I’m starting to get concerned with what I see as a global decline in critical thinking. The fact that the United States as a country and the world as a whole are both becoming more and more polarized is evidence that people are trending towards banding together in a group-think mentality instead of forming opinions of their own.
In short, critical thinking is the ability to think for yourself. (Read Become a Critical Thinker for a more detailed definition.) It means being secure enough with yourself to have your own opinions even if it means the possibility of ridicule.
It may also be possible that the percentage of critical thinkers has remained the same, but the geo-political environment has increased the need for critical solutions. The internet has opened the information floodgates, giving both propagandists and critical thinkers a more powerful medium to spread their word. Since critical thinkers have always remained a minority, this new environment has made it harder to compete.
Nuclear proliferation and extremism have raised the stakes. The price of a bad decision is infinitely higher than it was 100 years ago. Global prosperity has given everyone bigger weapons, from the military level on down to the individual. A person with a lot of money has more power that they have ever had before.
Bigger weapons mean bigger consequences. I just finished a 4-day golf trip where this idea became very clear to me.
In golf, you choose your weapon when you choose your club. You can’t play without one, but the choice of weapon is critical.
Off the tee-box, the masculine instinct inside me wants to choose the biggest weapon possible: my driver. But since I have yet to develop a high-percentage swing, it severely punishes me for the slightest inaccuracy. A fifteen degree error turns into a lost ball; while I would have landed in the fairway with a shorter club. The bigger the weapon, the bigger the consequence.
A critical thinker has moved through moral stages of dualism and relativism and has chosen their own principles to stand for. Critical thinkers tend to have a very creative perspective on the world because it is completely unique to themselves. Having gone through the two extremes of dualism and relativism themselves, they tend to respect other peoples’ opinions.
If you haven’t noticed, respect for other points of view is not in style at the moment. America is sharply divided politically and each side is absolutely convinced they’re right. The mutual level of hate seems to be reaching a level that we haven’t seen since desegregation.
The First Clue
The first clue that you’re not a critical thinker is you basically agree with everyone else in your social circle. If everyone around you is a Democrat, you believe that all conservative thought is simple minded, racist, greedy religious fanaticism. If everyone around you is a Republican, you believe that all liberal thought is evil, self-absorbed, entitled theoretical fantasy. This is called being an ideologue.
If you’re a critical thinker, you might agree with some conservative thought and some liberal thought, but you respect both sides. You don’t succumb to the social pressure to agree with everything on one side or the other.
It’s Lonely Out There for Critical Thinkers
Critical thinkers are very threatening to ideologues, and therefore don’t get invited to many parties. To a dogmatist on the right, a critical thinker is a liberal. To a dogmatist on the left, the same critical thinker is a conservative. Like I said, you have to be very secure with yourself to think on your own.
Conventional wisdom is a term coined by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society to describe thought that’s generally accepted as true because it’s convenient. The problem is that reality is rarely convenient.
A critical thinker is skeptical of conventional wisdom because it’s almost always overturned. We used to believe the world was flat before believing it was round. We used to believe the earth was the center of the universe. We may someday find out that we don’t exist at all.
Human beings have tendency to overreact, especially in response to emotional stimuli. The cumulative tendencies of individuals translate into tendencies of society as a whole. As a people, our collective consciousness tends to swing from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other over several years.
For this reason, critical thinkers tend to be skeptical of mass hysteria. If everyone in society is panicked about one issue, it’s logical to assume that they will forget about it in a few years.
A critical thinker tries to separate hysteria from reality. Cooler heads must prevail if we are to stabilize.
Do You Think for Yourself?
How closely do your political views match those of your parents? How about your friends, your co-workers, your race, your gender, your socio-economic situation. It’s perfectly natural to assume some of your values from your circle of influence, but have you considered other points of view before deciding on your own?
Other Clues You’re Not a Critical Thinker
You think the other side is stupid for believing what they do.
You’re a conformist.
You’re an anti-conformist.
You can be easily categorized politically.
Your opinions are predictable.
You have strong feelings of dislike for the other side.
You feel morally superior to others.
You can’t be friends with members of certain groups.
The American Dream
One of the great things about The United States is our history for critical thinking and, as a result, balance between extremes. In today’s geo-political environment, there’s a need to reclaim this legacy.
For example: historically, we’ve struck an unique balance between capitalism and socialism. We’re not so capitalist that we trample the lower class, but we’re not so socialist that we don’t produce. You might think that we need to move in one direction or the other, but the fact that we have a debate keeps us from going to one extreme.
Respectful debate is one thing, but the sort of malicious debate that we are seeing today is an indicator of a group-think mentality.
Become Secure With Who You Are
To become a critical thinker, you have to be willing to accept the fact that you might be wrong. In order to do that, you have to be secure. An insecure person feels threatened when questioned. A secure person is interested in hearing why they are being questioned.
Have You Heard All Sides of the Issue?
Are you getting all your information from one source, or do you diversify. Do you have the courage to listen to both conservative and liberal talk radio? How about newspapers and television? Are you listening to points on both sides before you make up your mind?
It’s hard to take someone seriously when they are just spitting out the same thing as everyone else. To make things worse, dogma is usually accompanied by contempt. Two dogmatics on opposite sides are incapable of having a real conversation. Instead of talking to each other, they talk at each other.
Two critical thinkers may have opposite points of view, but still like each other. They can remain friends and still debate. They are willing to concede a good point. They are willing to say that they were wrong. They are drawn to each other because of a thirst for knowledge.
Become A Critical Thinker
Critical thinking is a muscle that can never get enough exercise. Even our greatest thinkers like Aristotle, Newton, and Einstein were eventually proved wrong.
The minute you think you have all the answers is the minute you lost your ability to think critically.