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Back to Critical Thinking

posted: 7.31.14 by Jack Solomon

One of the most common demands made upon colleges and universities today is that they must teach “critical thinking.”  As a great believer in the teaching of critical thinking, I feel that it is incumbent upon all of us who teach it to be very clear about just what we think critical thinking is, however.  I have offered my own semiotics-based take on the matter in this blog before and will not repeat it now.  My focus this time will be on the sorts of standardized multiple-choice tests that have been offered on critical thinking for assessment purposes.  For having looked at some of these tests, I can conclude that while they do contain some of the elements of critical thinking (specifically, the ability to distinguish logical fallacies from sound logic, and pseudo-argument from valid argument), they are still very incomplete in their approach to the subject and need to be supplemented by what I will call the empirical side of critical reasoning.

Here’s why.  It is perfectly possible to construct a logically valid argument on the basis of false information.  For example, if it were true that there is no global warming going on in the world, no climate change, and no increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, then it would be logical to argue that nothing needs to be done about the problem because it doesn’t exist.  This argument is being made right now and I presume that my readers will see what’s wrong with it, but I’ll spell it out: the empirical facts as determined by virtually every reputable climate scientist on earth dispute its grounding premise. In other words, to think critically about global climate change, one has to study the science of the matter, and only then can a valid and logical argument be made.  (It is worth pointing out that when one of the last holdouts among prominent climate scientists finally conceded that the scientific evidence indeed pointed to anthropogenetically induced climate change, he was denounced on personal grounds by climate change deniers, not logical or scientific ones.  See how the Christian Science Monitor reported the story in 2012 here.

To generalize: critical thinking includes logical and rhetorical skills (they are necessary), but such skills are not sufficient.  Every problem in critical thinking requires knowledge of the relevant facts.  These facts can be scientific, or historical, or mathematical, or based in any number of other knowledge disciplines, but without knowledge of the facts (call it “content”), there cannot be adequate reasoning.  This is why “reasoning skills” cannot be disassociated from content-based education in science, history, and so on and so forth.

I am perfectly aware of the postmodern and/or poststructural objection to my position, an objection based in both a deconstruction of reason itself and of the existence of any facts apart from values.  Having written an entire book contesting this point of view (Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, 1988), I am not going to attempt to refute it here.  I’ll only say this (echoing something Bruno Latour has written):  if you don’t accept scientific (or other forms of) factuality, then you have no basis on which to challenge climate change denial.  And, more to the point: while you may have a basis for “critique,” you do not have a firm basis for critical thinking.

This is why the critical thinking apparatus of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. is grounded in Peircean rather than structuralist or poststructuralist semiotics.  Charles Peirce was a philosophical and scientific realist.  He acknowledged the mediational role of signs, but wrote that semiotic systems are grounded in reality.  I will concede that no one can finally prove the truth of this perspective, but from a Pragmatistic point of view it offers a far more effective basis for the teaching of critical thinking than one that offers no answer to those whose arguments are founded in made-up “facts,” or in no facts at all.

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