Category Disambiguation

Two Definitions for Critical Thinking

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Posted by on December 15, 2011

Critical thinking is a very important set of skills that every adult should have, and if everyone learned critical thinking, then the world would be a better place. Or would it? What does “critical thinking” even mean? It turns out that the phrase “critical thinking” has two different meanings.

Stop for a moment and try to figure out what those meanings are. They correspond to different meanings for the word “critical”.

A critical1 step is a step which you can’t skip, or else something bad would happen. Under this definition, a critical1 thinking skill is any mental skill that’s important, because you’ll make mistakes if you don’t have it or don’t use it. For example, if someone can’t recognize when they’re confused, they’ll have a hard time fixing errors and gaps in their knowledge. Under this definition, critical1 thinking literally means “important thinking skills”, and saying “critical thinking is important” actually means “there are thinking skills which it is important to have and to use”. This turns out to be true – very true – but people have historically done a bad job at figuring out what those skills are and how to teach them. Fortunately, major progress has been made in the past few years, and so, while the curricula are still a bit rough around the edges, it’s now possible to set out to develop critical thinking, and actually do it.

On the other hand, a critical2 response means a response that’s negative, that focuses on flaws. So critical2 thinking would mean challenging ideas as they’re presented – looking hard for inconsistencies, demanding strong evidence, etc. – to see if they hold up. In other words, skepticism. There is a narrative in which critical2 thinking is important, which goes like this:

People hear some true things, which are right and good and cause people to succeed, and they hear some false things, which are wrong and tricky and cause people to give money to villains. When ideas are challenged, they will hold up if they are right/good and fall down if they are wrong/tricky. Therefore, we can make people right and good by encouraging them to challenge more things, and challenge them more effectively.

Unfortunately, this narrative falls down on several points. First, it turns out that people end up only challenging the things they disagree with. Critical2 thinking skills help people resist changing their minds. That’s bad. It’s especially bad because beliefs start as first impressions, before the evidence comes in – which means not changing your mind means that evidence has less effect on your beliefs. Second, it’s entirely negative. If you successfully challenge the idea that rain is caused by crying spirits, you still haven’t learned anything about what does cause rain (I hear it’s something to do with meteorology). And finally, critical2 thinking tends to negatively affect peoples’ personalities – it encourages the bad habit of being critical towards people, not just ideas.

So there you have it: critical thinking1 is good, but vague, while critical thinking2 is bad, or at least easy to take too far. To keep these concepts straight, we need to give them distinct names. Critical2 thinking already has one – it’s skepticism. Critical thinking1 doesn’t have its own name – but the word “critical” in it is superfluous, so we can just call it thinking.

Now let’s all build our thinking skills. After all, they are critical.