Critical Thinking and Skepticism – Part 2

Based on a quick review of Michael Shermer’s key statements about skepticism (A Brief Introduction, and  A Skeptical Manifesto)  there appear to be at least two general principles of rational skepticism:

GP1. Be open-minded, not closed-minded or dogmatic.

GP2. Be discriminating about believing claims, theories, and viewpoints, not gullible and credulous.

In my previous post on this subject (Critical Thinking and Skepticism), I argued that Critical Thinking provides a necessary framework and some helpful guidance that provides more details and specifics about what these general principles mean and how one can actually put these principles into practice.

But Shermer also provides more specifics about rational skepticism, points that go beyond the above two general principles.  So, to get a better and clearer understanding of the relationship of Critical Thinking and Rational Skepticism, it would be worthwhile to take a look at some of the more specific points Shermer makes concerning rational skepticism.  Shermer spells out ten key questions that rational skeptics should ask in the Baloney Detection Kit:

1. How reliable is the source of the claim? (example: bias of global warming skeptics)

2. Does the source make similar claims? (example: new age supporters believe all of the various superstitious new age claims).

3. Have the claims been verified by somebody else? (example: cold fusion flop – others failed to replicate same results)

4. Does this fit with the way the world works? (example: Nigerian email scam)

5. Has anyone tried to disprove the claim? (comment: eventually critics will look for problems with the claim, and might find good reasons or evidence against it)

6. Where does the preponderance of evidence point? (example: creationists focus on a few alleged problems with evolution, but ignore the huge pile of evidence supporting it)

7. Is the claimant playing by the rules of science? (using logic, reason, and empirical evidence, and testing and corroboration, or just trying to build a case for one viewpoint? Example: UFO proponents compared to SETI scientists).

8. Is the claimant providing positive evidence? (or just denying evidence for an opposing theory? Example: UFO evidence is allegedly covered up by govt.)

9. Does the new theory account for as many phenomena as the old theory? (example: crackpot theories of physics fail to explain most of what current theories explain)

10. Are personal beliefs driving the claim? (are the personal beliefs, ideology, or worldview of person making the claim driving the belief? – problem of confirmation bias – example: global warming issue has been politicized)

Although questions (6), (7), and (10) have implications concerning (GP1), all ten points are primarily aimed at supporting (GP2); the whole list is focused on helping a person to be discriminating in what claims, theories, or points of view they believe.  The whole list is focused on helping people to avoid being gullible and credulous.  Given that the title of this presentation is the “Baloney Detection Kit”, it is not a surprise that the emphasis is on avoiding gullibility and credulity.

There are some themes in these ten points.  One theme is concerned with bias.  Another theme is concerned with the credibility of the source.  Other points are more focused on logic or evaluation of evidence.  Points (1), (2), (7), (8), and (10) are related to determining the credibility of the source of a claim.  Points (1), (2), (6), (7), (8), and(10) are related to the problem of bias.  Points (3), (4), (5), (8) and (9) are related to logic or the proper use of evidence.

What does this imply about the relationship of rational skepticism to critical thinking?  Consider the following claims about what is involved in being a critical thinker:

A critical thinker is inclined to, and able to:

  • make careful and reasonable evaluations of the CREDIBILITY of the source of a claim.
  • make careful and reasonable evaluations about actual or potential BIAS in a particular instance of thinking (either in his/her own thinking or in the thinking of another person).
  • make careful and reasonable evaluations of the LOGICALNESS or  the USE OF EVIDENCE in a particular instance of thinking (either in his/her own thinking or in the thinking of another person).

A person who was not inclined to or not able to make any such evaluations would NOT be a critical thinker.  A person who was inclined to and able to make such evaluations in all three areas is PROBABLY a critical thinker, because these seem to be important aspects of critical thinking.  These three conditions do  not constitute a sufficient condition for being a critical thinker, but someone who satisfies all three conditions would be at least partially a critical thinker, and would probably be more of a critical thinker than the average person on the street.

It is absurd to expect that just one course in critical thinking taken by a person in college, after graduating from high school, would be able to take an uncritical thinker and turn him or her into a critical thinker.  Critical thinking ought to be an integral part of education from kindergarten through 12th grade, so that by the time a person shows up at a college campus, he or she has already developed some significant critical thinking skills and some  inclinations and habits of thought that support the frequent and fairminded application of the principles of critical thinking.  Math, science, social studies, and language arts should all include references to, and use of critical thinking skills and concepts and principles.

Some critical thinking courses offered at some colleges might not cover topics related to evaluation of BIAS, or to evaluation of CREDIBILITY.  Most will deal with topics related to evaluations of LOGICALNESS and EVALUATION OF EVIDENCE.   But clearly, if a critical thinking course skips over concepts and issues related to evaluations of BIAS or evaluations of CREDIBILITY, then that is a serious deficiency in that course, given that one can hardly be a critical thinker apart from having an inclination and ability to make careful and reasonable evaluations of BIAS and CREDIBILITY in particular instances of thinking.

So, some college-level critical thinking courses might not fully support all aspects of rational skepticism as outlined by Shermer in the Baloney Detection Kit.  However, to the extent that a course in critical thinking fails to deal with the topics of BIAS and CREDIBILITY and fails to help students learn to make careful and reasonable evaluations of the credibility of the source of a claim, or to make careful and reasonable evaluations of bias in particular instances of thinking, then that course would also fail to be a good and full course on critical thinking.  In other words, a good and full course on critical thinking would cover all three of the aspects of critical thinking that are emphasized in Shermer’s list of ten points.    So, a good and full course on critical thinking would provide significant help and encouragement towards getting students to become rational skeptics.

Although I have not discussed the specifics of each of the ten points in the Baloney Detection Kit, a quick glance over them suggests that they are precisely the sorts of points that one would expect a good course in critical thinking to touch upon when covering the topics of BIAS, CREDIBILITY, and LOGICALNESS and the proper USE OF EVIDENCE.