This blog is almost entirely about critical thinking as it applies to the realm of alternative medicine, and I have written about it more often than I care to remember. For instance, in one post I concluded that criticism in alternative medicine is directed almost exclusively towards those who are outside the realm. Criticism from the inside is as good as non-existent.
The consequences of this situation are easy to see for everyone, and they can be dramatic:
- The journals of alternative medicine publish nothing that could be perceived to be negative for the practice of alternative medicine.
- Self-critical thinking has no tradition and has remained an almost alien concept.
- The very few people from the ‘inside’ who dare to criticise alternative practices are ousted and/or declared to be incompetent or worse.
- No action is taken to initiate change.
- The assumptions of alternative medicine remain unaltered for centuries.
- Progress is all but absent.
But what exactly is critical thinking? The ‘Foundation of Critical Thinking‘ defines it as follows: Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
In an article in the Scientific American Heather butler recently provided further clarification. Here is a short extract from this most commendable paper:
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Though often confused with intelligence, critical thinking is not intelligence. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion, and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate. Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases (e.g., hindsight bias, confirmation bias).
Critical thinking predicts a wide range of life events. In a series of studies, conducted in the U.S. and abroad, my colleagues and I have found that critical thinkers experience fewer bad things in life. We asked people to complete an inventory of life events and take a critical thinking assessment (the Halpern Critical Thinking Assessment). The critical thinking assessment measures five components of critical thinking skills including verbal reasoning, argument analysis, hypothesis testing, probability and uncertainty, decision-making, and problem-solving. The inventory of negative life events captures different domains of life such as academic (e.g., I forgot about an exam), health (e.g., I contracted a sexually transmitted infection because I did not wear a condom), legal (e.g., I was arrested for driving under the influence), interpersonal (e.g., I cheated on my romantic partner who I had been with for over a year), financial (e.g., I have over $5,000 of credit card debt), etc. Repeatedly, we found that critical thinkers experience fewer negative life events. This is an important finding because there is plenty of evidence that critical thinking can be taught and improved.
Is it better to be a critical thinker or to be intelligent? My latest research pitted critical thinking and intelligence against each other to see which was associated with fewer negative life events. People who were strong on either intelligence or critical thinking experienced fewer negative events, but critical thinkers did better.
Intelligence and improving intelligence are hot topics that receive a lot of attention. It is time for critical thinking to receive a little more of that attention. Keith Stanovich wrote an entire book about What Intelligence Tests Miss. Reasoning and rationality more closely resemble what we mean when we say a person is smart than spatial skills and math ability. Furthermore, improving intelligence is difficult. Intelligence is largely determined by genetics. Critical thinking, though, can improve with training and the benefits have been shown to persist over time. Anyone can improve their critical thinking skills: Doing so, we can say with certainty, is a smart thing to do.
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We cannot learn to be intelligent, but we can learn how to think critically. If my blog helps some readers to achieve this aim, I would consider the effort worthwhile.