CRITICAL THINKING FOR LIFE AND WORK                                     by Anne McDonagh

originally published in 2015 Spring Issue

A few years ago when I was teaching Communications at one of the Community Colleges in Toronto, I asked the students in my business class what the purpose of advertising was. To my dismay, they said with one voice,”To educate the public.” No doubt their business teachers and textbooks encouraged this fantasy. However, if they had submitted this idea to some critical thinking, the answer might have been quite different. “To create a need among consumers? To sell a product? To make money? To fool the public?” Any of these would have been more accurate than the original answer.


Critical thinking is an essential skill and it should be our constant companion as consumers and as citizens. We need to protect ourselves from the false promises of advertisers and the spin of politicians. What is more, seeing through the lies of advertisers and politicians is necessary if we want to preserve our way of life as a free and democratic society. Critical thinking is our weapon, but we must learn how to use it.


Critical thinking is not just seeing what is wrong with statements made by advertisers or politicians. It is a way of thinking that does not come naturally to us. Among other qualities critical thinking requires us to be reasonable and logical, unbiased and tolerant, well-informed and open to new ideas. A critical thinker considers the credibility of sources, examines assumptions and evidence. A critical thinker can develop and defend a logical opinion, devise convincing hypotheses and draw clearly reasoned, sound conclusions.


The absence of critical thinking among many people should be of concern to all of us who care about the world we live in. The lack of civil discourse and unashamed ignorance and bigotry of the Tea Party movement in the United States is an extreme example of the lack of critical thinking.


We Canadians are not a whole lot better. Remember the coalition formed by the Liberals and NDP with support from the Bloc which might have defeated the government? There was plenty to criticize in this coalition, but the Conservative government claimed it was anti-democratic, which it was not, but many of us fell for it.  We Canadians don’t care enough about how we are governed to know a coalition government is quite common, democratic and legal in parliamentary democracies as is the case right now in Great Britain. In their push to lower civil discourse in Canada, the Tories continue to refer disparagingly to the Liberals and the NDP as the Coalition. This is a small example of how we are led astray if we do not intentionally pay attention to what our politicians are doing and saying and if we do not care enough about how we are governed. And we are all victims, usually without realizing it, of advertising. The cost of sneakers is outrageous— especially as many are made by cheap labour in Asian sweatshops—but we pay the price because of the brand name. Ads appeal to our desire for status, for romance, for success, for all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the product.


Advertisers and politicians use buzz words to manipulate us. As a critical thinker your lie-detecting radar should go on high alert when you hear politicians talking about “hard working families” when they talk about services they may or may not have performed for ordinary people, like giving $100 dollars a month to families instead of the far more useful universal daycare; or accusing their opponents of being “tax and spend” advocates; or “our brave men and women in uniform” whenever doubts about war or the military are raised. Critical thinkers are able to keep from getting hoodwinked by either advertisers or politicians. Critical thinking is one way to see through all this duplicity thrown at us on a daily basis.


On the whole critical thinking is a skill more likely to be developed by a Liberal Arts education than by a professional, vocational or technical program which emphasizes training in practical skills; for example, engineering, dentistry, various technology programs etc. According to Wikipedia “the term Liberal Arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities. The contemporary Liberal Arts include the study of literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science.”


In Liberal Arts courses students learn and practice many skills. For example, the writing of essays, a large component of any Liberal Arts program, requires you to think clearly and write correctly. You have to develop hypotheses, defend your ideas and draw conclusions. Similarly, in tutorials you are expected to present and defend your well-researched information in a clear and logical manner.


Good scientists learn to be logical and impartial in their pursuits—both integral aspects of critical thinking. The Scientific Method, which has been largely responsible for our understanding of the natural world and is the hallmark of our civilization, is the ultimate example of critical thinking.


In the study of philosophy, you have to free your mind of preconceived ideas. One of the most important components of philosophy is ethics. The topic is approached logically and impartially. You examine many schools of thought regarding what is moral or ethical, i.e., what constitutes a good life. (The CEOs and other executives of the corporations that caused the recent economic crisis might benefit from a course in ethics.)


History gives students perspective on their own culture. They learn that their own society is just one of many that have flourished and fallen. This perspective develops tolerance for differences, a quality necessary in our globalized world and an appetite for innovation, a quality necessary for our economy to survive. The study of languages and literature creates an appreciation of other cultures much as the study of history does.


There are other reasons to cultivate skills in critical thinking apart from protecting ourselves from the manipulations of advertisers and politicians. Now more than ever critical thinking is increasingly valued in the workplace. The value of employees who are fair, ethical, tolerant, well informed, can think on their feet, and can see the likely long-term effects of a policy are incalculable.


CONSIDER THESE FIVE STEPS OF CRITICAL THINKING

  1. What am I being asked to believe or accept? What is the hypothesis?
  2. What evidence is available to support the assertion? Is it reliable and valid?
  3. Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence?
  4. What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives?
  5. What conclusions are most reasonable based on the evidence and the number of alternative explanations?

Barriers to Critical Thinking 

  • Human egocentricity, our tendency to think ourselves at the centre of the world.
  • Sociocentricity, our tendency to think within the confines of our social groups.
  • Self-delusion, our tendency to create pictures of the world that deceives us and others.
  • Narrow-mindedness, wherein we think of ourselves as broad, deep, and in touch with reality. If only we understood, we would see ourselves as very limited.
  • Fear undermines thinking, fear drives us to the lowest levels of thought, fear makes us defensive. It makes us little and petty.
  • Human habits, our tendencies to go through the same old patterns of thought and behavior and be dominated by them; our inability to target our negative habits and replace them with positive habits.

Our thinking is limited by:

  • mistaken notions 
  • ignorance,
  • our limited knowledge
  • stubbornness, our activated ignorance, and  
  • our resistance to doing the intellectual work necessary to critical thinking.

Toronto, Canada