The Un-Critical Thinkers
A Recent Conversation
Recently, as I discussed COVID, vaccines, public health, and epistemology with a GenX’er, I removed myself from the conversation because I realized the futility of the conversation. I remembered Proverbs 26:4, “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are” and walked away.
But as I walked away, the person yelled down the hall, “you’ll never be a critical thinker if you just walk away from people who disagree with you.” Then I remembered Proverbs 26:5, “Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.”
Before making an impetuous decision, I walked into another room to cool off. I decided that the best thing to do was remain quiet. However, the situation escalated when the person would not drop the subject and brought in another person into the discussion.
The rest of the conversation was a volatile circle of bunkum ad hominem arguments and gaslighting toward me, in which my arguments and concerns against their perspective were never addressed. Seeing once again the futility of the conversation, I tried to end the conversation to make peace.
As I walked away, the person repeated the same comment, sprinkled with self-righteousness: “you’ll never be a critical thinker if you walk away from people who disagree with you. Why can’t we have conversations about disagreements anymore?”
And the second person added, “because ether conversation isn’t going their way.”
There is a lot to say about the lack of humility and gall they had to pretend like I was the one who could not handle a difficult conversation (when they were the ones who got worked up when they discovered I disagreed with them). But what stood out to me was their usage of the term “critical thinker.”
The "Critical Thinkers"
Over the last two years, I have had many conversations with people who have strong opinions on topics they are entirely ignorant of and use this term as a weapon against people who are actually being reasonable. They preface what they say with, “I am a critical thinker,” or attack others by saying, “they are not critical thinkers,” insinuating that they are.
However, It does not cross their minds that no one thinks to themselves, “I am not a critical thinker.” Everyone considers themselves intelligent enough to understand and discern the world around them. Saying “I am a critical thinker” as a preface removes credibility from whatever follows. (A good test to determine whether what you say out loud about yourself sounds foolish is to ask yourself, ‘could this be turned into a Barnum statement?’ If the answer is yes, then be quiet.)
The more you listen to people who throw around the phrase “critical thinker,” it becomes apparent that they do not understand what it means to think critically. They believe that critical thinking is simply questioning and doubting anything that is generally accepted.
While this is partially true, what they misunderstand is that critical thinking is about the right questions and doubts. And to have the right questions and doubts, you must have a base of knowledge and understanding. Doubt, for it to be relevant, must be tied to evidence. Questioning the government, mainstream media, or the global scientific community does not make you a critical thinker. It simply makes you curious or, at worst, cynical.
What is Critical Thinking?
Critical thinking is, but is not limited to, the ability to make an objective analysis of information. And to clarify, ability does not refer to the intelligent capability of a person to understand, but their base understanding and knowledge on a topic.
For example, a person who speaks Spanish can objectively analyze information about something written in Spanish, but someone who does not know the language cannot. The more Spanish you know, the more you can analyze the information.
A person who does not know Spanish has the ability to learn Spanish, but until they do, they do not have the ability to make an objective analysis of information. In other words, until they learn Spanish, they cannot think critically about the information written in Spanish.
While this example is not perfect, it is an excellent example of how critical thinking works. Everyone has the ability to think critically, but not everyone has the ability to think critically on every subject. We can only think critically about issues we understand. Doubting and questioning things you don’t understand don’t make you a critical thinker.
The criticism that people who trust the collective wisdom of scientists, experts, and researchers are not critical thinkers (“sheepple”) is arrogant. The reason they trust the experts is not that they are gullible fools but because they have the humility to recognize that they are not experts in every topic. Therefore, they trust the people who are.
The ability to recognize one's own ignorance on a topic is critical thinking. The people I was debating with wanted to argue with me on a topic we both were ignorant about (virology and epidemiology). Yet, from their reckoning of anecdotal evidence, I was the base thinker because I admitted my ignorance. And when I tried to switch the conversation to something we could talk about (reliability of sources), I was attacked.
A Challenge We Face
A challenge we face is moving forward in an age when critical thinking is confused with ignorant questioning. As a pastor, I am concerned with how we deal with this epidemic in the church, especially considering how Christians are very prone to having a martyr complex.
I do not have solutions, but I do believe a proper understanding of what it means to think critically can be a start. And I prayerfully hope that this short rumination can be the start for some to rethink their presuppositions and encouragement and affirmation for those who have already courageously been saying, "I do not know."
History indeed shows us that simply because the majority believes something, it does not make it right. But the reverse is also true. Reality is usually more complicated than the aphorisms and platitudes we are accustomed to. This does not mean we blindly accept everything people tell us, but it does mean that we should evaluate how qualified we are to speak on a topic and if the resources we are using are reliable.
In the end, critical thinking is about the humility of thought. And I believe the real question we must ask all ourselves is:
Am I humble enough to acknowledge my ignorance?