The end-game of critical thinking

A friend sent me this link, from last month’s Washington Post, about the Texas GOPs Party platform calling for a ban on critical thinking. The plank in question reads:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

“We oppose the teaching of higher order thinking skills” is a very funny line, expressing the Texan fondness for combining ignorance and aggression, and lots of people have had fun making fun of it, me included.

The thing is, they are absolutely right. Critical thinking does undermine parental authority and it does undermine belief. They aren’t wrong to oppose it on those grounds. But in fact, they are deeply engaged in critical thinking, whether they know it or not.

The Post quotes Daniel Willingham describing critical thinking thusly:

Critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.

The “and so forth” would seem to be key here: “critical thinking” consists of a mindset, a mindset so well known and familiar to those who share it that it can reasonably be described with “and so forth.” This should be raising the eyebrows of any serious critical thinker, and in fact it encourages the sense, no doubt shared by the Texas GOP, that “critical thinking” is nothing more than the lifestyle choices of smug liberals, dressed up as science.

The other key sentence would seem to be this: “being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas.” Critical thinking is here defined as “being open to new evidence,” not as accepting the validity of evidence that disconfirms your ideas. Who could advance as critical thinking something which requires  you to disconfirm your ideas?

“Creationists,” to take one example, are engaged in critical thinking. One of the lynchpins of critical thinking is attacking the fundamental premises that support the thing you’re critiquing. Are those really human footprints next to the dinosaur tracks? The evidence overwhelmingly suggests “no.” But the people making the argument are engaged in critical thinking, and really bold critical thinking, in that they are aiming at the massive edifice of evolutionary biology. It’s audacious and deeply critical.

I suppose I could be accused here of equating critical thinking and skepticism. They’re related, but not the same thing. “Skepticism” might be nothing more than stubborness or the unwillingness to look at alternative points of view. But the evolution skeptics think they have evidence–they’ve gone through all the motions and forms of evidence gathering except for the final stage, confirmation with objective reality.

But here’s the problem: “critical thinking” that depends on accurate apprehension of the natural world, on objective natural facts, isn’t really “critical thinking” as described above. It’s just an attempt to get thinking in line with the natural world, and into a state where no critical thinking is possible, because objective truth has been determined. In other words, if the goal of critical thinking is objective truth, then the end-state of critical thinking is “no more critical thinking.” If critical thinking is understood as a 1-1 relationship with the natural world, with truth revealed and no distortion, then the end goal of critical thinking would be to render itself obsolete. The alternative to this would be to allow as critical thinking that which entertains opposing points of view, but is not swayed by them. And in this sense, the Texas GOP is surely engaged in critical thinking.

The Post article says you can’t teach critical thinking:

Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill.

Contra the Post article, critical thinking can certainly be taught, and learned, but you can’t predict the outcomes you’ll get, which is the point.

The Texas GOP wants predictable outcomes, as they explain here. They want to call it “critical thinking,” but also to produce predictable outcomes, which is exactly what it can’t do, ever, if it’s seriously critical.



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