Critical thinking is a simple concept. How do we know what we know and how can we be sure it is reliably true? It is not a new idea. Socrates is famed for saying that the person who knows most is the person who realises they know nothing. It is well established within ancient Tibetan Buddhism that a major aspect of learning from your teacher is questioning and scrutinising everything they pass to you. These days working out what is the most reliable information is at the centre of almost every industry out there. Market research has strict criteria for collecting data, the scientific process is driven by a process that is scrutinised at every level before any information it produces is deemed worthy of acceptance. If you are a patient on a ward, most of the care you receive from a Nurse should have been subject to intense research before it is delivered.
The above being the case, I find it almost tragic that critical thinking is not part of our culture. We may think it is. We are constantly being bombarded with conspiracy theories or stories which are produced off the back of supposed cutting edge journalism. We may think we are pretty well informed. Arguably we probably are better informed in this information age than the average person of mediaeval times, but how often do we question the information we’re fed? What switches us on to a story from the media? Is its truth a motivator for us reading it? Or is it the name or brand of the source that instils trust? How many people trust the BBC implicitly purely because it has a steady presence on our screens and employs newsreaders with trustworthy,voices?
The simple fact is that we, as a nation, are not culturally geared to questioning the information we are fed in a rigorous way. Sure enough we question. I would go as far as to say that we are almost routinely sceptical about what we hear, but only in the things we wish to be sceptical about. We are sceptical about things that will save us money. We shop around well. We are sceptical about politics and pretty much every politician in parliament. Yet how many of us move beyond mere scepticism to coming up with solutions? Our scepticism has become almost a comfort blanket for inactivity and in fact ignorance. Critical thinking, at present in the UK, is merely a tool of industry and academia. It currently has no place in the public consciousness.
Only recently we saw a sudden need for clinics to vaccinate and treat children whose parents has refused the MMR all those years ago when the Lancet published Wakefields flawed pilot study on the link between the MMR and Autism. The media jumped on this research and many parents felt very assured they were following good advice in not accepting the MMR vaccine for their children. Measles, where it was once practically eliminated, is now on the rise in the UK.
We all know this of course but the problem lies in the fact we just haven’t exercised ourselves to gear our brains around critical thinking. Why should we? I say why shouldn’t we? Surely if we’re going to be sceptical as we so like to be, we would be more convincing if we could back it up with reliable information. Its no longer adequate to say “He told me so!” The process, believe it or not, does not require a huge amount brain power. It does not require a huge amount of intellect but the rewards are ample to our individual and collective intellect as well as the quality of life we enjoy.
The process is simple. We receive some data or information. We look at the source and question why that source was motivated to feed it to us. For example:
Journalists: What is important to the journalist? Inevitably it will be generation of a story to sell and further their career. In that case we need to look at the overall picture of where that information has come from. A short while ago MP Nadine Dories was very vocal in damning an academic paper that suggested that the killing of unwanted new born babies was as ethical as legal abortions. This story obviously got a lot of press. A small amount of digging around revealed that the source of the paper was by two academics who worked for a Roman Catholic University. In light of this it was evident that the aim of the paper was to scare people into realising how unethical abortion was.
We can go further and ask what the political persuasion of the journalist is. i.e. some papers are quite right wing. The Daily Mail will have you believe that this country is over run with Muslims and benefit cheats. The Mirror typically is a Labour Supporter although it is worth noting that these publications will change their political allegiances.
So how have they obtained this information and how reliable is the source? What is the nature and motivation of the source? Has it been subject to scrutiny? Is the research paper sponsored by a company with an industrial interest in the paper going their way?
Not everyone is out to deceive. There are, believe it or not, good journalists, good politicians, good industry leaders. We are not always vulnerable, naïve babies at the hands of a vindictive nanny ready to feed us something harmful but surely we are better to arm ourselves just in case. Day to day being able to decipher information in this relatively simple way is helpful when buying something but also for deciding on medical treatment. Once again, the media can go mad on certain medical issues and report on something which is actually a side point of the main issue.
We have recently seen in the news that the Liverpool Care Pathway is soon to be phased out. Many people have been vocal in their support of this suggesting that people have been euthanized or left to die on this package of care. The independent review was quite explicit, however, that in itself the LCP was a very good, high quality care package for end of life care. The actual outcome was that, where in places end of life care was not well practiced, this was mentally associated with the LCP folder at the bottom of the bed. You might get rid of the LCP but that does not mean you get rid of bad care. It would be a bit like identifying a bad driver and giving them a different car rather than training them up properly.
So my point is that we, for our own sake, need to be looking at things critically and teaching our children to do the same. You may think they are two young to do so but many would disagree. There are educationalists at present that recognise that critical thinking is not an activity that is confined to adult Academics. Children, with their inquisitive minds and natural playfulness are ideal candidates for playing with information and chewing it around in their minds. Arguably placing critical thinking at the centre of education, a vehicle would exist for applying otherwise stale tasting mathematics or science or history to their vibrant little lives. Who knows! Less academic children might actually find a way to respond to the education they are given and rise to the challenge rather than being excluded by it. The following exercise is simple enough:
Bake a cake (ok not so simple for some people).
Place a beetroot in once section.
Cut the cake into tenths and give a slice to each child. Ensure the last child has the slice with the beetroot in.
Ask the first child whether they think the cake is tasty. If they like cake then they will say that it is. Encourage the class to then conclude that the cake you have baked is a tasty cake.
Ask each child to tasted the cake in turn and give their opinion.
Obviously when you get to the last child, they will have a grossly different opinion unless of course they like cake with beetroot in it.
With this new dilemma you can highlight to the class that only tasting a small part of the cake or even a large portion is not enough to say that the cake is tasty.
This is a simple exercise which is easy to understand and relate to. It is the basics of Karl Poppers falsification theory which lies at the heart of scientific research today. It is but one simple way of teaching children to think critically in order to empower them in later life without bursting grey matter.
Imagine a generation of children that grow up being able to think in this way as if it is second nature. It has a deep potential for bettering our society. Could it perhaps result in less tolerance of oppression of certain groups? Could it result in more tolerance of each other? Could it mean that industry and media can no longer dictate what the demand is? Could it mean they are required to generate good quality products and information based on reliable data rather than a brand or name? Could it mean that more people will get more job satisfaction knowing just how what they do contributes to society? I would also argue that it will bring about a reduction in the unemployment rate. Dare I suggest that if critical think is easily achieved by all, then the unemployment rate will reflect the lack of jobs rather than the ability in the population to obtain a job because they haven’t been taught the basic skills to communicate? Could it mean a reduction of crime as more people will be more empowered to think through the consequences of their actions? That applies to those wealthy enough to set up major financial fraud. Would it instil more sympathy and empathy amongst us towards each other and even those who seem alien to us? Dare I say that religion may be pressured into labelling its truths as poetic rather than fact and may even realise what the real issues are in society rather than concentrating on trying to prevent women from becoming Bishops or gay couples from getting married. It might even put the final nail in the coffin of organised religion in this country with an emphasis of acceptance of individual faith and reason. Perhaps it will leave no where to hide for people drawn to priesthood because of the potential for obtaining sexual or emotional power over the vulnerable.
I may be describing a utopia. Of course I am. It is, in its entirety an impossibility to achieve the above in its fullness. Humanists like my self are often accused of being too optimistic. That said I’m not stupid or blind. The perfect circle does not exist anywhere in reality and only in mathematics. Does that mean we shouldn’t try and achieve it? All it takes is a compass and a pencil to make what appears to be a perfect circle. What I’m suggesting is just as easy. And if you think I’m mad then you might have to question the back bone of French education which places philosophy at the heart of its education system.
I hope at least this lengthy blog will start a discussion about it. I’m not expert on science or education, but I guess that is my point. Critical thinking, contrary to what the Academics suggest, doesn’t take an expert. Its there for the taking.