Why…So…Critical?


We skeptics are often seen as spoilsports, as spoiling peeps’ fun, crassly attacking the sacred beliefs and rudely offending the delicate sensitivities of those who accept the unorthodox, the supernatural and ‘other ways of knowing’ (read: ways of believing)as articles of faith.

This is not surprising in any society with a high degree of religiosity that often collectively elevates faith over reason.

For the record: It is the uncritical acceptance of false claims that skeptics generally concern themselves with, not beliefs per se. Also, we criticize each other and the received wisdom of orthodoxy on a regular basis, often quite vociferously.

We skeptics are rarely in general agreement among ourselves on genuinely controversial matters, those controversies that aren’t simply manufactured or misrepresented by the media, much less being shills of the establishment.

If we tend to agree on anything, it is generally in recognizing the proven success of science and the value of critical thinking.

Those who claim to be skeptical of skeptics often equivocate about the usages of the term ‘critical,’ the meanings of being ‘critical’ of something, and ‘thinking critically,’ especially when applying it to their often debased versions of skepticism and critical thinking.

I can’t get in their heads, but I do not think that this means what some appear to think it means.

What is critical thinking? What is critical thinking not, especially when used in pseudo-intellectual pursuits like various forms of pseudoscience, science and history denial, and their satellite conspiracy theories? Here’s an excerpt from the entry on Wikipedia before I offer my thoughts on the matter:

Critical thinking is the process or method of thinking that questions assumptions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false…

Critical thinking has been described as “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do.”[2] It has also been described as “thinking about thinking.”[3] It has been described in more detail as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”[4] More recently, critical thinking has been described as “the process of purposeful, self-regulatory judgment, which uses reasoned consideration to evidence, context, conceptualizations, methods, and criteria.”[5]…

The one sense of the term critical means crucial or related to core criteria and derives from the ancient Greek kriterion, which means standards; a second sense derives from kriticos, which means discerning judgment.[7]…

Critical thinking clarifies goals, examines assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, accomplishes actions, and assesses conclusions…

“Critical” as used in the expression “critical thinking” connotes the importance or centrality of the thinking to an issue, question or problem of concern. “Critical” in this context does not mean “disapproval” or “negative.” There are many positive and useful uses of critical thinking, for example formulating a workable solution to a complex personal problem, deliberating as a group about what course of action to take, or analyzing the assumptions and the quality of the methods used in scientifically arriving at a reasonable level of confidence about a given hypothesis. Using strong critical thinking we might evaluate an argument, for example, as worthy of acceptance because it is valid and based on true premises. Upon reflection, a speaker may be evaluated as a credible source of knowledge on a given topic…

There’s much more on the Wiki entry, of course, but that’s it in a nutshell.

What’s apparent to me is that given this definition and description, critical thinking is a general-purpose set of thinking tools that anyone should be able to benefit from, regardless of their profession.

It’s not just for skeptics or scientists, even though good skills in it are essential for good skepticism and science, and not just for scientific claims about the real world, but for assessing arguments as well…

Science shows pretty clearly that we all live in the same reality, however differently we may view it, and that there is a way the world truly is. I suspect that this fact, in addition to critical thinking, and rather than groupthink, leads many skeptics along different paths to similar conclusions that many fringe-claims are not valid, not true, and/or not science, despite the claims of their advocates to the contrary and despite rhetoric by believers, deniers, and conspiracy theorists.

Are science-advocacy and critical thinking a sort of materialistic hubris?

Hardly.

Science gets credit for being as important as it is in modern society because it has earned it, because it works, because it produces tangible, and not-so-tangible but just as empirical, results…

Science has attained its privilege in our culture by was of its own merits, not arbitrary fiat.

…and I challenge anyone to show even one modern societal advance brought about by belief in magic or psi.

To do effective science, and effective skepticism, requires intellectual honesty, humility, open-mindedness, the willingness to accept being shown wrong, and to assimilate new knowledge when corrected.

Both require a willingness to accept the verdict of the evidence and logic of a case, even when it’s not what one wants or likes, and to scrupulously avoid shifting the goalposts, at least in principle.

Failure to show these characteristics and others, dependent in large part on good introspective abilities, even with complete knowledge of the principles of critical thinking, can lead to a very truncated version of it, resulting in denialism, conspiratorial thinking, and the aforementioned skepticism of skeptics, as well as a knee-jerk suspicion of anything perceived as mainstream for its own sake.

Those who claim that we skeptics never criticize anything mainstream are simply being either ignorant or disingenuous.

The evidence is right in front of them.

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