Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Critical Thinking

We built an education system designed on Information Retention skills because information was, until about very recent times, scarce. We needed to memorise because timely access to information was a problem. The analog, printed stuff that we had - which was the primary form information was stored - was place-bound and time-shifted. Even if someone knew it, it took some time to be available for general consumption. And, it sat on bookshelves or filing cabinets. Knowing things, as in remembering, was the mark of an educated person.

But we have the opposite problem now. We have too much information. Gutenberg and his press brought a revolution that doubled the information stock of the world in fifty years. Now, we are doubling it, a much larger information stock, in three years or less. Every person in the world has 320 times more information than was stocked in the entire Library of Alexandria, designed to hold all the knowledge of the world. And, within this deluge, even if we miss a bit, there is Google. 

So, we need a different ability, as Howard Rhinegold calls it, for Crap Detection. The problem that we face today is that anyone with a computer can add a bit to the information stock, which can become readily available to all public (I am guilty of the same sin, right now!). So, we would see discarded helmets on Mars, alongwith a claim that some mythical people got there first! Or hear gossips that can start riots! We need abilities to filter the information that we take in. This is some sort of a reverse filter - the trick of remembering in an earlier time was to focus on the key elements and not letting it go out - and being educated today mean that we are less susceptible to misinformation and nonsense.

This ability, more or less, is critical thinking, which is indeed, critical. Without being able to interrogate the information coming our way, we would simply go mad. However, this is not about simply filtering information - because we all filter things based on what we like - but filtering it in a certain meaningful way. So, one can not be doing Critical Thinking when someone is a Nazi cultist (or liberal democrat) and s/he chooses to reject everything that does not fit her/his worldview. Critical thinking is a different sort of filter, made out of skepticism. Do I believe everything that I see on the Internet, one ought to ask. In fact, the question is, should I believe anything at all, without evidence. And, indeed, what evidence would be enough? And, while I do all the judgements, am I keeping an eye on myself that I am not tending to believe what I want to believe?

Indeed, it is at this point when the whole thing gets interesting, or absurd. How far can one keep questioning, and is there really a way to understand own biases and preferences? The purely rational formulation that it is only based on evidence stumbles at this point, because we often see what we want to see. And, therefore, a model of critical thinking without the basis of anything else other than available evidence may be fallible. One of my students told me that he believed that pre-historical Indians had the technology to fly - they wrote about this in their great books and eminent experts in the recent Indian government had endorsed this - and despite some people claiming that this could not be true, he would like to believe the former rather than the latter because of the political affiliations of the people in the latter group. He indeed had evidence, a mention in the great books and endorsements of some experts, and he could claim that he did think through critically. But there are two problems with this model. First, he chose to ignore protestations of some other experts on the ground of his personal preference, that they were politically motivated, and not on the strength of the evidence they were presenting. And, second, more importantly, this filter did not make any reference to disciplinary conventions. Considering that we are talking about technologies of the past, we should be referring to the methods that we have built within the discipline of archeology, which is about finding remnants of the past and trying to build a whole model around it. This assertion - that Ancient Hindus could fly - was not supported by Archeological evidence, but by mentions in a book (by which measure, Jules Verne would have seen people sent to the Moon), and hence, just evidence by itself is not enough. The ability to think critically has to be based on an attempt to transcend own subjective preference as well as application of disciplinary thinking (discipline as in an university, rather than as in military). So, critical thinking is application of a filter informed by culture - the accumulated body of knowledge and disciplinary methods - and indeed, in this form, extremely important for living and doing things in age of information deluge.

However, critical thinking, by itself, is not enough. One of the great problems of modern scientific education, where critical thinking is the key, is that it may end up being too harsh, too disconnected and ultimately oblivious to the possibilities that exist beyond the immediate realm. Critical thinking, as great an ability it may be, is nothing if this is not supplemented by respect, an ability to work with other people and to be able to listen and learn. Critical thinking, to be effective, is not about demolishing all the arguments and demeaning everyone else in the quest of intellectual superiority, but a certain position of not accepting anything without a proper consideration, with a Good Humoured Inflexibility, to use an expression coined by Emerson. 

For the reasons I mentioned above, Critical thinking is an important ability, and this is one thing educators all agree upon. However, the agreement on meaning is often more difficult than the agreement on the words themselves. And, besides, the dangers of being too critical, as Jane Addams will point out, are completely forgotten when one pushes ahead with the importance of being critical. 

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