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The Art of Critical Thinking

I delivered this presentation on The Art of Critical Thinking to students at the University of Reading, England, in 2016.

It is a challenging presentation because it delves deep into the extent to which we are being conditioned, creating significant cognitive dissonance.

Essential to criticality, or The Art of Critical Thinking, is being able to critically think about controversial topics because, when we do, we are forced into the important process of cognitive dissonance. 

Encyclopedia Britannica defines cognitive dissonance as:

The mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information.

Thus, being presented with reliable data that strongly challenges our worldview, we are directly challenging our preconceived beliefs and assumptions.

These preconceived ideas are nothing more than the result of our conditioning, and our conditioning is formed by the mainstream narrative, the story we have been educated to accept as fact through the systematic repetition of a given message, particularly through the mainstream media.

Criticality, therefore, involves taking an argument or position (no matter how controversial the topic), acknowledging this may only be an assumption (not a fact), and then showing our ability to follow the most reliable facts and evidence, rather than assumptions and preconceived ideas, in order to form a position (or opinion).

Lee Spiegel, writer and researcher of controversial topics for Huffington Post, states in the documentary film Travis:

No matter what your perception of something is, or your belief, or your opinion, or your speculation, … just follow where the evidence takes you, and no matter where it leads you to, no matter what kind of an outcome or result, whether you like the outcome of not, you will always stay credible if you follow the evidence.

In the case of the example presentation, the evidence clearly demonstrates that the argument ‘The bombing of Syria is creating freedom’ is indeed an assumption not based on facts.

The final stage of critical thinking is to then be able to come to a conclusion based on facts and implications, and not on our own pre-conditioned assumptions.

Most of us would probably agree that being able to separate facts from fiction and thus make informed decisions is an essential skill, especially with the prevalence of unreliable sources, often referred to as fake news or post-truth in today’s world.

Yet this is the hardest part because cognitive dissonance means people are more likely to argue black is white rather than hold a view that goes against their previous conditioning/assumptions, which is why a plethora of scientific studies show that few people can do it.

The Science

In 2014, a Cambridge International Examinations survey of more than 1000 teachers from more than 50 different countries revealed that teachers across the globe believe critical thinking is the skill their students most lack when they begin their post-16 courses at school, and 56% of teachers said students were still unable to think critically when they entered university.

A 2011 study by sociologists from New York University and University of Virginia that followed 2322 undergraduates at 24 colleges and universities in the USA through four years of college concluded that 45% of students made no significant improvement in critical thinking during their first two years of college and 36% graduated “without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event”.

More recently, a 2017 study of 1002 current college students and recent graduates by MindEdge, an online learning company founded by Harvard and MIT educators, found 44% could not correctly answer 6 of 9 questions designed to gauge their ability to detect fake news, stating “the survey provides a sobering look at the extent to which millennials need to sharpen their critical thinking skills”.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal in the same year analysed the results of the CLA+, a critical-thinking test given annually to freshmen and seniors in approximately 200 colleges and universities across the USA and concluded that at more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence or interpret data.

That is not all. A 2016 Stanford History Education Group analysis of 7804 students in schools and colleges across 12 US states, including their own Stanford University, discovered college students sometimes even perform worse than high school students at distinguishing between “legitimate and dubious sources”.

Meanwhile, a 2015 report by the Foundation for Young Americans found that the demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates has risen 158% in 3 years. A conclusion drawn from the analysis of 4.2 million online job postings from 6000 different sources in the period 2012-2015.

It is easy to focus on the students here, but if the majority of students are unable to critically think at 16 years of age, and are still unable to critically think when they enter university, and even when they leave university to seek employment, it follows that the parents, teachers and other adults whom they regularly come into contact with during these years of their lives are also failing to effectively demonstrate how to do so.

For example, in the EU today, according to the World Health Organisation, at least 86% of deaths and 77% of diseases are because of people’s diet and lifestyle choices; a Gallup poll found that as many as 87% of people worldwide are doing jobs that leave them feeling unmotivated, and studies in positive psychology show that pursuing money and materialism makes us unhappy.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the 3 main reasons scientists set the doomsday clock at 2 minutes to midnight were because of climate change, growing nuclear threat, and a lack of trust in political institutions.

Both personally and globally, we are not making informed decisions.

Clearly there is a very real need for all of us (students and non-students alike) to be able to successfully analyse and evaluate information so that we make decisions that increase (rather than decrease) our wellness on a personal and global scale.

The academic community are taking these findings very seriously. Stanford History Education Group demonstrate this quite bluntly in the executive report of their aforementioned analysis:

Never have we had so much information at our fingertips. Whether this bounty will make us smarter and better informed or more ignorant and narrow-minded will depend on our awareness of this problem and our educational response to it.

The “educational response” they refer to is the growing academic and scientific movement that is actively involved in promoting critical thinking and wellness on a personal and global scale.

If we are developing and mastering the ability to form objective opinions and make informed decisions, we do not “reject, explain away, or avoid the new information” (cognitive dissonance). Instead, we explore with open-minded examination, and accept reliable evidence as a possible new truth – a new narrative.

This raises our awareness (or our consciousness). As we explore alternative facts that open up our world view to new possibilities, cognitive dissonance occurs less and less.

This presentation demonstrates that we do not need to accept our given reality unquestioningly; instead, we can take back control of our own reality, it concludes, by exploring a new positive solutions-focused narrative, which science shows promotes personal and global wellness.


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Teaching at Nottingham University, Summer 2019

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