Monday, August 20, 2007

On Critical Thinking

Of late, I've been thinking about the trends I see in society, and as in many ways the net is a microcosm of real social and intellectual trends, one in particular disturbs me. I suspect that perhaps people have always followed this trend, but today, at the dawn of the Information Age, it is something that I'd truly like to see undergo a change. There seems to be a dearth of critical thinking, online, in America, in the world at large. And worse, critical thinking often comes under attack, the most common statement to that effect being, 'you can do whatever you want, all criticism is only someone else's opinion.' Well, there is some truth to that, certainly most of us here in first world countries live in free societies where we are free to believe as we wish, and I will fight to the death to defend that right. And, as is oft quoted, opinions are like @ssholes, etc. However, these statements are often used to justify everything from sloppy logic to bad writing to prejudice to wildly uncritical belief in almost everything. Do I want to be able to tell you what to think? Of course not. Would I like for you to learn how to think critically, yes indeed.

Critical thinking doesn't mean criticizing *people*, but it does mean thinking clearly about ideas. One of our society's big problems, IMNSHO, is the fact that too many of us seem ready to denigrate critical thinking as some kind of closed-minded, mean-spirited attitude. We are not all created equal, but we should all have equal rights. There's a big difference there. I will never be able to play professional basketball. I can't carry a tune in a bucket. I will never be a gymnast, I trip over patterns in the rug. I'm fascinated by string theory and particle physics, but am incapable of doing the math to truly follow it on the deepest levels. I am a pretty decent writer, I have a few artist abilities (but will never give Van Gogh a run for his money), I'm a world-class cook. I understand that I do not have the talents, or intellect, or eye, or dexterity for some skills. Therefore, it doesn't bother me when someone says, 'Geeze, you are clumsy,' or 'please, sing solo, so low we can't hear you.' Sure, I sing to my pets (and only one of them likes it), but no, I don't think I can be the next American Idol, and I don't think anyone would be doing me a great service by telling my I could. We all have limitations and lacks, and it isn't a kindness to tell people that they have great talent just to spare their feelings. You can be kind about it, you can make reasonable suggestions, but to offer praise where none is due is as cruel, or crueler, than Simon's wicked insults.

I'm older than many people active online. For my generation, praise was generally considered a bad thing for children. It would lead to conceit or swelled heads, or a host of other evils that would set them apart from the herd. In the 60s and 70s we rebelled against this, and stressed the importance of individualism and self-expression. And some of us took that too far. We raised our children so they would never hear the word 'no.' We praised every effort, no matter how mediocre, as incredibly awesome. And we in many ways created a generation who takes any criticism as some kind of personal affront. This leads to shoddy performance on the job, at home, and in the thinking process. Would I go back to an era of never praising a child? Hell no, that was destructive too. What I do wish is that we, as a society, would begin to cultivate self-censorship, good taste, and critical thinking skills. This means educated responses to ideas, to art, to lifestyles. I have many gay friends, and am completely in favor of the rights for them to partner legally as heterosexuals do, including the right to have children by whatever means they choose, from artificial insemination to adoption. Do I think NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) is a good idea? No, because children *are* sexual beings (how many of you remember sexual fantasies from a very young age, or 'playing doctor') but they are *not* adults, and it is the duty of adults to protect children, not to abuse them, or even to take advantage of them because 'the child wants it.' Kids want all kinds of things that are bad for them.

So to claim that someone who doesn't 'believe' in hypnotism, the occult, the dangers of mixing church and state, alien abductions, nationalistic chauvinism (in the pure sense of the word), or a host of other silly ideas as closed-minded is ludicrous. We are so fortunate to have access to so much information that it seems a pity to swallow ideas whole-cloth simply because we like them. In my life, I'm what you might call a humanist Christian. I do believe in greater intelligence than mine, and I believe all the prophets who greatly altered the world were people of exceptional, even 'Godly' insight and empathy and compassion, and I think Jesus laid down an overall pretty good road-map for how to live a decent and loving life. I have no hard proof, and I respect your right to believe otherwise. But in most areas of my life I am a skeptic, and I do my best to research new ideas that seem incredible to me when I first encounter them. My husband is a die-hard skeptic and a regular reader of James Randy's page (, and often brings home articles for me to read. There are times when I think some of the people who contribute to that page go as over-board as those they are attempting to expose, but for the most part it is a sincere effort to educate us, and make us less gullible. I've lately been reading some Bertrand Russell essays, and find him to still be very topical, especially about the world condition today. I highly recommend his Unpopular Essays.

So, open your minds, learn to think critically, learn to do research, learn to embrace this unique time in human history. Just learn.

1 comment:

Stephen Hollen said...

Good morning dear Becky. Good start to your blog, my friend. Keep it up. It is an amazing medium - I have been blogging for over 4 years now and love the interaction.

I think of you often and hope you are settled and well.

Stephen Hollen