Why do we do the course?
Because we are seriously concerned with the current symptoms of a lack of critical thinking: post-truth and alternative facts (that’s an outright contradictio in adiecto!), disbelief in science and popularity of pseudoscience, disrespect of norms of argumentation in public debates, etc. We fear that these symptoms undermine liberty and democracy and hence need to be rooted out by a focused effort to improve critical thinking. Last but not least, many intellectuals speak about the importance of critical thinking nowadays and since it is close to our academic expertise, we decided to utilize our knowledge for the public good.
Isn’t critical thinking just a buzzword?
Glad you asked that critical question. Yes, there’s certainly some hype about critical thinking. It is often used as a catch-all expression for all the cognitive skills whose absence supposedly leads people away from my worldview. In this sense, it’s a normative expression used for “explaining” why my opponents insist on their view without saying that they are stupid. Despite all this, the term can be used in a more specific way.
So how do you specify critical thinking?
It’s an umbrella term for various skills which allow us to make good, unbiased judgments under uncertainty. We cannot rely just on formal logic to make correct deductions because we usually have only incomplete information and not a lot of time to reach a conclusion or decision. To deal with uncertainty and time pressure, we use various heuristics (often without knowing) – they work well enough in frequent situations but they may lead to significantly biased judgments in other cases. An important aspect of critical thinking is thus to be aware of these heuristics and when to rely on them. That’s why a large part of the course will cover the psychology of reasoning and attitude change. This will enhance our control over the judgments we hastily make: a critical thinker will recognize that he or she is likely to make a mistaken judgment in a given situation and decide to double-check his or her reasoning.
When we cannot rely on heuristics and automatic judgments, we need to make an explicit inference or argument. This takes time and conscious effort. So we need to complement the psychological understanding of thinking with formal and informal logic so that we can tell which argument is valid and which is fallacious.
And again, being able to tell which arguments are valid is only somewhat useful if we don’t know whether the premises are true. Every argument is based on premises that, if the argument is valid, guarantee the truth of the conclusion – which is our primary goal. So how do we make sure that our premises are true? Sure, every premise can itself by either a fact we observe or a conclusion of another argument that we need to make first. But we cannot check ourselves every fact or argument, there’s simply not enough time. So we look for reliable, trustworthy sources of information – but how to recognize them? The amount of information that is stored online and hence readily accessible keeps growing exponentially. Since everybody can voice their opinion on the internet, we are more likely to be presented with conflicting views on any single topic. Is there a rational guideline on how to distinguish trustworthy sources of information?
Here the key characteristic of a reliable source is the method by which they gather information and reach conclusion. Good journalism follows some principles adherence to which can be recognized from the way an article is written. Wikipedia’s rules of editing and collaboration are a good example of a method that limits bias although anyone can contribute. Finally, the scientific method is the most thorough albeit slow way to make the most reliable estimate of how things are.
But don’t scientists make mistakes and disagree with each other? How can we trust their view?
Disagreement in science is actually a good practice! Opposing views challenge one another to justify their conclusions as best as they can and the rest of the scientific community leans one way or another based on the relative strengths of the arguments. And yes, scientists do make mistakes and are prone to the same biases as any human being, but the point is that the scientific method as such is continuously getting better at eliminating mistakes and biases. It is an ideal that the community accepts and tries to follow.
Still, some scepticism about scientific knowledge, especially about the way it is presented in the media, is in place. That’s why we would like you to understand the basics of the method and also the common limits that scientists face and which may consequently distort their results. Ideally, you would be able to read a scientific article on the topic of your interest and decide for yourself whether the conclusion the authors reach really follows from the observations they make and the method they use. But do not worry: we won’t try to teach science, we will mainly show you some tips and tricks on how to approach scientific results more critically so that you don’t have to rely only on pop science news.
Can critical thinking actually be taught in a course?
Not really, we admit. Remember that it’s a set of skills rather than a body of knowledge of particular facts, so it needs to be practiced to be learnt. However, a course like ours can give you some basic mental tools with which you can practice more easily. Additionally, the psychological part of our course can make you alert in situations in which critical thinking is most needed.