Greg Hart: Critical thinking

(This is one of a series of posts about the talks at the 2015 Alberta Secular Conference: None of the Above.)Greg Hart

The perfect complement to Lynn Honey’s statistics talk from Day 1 was the opening talk of Day 2 in our conference.

In it, Greg Hart wound through several pitfalls people fall into when attempting to think critically.

For example, many of us have a vague idea that critical thinking involves thinking carefully, maybe following particular rules, but we can’t define it. Greg gave a useful general description – a quote he attributed to Richard Paul:

“Critical thinking is the act of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.”

Cool. Other problems he identified include confusing skepticism, critical thinking, and scientific thinking; treating critical thinking as just problem solving; and thinking mechanically.

I’ll expand on that one a bit too. (I’m trying not to give away the whole talk here. If you get a chance to listen to Greg speak, you’ll probably find it worth your time.)

He gave the example of this problem, given to grade 3 students:

There are 75 sheep in a pasture and 5 sheep dogs. How old is the shepherd?

Common answers, accounting for 90% of the responses from the kids, included 75+5=80 years old, and 75-5=70 years old. Why wouldn’t they just say “I don’t know”? Well, first, most numerical problems they see can be solved by some simple operation like this. And second, even as adults, we live in a culture where the answer “I don’t know” is seen as a failure.

This ties in with another of his points: leaping to evaluation before you have thought things through carefully. But more generally, we need to become comfortable with ignorance. Not that we need to give up trying to understand things. Just that we need to value the recognition of where our understanding ends. If I want to learn how economic stimulus works (to pick a random example), then I first have to acknowledge that, however strong my opinions, and however much I may have thought about it, there is a possibility that I don’t have the full picture. That I am, in fact, ignorant of some important fact or principle that is key to understanding or finding the answer.

We mustn’t just apply critical thinking to the easy stuff. We mustn’t just do it when we have a thorny problem to solve. We especially mustn’t just use it on other people’s ideas. We have to use it always and everywhere.

Does that sound like a daunting task?

Yes. But that’s what it takes to be intellectually grown up. To think better.

This wasn’t a talk about how “we” do it so much better than “them” – an attitude that may sometimes surface in the secular community. It was a talk about how all of us need to be careful in all of our reasoning about the world.

Here are a couple of places you can find Greg Hart online:

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