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Critical Thinking and Skepticism

Critical Thinking and Skepticism August 26, 2014

In a recent post advocating the end of Philosophy of Religion, John Loftus commented that PoR classes are often taught with the primary goal of teaching students to think critically,  and he objected that “Teaching students to be critical thinkers is very important but teaching them to have a skeptical disposition is more important.”

I would argue, however, that (a) skepticism is good and rational only to the extent that it arises out of critical thinking and conforms to the principles and standards of critical thinking, and that (b) teaching students to be critical thinkers is the best way to promote rational skepticism.

I noticed that a book quoted by Loftus in the above post was co-authored by the leading skeptic Michael Shermer.  It would be worthwhile to consider what Shermer has to say about skepticism, and then to think about how his ideas about skepticism relate to critical thinking.

First of all, Shermer’s brief statement about skepticism on his website emphasizes critical thinking.  In the very first paragraph critical thinking is mentioned in the first sentence and in the last sentence:

THE SKEPTICS SOCIETY is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific and educational organization whose mission is to engage leading experts in investigating the paranormal, fringe science, pseudoscience, and extraordinary claims of all kinds, promote critical thinking, and serve as an educational tool for those seeking a sound scientific viewpoint. Our contributors—leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors and teachers—are top experts in their fields. It is our hope that our efforts go a long way in promoting critical thinking and lifelong inquisitiveness in all individuals. [emphasis added]

Clearly Shermer sees a close connection between skepticism and critical thinking.

At the end of Shermer’s brief statement about skepticism, he makes the following comment:

The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.

Shermer does not endorse skepticism in general.  What he endorses is a particular form or kind of skepticism that he calls rational skepticism.  This kind of skepticism, like an aristotelian virtue, is the mean between the extremes of pure skepticism and credulity.

The above comment corresponds to similar ideas in Shermer’s longer essay  A Skeptical Manifesto.  Shermer quotes Carl Sagan and then makes a concluding comment:

Carl Sagan summed up this essential tension (in Basil, 1988, p. 366):

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

There is some hope that rational skepticism, and the vigorous application of the scientific method, can help us find this balance between pure skepticism and unmitigated credulity.

Note that Shermer distinguishes between “pure skepticism” and “rational skepticism”.  So, skepticism is not good in and of itself.  The sort of skepticism that is worthy of being promoted is rational skepticism or what is sometimes called healthy skepticism.

But what IS rational skepticism?  Given the close association of skepticism to critical thinking, an obvious answer to seriously consider here is that rational skepticism is skepticism that arises out of critical thinking and that conforms to the principles and standards of critical thinking.

It is all very well to say that one values healthy skepticism or rational skepticism, but one needs to spell out in some detail what the differences are between irrational skepticism and rational skepticism before this very general and abstract goal can be understood, pursued, and achieved.  The principles and standards and skills of critical thinking provide a useful framework and provide the details needed to flesh out this very general and lofty aim.

Shermer does give us some hints as to what he means by rational skepticism. One big hint is his theme of avoiding the extremes of gullibility and credulity on the one hand and closed-mindedness on the other.  So rational skepticism means:

– being open-minded, not closed-minded or dogmatic.

– being discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, not gullible and credulous.

These are great ideas that we should promote whenever possible, but these ideas are still fairly abstract; to understand and actually put these aims into practice requires more details and specifics.  What better way to clarify and explain these ideas in terms of details and specifics than to teach the concepts, principles, standards, and skills of critical thinking?

Let’s start with the contrasting concepts of being open-minded as opposed to being closed-minded and dogmatic.  An important part of teaching critical thinking is teaching about these key concepts.  One does not successfully teach students to become critical thinkers unless one helps students to be open-minded and to avoid being closed-minded and dogmatic.  One does not successfully teach students to become critical thinkers unless one helps students to be discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, and to avoid being gullible and credulous.

Three important intellectual standards of critical thinking are” breadth, completeness, and fairness.  All three of these standards relate to being open-minded.  Breadth is concerned with looking at a question from multiple points of view, when multiple points of view are relevant to the question at issue.  Issues often cut across disciplines, and when they do, it is best to look at the question from the point of view of different relevant disciplines.

Issues often involve different groups with different and potentially conflicting interests.  When dealing with such issues, a critical thinker will try to look a the issue from the points of view of the different groups involved.  Fairness comes into play in such issues, because it is unfair to simply ignore the rights, needs, and interests of some groups who are involved with an issue, while taking seriously the rights, needs, and interests of one or more other groups who are involved in that issue.

Any analysis or evaluation of a claim, theory, or point of view that ignores some relevant viewpoints is incomplete.  Thus the standard of completeness reinforces the standard of breadth.

Some of the intellectual virtues that are part of being a critical thinker are also related to being an open-minded thinker:

  • Intellectual Humility
  • Intellectual Integrity
  • Intellectual Empathy
  • Fairmindedness

One cause of closed-minded thinking is intellectual arrogance.  If a person views themselves as the fount of all truth and knowledge and wisdom, then they will probably not be very interested in listening to the thoughts and views of other people.

Another cause of closed-minded thinking is intellectual hypocrisy, which is often manifested in the frequent use of double-standards.  A high bar is set for the beliefs and views of people and groups with which one disagrees or whom one dislikes, while a much lower bar is set for the beliefs and views of people and groups with which one agrees or whom one likes.

Intellectual empathy involves a willingness to temporarily set aside one’s beliefs and assumptions in order to try to see the world from someone else’s point of view.

Clearly, if we help students to develop these important intellectual virtues, we are also helping those students to avoid dogmatism and closed-minded thinking.

What about being discriminating about what one believes? What about avoiding gullibility and credulity?  The intellectual standards of critical thinking all play a role here.  Let’s just consider a few key standards:

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy
  • Relevance
  • Logicalness

Advertisers and sales people often rely on vagueness and ambiguity to manipulate consumers.  So, the habit of demanding clarity, of looking for vagueness and ambiguity goes a long ways towards reducing one’s gullibility and credulity.  Accuracy is another standard that has similar impact.  False or inaccurate claims are often used to persuade and manipulate people.  So, the habit of checking the accuracy of claims goes a long ways towards reducing one’s gullibility and credulity.  Con artists and demagogues often play on people’s fears, anxieties, and prejudices.  But when they do, they usually say things that are irrelevant to the question at issue, or are making illogical arguments.  Thus, the demand for logically correct reasoning goes a long ways towards reducing one’s gullibility and credulity.

Gullibility and credulity can be viewed as thinking that involves a lack of discrimination.  Discrimination requires evaluation, and evaluation implies the use of standards, at least rational evaluation implies the use of standards.  What better standards to use for evaluating beliefs, theories, and viewpoints than the standards of critical thinking?

Another important aspect of critical thinking is analysis, breaking thinking down into its intellectual components:

  • Questions
  • Points of View
  • Purposes
  • Information
  • Assumptions
  • Concepts & Theories
  • Implications & Consequences
  • Interpretations & Inferences

In order to be discriminating about beliefs, theories, and viewpoints, one must be able to take a bit of thinking and break it down into its component parts, and understand the thinking in its broader context and setting.   We don’t just want clarity concerning claims.  We also want clarity concerning the questions at issue, and concerning relevant concepts, and we want clarity about assumptions, even if some important assumptions were left unstated.  We want clarity about the purpose or purposes for the thinking-what is the problem or goal that motivates the thinking?

The intellectual standards that are important to a critical thinker,  are put to best use when the thinker can skillfully apply the standards to the elements or components of thinking.  Analysis is actually essential to clarity.  In order to be clear when one is raising an objection to an argument, it is important to be able to distinguish between objections to the truth or accuracy of a premise on the one hand, and objections to the validity or cogency of the reasoning.  A good critical thinker will examine both the truth and clarity of the premises of an argument, and also the relevance of the premises to the conclusion, as well as the logicalness of the reasoning in the argument.

So, if one is interested in being a rational skeptic, then one will be interested in the following general purposes:

– being open-minded, not closed-minded or dogmatic.

– being discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, not gullible and credulous.

These general purposes can be explicated and clarified in greater detail and in useful and practical ways by making use of basic aspects of critical thinking:

  • Intellectual Standards (e.g. clarity, accuracy, relevance)
  • Intellectual Components (e.g. information, concepts, assumptions)
  • Intellectual Virtues (e.g. intellectual humility and fair-mindedness)

Critical thinking thus provides a necessary intellectual framework and also much practical guidance that is useful for clarifying, specifying, and putting into action the general purposes of rational skepticism.


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