Monday, May 30, 2011

The Importance of Critical Thinking

Guest Post from John

During a gathering of non-believers at a recent anti-superstition party, I was reminded that not all non-believers are necessarily skeptics with critical thinking skills. I guess I should have expected this situation as I do recognize that people come to non-belief through different paths. Myself, I can say that I traveled along the path of critical thinking and skepticism. Unashamedly, I consider the critical thinking and skepticism as a stable, reasoned path to follow and the best one to follow.

For the purposes of this essay, I will define critical thinking as logical, consistent method to evaluate information including raw data, analytical methods, data interpretation, and conclusions. Understanding logical fallacies, potential data error sources, and the difference between correlation and causation are essential components of honing critical thinking skills. Skepticism is an approach that uses critical thinking to evaluate the potential validity of a claim. Where multiple potential interpretations of a claim are possible, a skeptic would try to identify falsifiable tests to further evaluate the claim, or invoke Occam’s razor (where the explanation that uses the fewest new assumptions is likely correct). Skepticism and critical thinking are the basis of good science. As such, a skeptic often relies on the consensus of the scientific community to help assess claims outside ones knowledge base. Good science has allowed humans to advance as a society and to understand the workings of the universe.

In our daily lives, critical thinking and skepticism can be used to allow us to make sound decisions and avoid investing time and resources into wasteful pursuits. It also minimizes the cognitive dissonance that occurs when someone is conned or cheated. I enjoy watching ‘illusion’ or magic shows where the entire premise is the con or the cheat, but the performer acknowledges it as such and there is no personal disillusionment. That is not the case with the door-to-door snake-oil hawker or other disreputable salespeople where they will say or do almost anything to get your cash. This also applies to religious leaders who have their hand out, not for the poor, but for the good of the church.

Application of critical thinking and skepticism allows for the separation of reality from fantasy, and the separation of science from pseudoscience. This application has allowed most of us to recognize superstitions as nonsense. A good skeptic with honed critical thinking skills will understand that there are shades of grey between science and pseudoscience and should still support the investigation into phenomena that is poorly understood from a scientific point of view. Homeopathy, reflexology, astrology, numerology, phrenology, dowsing, and similar notions have all been scientifically examined and debunked and are considered pseudoscience. The purported methods and results from these pseudosciences have been scientifically debunked and it is a waste of time and resources to continue to support these ideas. There are, however, some ideas that are on the fringes of science that have yet to be fully studied or falsified that a skeptic would not or should not readily dismiss. These ideas include string-theory, M-theory, and the existence of Higgs boson. Spending research dollars into promising ideas such as these is therefore important to further our knowledge. Spending money on pseudoscience is wasteful.

When applied to religious ideas, the skeptic and critical thinker will likely become at least agnostic toward the idea of a god(s), if not an atheist. People who like the idea of life-after-death, heaven, or re-incarnation have not, in my opinion, consistently applied critical thinking skills, although I have encountered such people (including famous skeptics such as Martin Gardner). However, I have found that not all agnostics or atheists (non-believers) are necessarily skeptics with critical thinking skills. Without healthy skepticism and critical thinking, these people risk devoting time and energy toward debunked pseudoscientific pursuits.