are those who need to be right. They feel very uncomfortable if they see themselves or others see them as being wrong. These people have a hard time with good critical thinkers who can prove them wrong. The dissonance can be excruciating to the point of total denial. But the reality of life is that we are often wrong. If you are a good critical thinker, you can find holes in almost anything even your own thoughts and models of the world. So being wrong is just a step to learning more and refining one's beliefs and thoughts.

Another group of people who have a hard time with critical thinking are those who hold views of the world that are based on incomplete facts and not having thoroughly thought something through. O, that's all of us. Rare is the individual whose approach to life is, "I now have a new piece of data which challenges my view of the world. Therefore, once I verify this data, I need to think about it and will need to adjust my view of the world. This is exciting and another chance for me to grow and become wiser." Most people whose view of the world is challenged would rather keep their view intact. They will discount the message if not the messenger.

People who believe that being upset is bad and people should not upset others are not enamored by critical thinking,. Politically correct individuals would come under this umbrella. Well, if you prove to someone that they are just wrong ("full of s#!t"), they WILL BE upset.

Remember critical thinking has to do with getting at the truth. Good critical thinkers are often relentless, challenging and not that tolerant. These individuals are often experienced as being really annoying and at the extreme they are seen as a threat or as dangerous and need to be minimized. In these cases "Shoot the messenger is not just a saying."

Another reason why critical thinkers are not appreciated is this tendency to destroy a specific position or at least poke holes in it. But then what? The reason we demolish a building is not because we are good at and like demolishing structures, but because we want to replace it with a new and better building. The point of critical thinking is not to destroy but should be to build something better.

The problem here is the skill at getting to the truth sets the groundwork for new and better solutions, but does not guarantee those solutions. That involves vision and creativity and the ability to build. Rare is the individual who has all these skills. And even if that person has the complete package, they may be even more annoying or threatening. That is because they totally challenge the status quo. They not only say this approach does not make any sense but can say this new one does. That is a double whammy to people with rigid views or are scared of change or of rocking the boat.

So why then teach a skill which most people do not appreciate let alone handle?

The first reason is that getting at the truth is better then living a lie or in darkness and ignorance. Why, well that will be left for another article.

The second reason why critical thinking is important is that it leads to better solutions and a better world. Getting at the truth can lead to real solutions that solve real problems.

So what does it look like when you work with people who are good critical thinkers and practice it. I have worked in such environments, not many but enough to see some patterns. Here is a list:
  • Mediocrity does not cut it.
  • There is an obsessive pursuit of getting it right.
  • Honesty is essential, both professional and personal.
  • People who thrive in this environment generally like and support each other. This camaraderie is what allows people to be able to take a hit from the proverbial Mac Truck.
  • There is a great deal of positive energy. People are excited and feed off each other. I cannot over emphasize how strong the energy is. People become long term friends and often get together, even years later to re-live what they had but now does not exist in current projects.
  • These teams get rid of politics, because politics and people who thrive in practicing it are at least impediments, at worse the enemies of success.
  • The solutions are much better, arrived at faster and implemented,

Finally, sometimes these teams really do create something not only exceptional but magical.
What more could one ask for?