“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices”
– William James
The mere possession of critical [thinking] skills is insufficient to make one a critical thinker (Hare, 1999). In my contemplations during this critical thinking course, I see two major obstacles to critical thinking, fair-minded assessment, and well-reasoned conclusions. They are: unexamined and unchallenged bias, and; undisciplined and unpracticed use of readily available tools for anyone desiring to have an impact in their world.Let me first explore the obstacle of unexamined and unchallenged bias. Webster defines bias as a “tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents an unprejudiced consideration”. While it is important to note that being human means that we can’t be free of bias, it is also important to understand whether our bias affects the outcome of our assessment, and how. Conversely, because we’re all human, even the things we read, watch, and listen to have a bias to them, whether old media or new. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. The problem comes when, in the process of trying to arrive at a well-considered and well-reasoned decision, we’ve either been unwitting victims of someone else’s bias or we have not considered one or more divergent perspectives because of our own bias. There are several good methodologies for discovering bias in the media, whether on the web or elsewhere. Such methodologies can be found, for instance, at Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit (http://www.committedsardine.com/blogpost.cfm?blogID=181), Scott Wrobel’s Evaluating Sources and Arguments: Credibility and Bias (http://webs.anokaramsey.edu/wrobel/1121/Course%20Materials/Web%20Lectures/evaluating_sources_for_credibili.htm), Alan November’s Who Owns the Websites Your Kids Access? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVLS_rlwnwI, and Rhetorica’s media bias detection site (http://rhetorica.net/bias.htm). While this is not an exhaustive list, there also happens to be differences in approach by each of these. For instance, Michael Shermer’s focus is more centered on analyzing the content, the data, and the sources behind the data, as seen in the following video:
Michael Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit
Alan November’s approach gives one the tools analyze the writer, the owner and the publisher of the content and to understand their bias and their purpose in producing the content. The following video shows November teaching parents of school-age children how to examine people and organizations around the content.
Alan November: Who Owns the Websites Your Kids Access?
Once the bias of the content is discerned, we have to examine our own bias. Questions like, “have I considered enough viewpoints?”, or “do viewpoints that don’t agree with mine have enough of a voice?”, need to be answered before arriving at a conclusion. These are important questions, because they will keep us from inadvertently leaving important perspectives out of the iterative process of discovery, analysis, application, assessment, and solution generation. This avoids having a one-sided view of the problem and/or an uncritical or naive solution.Next, is the obstacle of undisciplined and unpracticed use of critical thinking skills. Bertrand Russell, the great thinker and philosopher of the last century, believed that critical thinking was a habit of the mind – a process formed of practice (Hare, 1999). Russell maintained that relevant skills should be exercised regularly until they become part of our behavior. During our course we were introduced to Richard Paul’s Foundation for Critical Thinking. His website (www.foundationforcriticalthinking.com) is rich with material explaining both the tools and the application of the tools one can use to be a serious and maturing critical thinker. The following graphic from the foundation for Critical Thinking shows the elements of thought.
|Elements of Thought (Paul & Elder, 2009)|
It's important to note that there isn’t a “starting point” here, nor a prescribed order in applying these skills, but rather the critical thinker must know when and how to apply each skill as they move through the process from inquiry to solution. To Hare’s point, however, just possessing these skills, either singularly or collectively, does not make one a critical thinker.The maturing critical thinker demonstrates the ability to apply intellectual standards (Paul & Elder, 2009) such as clarity, accuracy, breadth, precision, fairness and depth (and there are others) to the elements of thought in a disciplined manner. The maturing critical thinker also uses daily opportunities to practice and apply these intellectual standards to the elements of thought to solve problems, assess approaches and find solutions. Paul and Elder (2009), have given us a roadmap to maturing as a critical thinker with their article Critical Thinking in Everyday Life: 9 Strategies, which can be found at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-in-everyday-life-9-strategies/512.
Maturation takes discipline and a commitment to the process plus time and practice. These tools, strategies, and methodologies are available to anyone who is interested in improving their critical thinking abilities. With the discipline of practice comes habit. With habit comes behavioral change. The behavioral change yields character traits which are fundamental to a critical thinker. Breanne Harris (2010) enumerates six characteristics of great critical thinkers:1. Curiosity. Great critical thinkers tune into their desire to continue learning and understanding how things work.
2. Humility. Great critical thinkers understand that their ideas may not be the best and that they do not know everything.
3. Ability to research. The ability to research things and bring in multiple resources will unveil a lot.
4. Active Listening. Don’t just hear what others have to say, engage in conversation.
5. Objectivity. Great critical thinkers have the ability to remain objective. They don’t let their emotions (or others’) cloud their judgment.
6. Creativity. Brainstorming without judgment can spark amazing ideas. Thinking outside the box may create a solution.
Relating these concepts to clear and critical use of media, with the tools from Michael Shermer, Alan November, Scott Wrobel, and others, I now understand how to detect bias in the media. With the added tools from the Foundation for Critical Thinking, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Emerald Insight and others I have discovered how to challenge my own bias. Together, these tool sets can help me be thorough in my approach to determining bias – mine and others’ - and assessing its impact on my conclusions or solutions.I have found that in my own professional setting, these skills are beginning to change the way I approach problem-solving. One of the hazards of being promoted in a large organization is the tendency to make decisions based on intuition from experience. After all, with each succeeding promotion, there is a push to make faster decisions on fewer of the facts. Time is of the essence, especially in the fast-moving field of technology. This becomes the critical thinking killer. When time is of the essence, our very nature as human beings will gravitate toward what we know or are familiar or comfortable with, versus what we don’t know or with which we’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Very subtly our bias creeps into the assessment and solution, without any critical assessment. It can be helpful for speed, but potentially dangerous in that the best path forward may very well lie (and often does) in areas of a divergent perspective or unfamiliar or even uncomfortable concept. Instead of allowing the time necessary to consider other perspectives and concepts, we might find ourselves trying to get to a practical solution as quickly as possible. But as the old adage goes: “there’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but always enough time to do it over!” These concepts have really challenged the speed with which I make decisions, and have made me far more deliberate in making sure to find the right question and use all of the elements of thought in arriving at the best path forward.
The newly learned tools and methodologies gained in this critical thinking class will inform my scholarly development and ongoing research during this doctoral program by making me more aware of the need for discipline and intellectual honesty for every area of inquiry. As applied, these methodologies will help me be diligent in examining and challenging bias and develop good thinking habits. Further, with the multiplicity of tools available on-line and in print, there are ample opportunities for me to practice, mature as a critical thinker and develop character – not just for the sake of this program, but for my on-going work as a practitioner in media psychology.
Emerald Insight. Retrieved on September 20, 2012 from: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/learning/study_skills/skills/critical_thinking.htm.
Hare, W. (1999). Bertrand Russell on Critical Thinking. The Critical Thinking Community. Retrieved from: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/bertrand-russell-on-critical-thinking/477
Harris, B. (2010). 6 Powerful Characteristics of Great Critical Thinkers. Retrieved Septmber 2, 2012 from http://critical-thinkers.com/2010/09/6-powerful-characteristics-of-great-critical-thinkers/November, A. (2007). Who owns the websites your kids access? Retrieved September 2, 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVLS_rlwnwI.
Paul, R. (1995). Glossary of Critical Thinking Terms. The Critical Thinking Community. Retrieved from: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/glossary-of-critical-thinking-terms/496
Paul, R. and Elder, L. 2009. Critical Thinking: Concepts and tools. Foundation for critical thinking press.
Shermer, M. (2009). The Baloney Detection Kit. Retreived from: http://www.committedsardine.com/blogpost.cfm?blogID=181
Valuable Intellectual Virtues (June 1996). Foundation For Critical Thinking. The Critical Thinking Community. Retrieved from: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/valuable-intellectual-traits/528Wrobel, S. (n.d.). Evaluating sources and arguments: Credibility and bias. Anoka Ramsey Community College. Retrieved on 8/28/12 from: http://webs.anokaramsey.edu/wrobel/1121/Course%20Materials/Web%20Lectures/evaluating_sources_for_credibili.htm