Choose your poison: Climate Change or Critical Thinking Illiteracy (CTI)?
Here’s my case for Critical Thinking Illiteracy (CTI) beating out Climate Change on the apocalyptic race to the bottom. Mind you, they are not mutually exclusive. Be that as it may, if we don’t deal with these exigencies, reality will decide for us. After all, reality just doesn’t care about what humans should do, only what it does do (anthropomorphically speaking). Everything else is just noise.
Arguably never before has a crisis been so mired in the problem and so bereft of a solution. But here we are. A problem ensnared by itself as if talking about Trump and January 6th long enough will somehow do something. This alone is a lesson in critical thinking illiteracy (CTI). Perhaps a “fallacy of ignoratio elenchi” or the “irrelevant conclusion fallacy” whereby the secondary problem becomes the main discussion topic without ever offering a solution to the problem itself.
See how effectively this rhetorical device can deflect our attention away from the core problem? Before going any further, let me be clear that I am not advocating for everyone to master logical fallacies in order to acquire basic critical thinking literacy (CTL). What I’m calling for is much more practical, helpful, and straightforward than that. (More on this later.)
Having just attended the 43rd Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking, I left 80 percent dejected. Why? Because many who have been cultured in academia and therefore inclined to Ivory Tower-ish thinking indicated zero interest in rolling up their sleeves to do the unglamorous work of changing hearts and minds. That’s why.
Let me share with you some of the more popular sentiments, and attitudes I gleaned from the multi-day conference.
- CYNICISM. A wholesale refusal to try to “sell” the virtues of critical thinking outside of the Ivory Tower, with the exception of a small percentage of organizations willing to adopt critical thinking on ivory tower standards. The reason given. It’s too hard. Organizations want tangible and often short-term fixes to complex problems. My response. Then give it to them. And if you can’t do that then rethink your models and their efficacy in the real world. Ivory Tower response: Let’s just say I wasn’t making many friends.
- INTRANSIGENCE. Basic unwillingness to understand the world from an outside the Ivory Tower perspective. Organizations want to understand the value propositions (of whatever it is). Ivory Tower response: We have a different language with different standards. My response: Surely you have a value proposition that can be tethered to productivity, efficiency, more effective decision-making, and even well-being. Ivory Tower response: (crickets)
- COWARDICE. Like most courageous acts, one has to risk one’s livelihood, and at times, life itself, in order to stand for a higher principle that supersedes any single person’s allegiance to egocentrism. Understood. Courage is and will continue to be a rare commodity. The question then becomes whether individuals can be motivated — through reason or other means — to forego their often illusory security for a greater purpose and value.
Still, Some Good Apples Do “Get It”
As for the remaining 20 percent, they did seem to “get it” — did I just commit a No True Scotsman fallacy? — and see their role as not just going through the motions, but as critical thinking literacy (CTL) public servants who very much embrace the challenge of changing hearts and minds. I’m looking forward to supporting them in any way I can. (They know who they are). Mutual support, while unnatural for many introverted nerd types — calling myself out — is itself an important success metric. After all, we are a social species.
(Some other remarkable exceptions include the K-12 and above progressive educators who are bringing critical thinking into the classroom in ways that children find fun. Obviously, we need more of this. Much more. I will address this in detail in a subsequent article so please subscribe and share to make sure you are notified.)
POLITICS DETACHED FROM WELL-BEING
Unless you have been living under a rock, one party, through its collective actions and deeds, has shown its true colors; that the Constitution is expendable; that democracy is actually the problem, and that White Christian Nationalism, a caustic desire for theocratic authoritarianism in the afterlife along with the same anti-democratic anathema in the life we know we have is perhaps the most successful euphemism for American Fascism ever. (Pardon the word salad but sometimes I do get a bit carried away.)
After all, no President, former or otherwise, ever publicly called for the termination of the U.S. Constitution, that is, until Trump did just that on December 3, 2022. The political saga is well-known and beyond repeating what has just been said for our purposes. Numerous important books have already been penned to that end, and surely others will follow.
NEWS MEDIA DRIFTING AWAY FROM ITS WATCHDOG STATUS
Expert opinions on January 6th are vast, insightful, and completely bereft of a solution. Yep. Gotta call out the media for this one. After all, the unofficial fourth check on power has historically been a reliable societal watchdog for any and all matters of institutional failures, be it of business, government, faith, or secular stripes. But this time, they have us so utterly enmeshed in the problem that they forget the obvious question:
What’s the solution?
This journalistic malpractice is so widespread that it has seemingly shifted the burden of the future of American democracy on a few judges, jurors, and lawyers, failing to recognize the tens of millions of American voters who supported the illegal actions of January 6th will continue to believe regardless of the verdict(s). In other words, this does not end when the trials are over. Not even close.
The verdicts, whatever they may ultimately be, will not change the beliefs that allowed for January 6th to happen in the first place. Let that sink in. In turn, there is little to celebrate since the decades-in-the-making erosion of the institutional apparatus that nearly allowed a successful coup remains largely intact. All that is needed is to replace its recently decapitated head (Trump) with a new one. So, in the optimistic scenario where Trump is found guilty on most of the charges, the short-term crisis would be averted while the systemic affliction of widespread CTI would carry on as a readymade plug-and-play CTI network for a Trump 2.0.
CRITICAL THINKING’S ORPHANED STATUS PROVIDES MUCH LIP SERVICE BUT LITTLE SUBSTANCE
Critical Thinking is a multifaceted area of study that exists essentially on an academic island, too small to be considered its own field and thus considered not important enough to garner its own major in either undergraduate or graduate schools. This orphaned status also impacts how critical thinking is taught in philosophy, psychology, behavioral sciences, education, and leadership studies.
Since almost everyone seems to like the idea of critical thinking, it has found its way into many curricula but only as a me-too pedagogy. As such, the classroom norm is to bring it up just long enough to cross it off the checklist (although I’m sure there are exceptions).
So while critical thinking is being taught technically speaking at the university level, rarely is it taught enthusiastically. The result. Students may gain some awareness of critical thinking but little practical understanding or interest in its merits. Beware of this serious enthusiasm gap. This is what many call a Bacon and Eggs analogy where the pig is committed while the chicken is merely involved. Find and replace “chicken” with “critical thinking” and the interest deficit is as clear as clear can be.
Beyond the Political Divide
It’s not a Trump problem, or a Republican problem, or even a right-wing problem. It’s a critical thinking literacy (CTL) problem. After all, hubris or ignorance cares not about party affiliation. Sure, we can make reasoned arguments about how the American Right and its strong affinity to obedience and loyalty makes its flock necessarily more susceptible to Cultish thinking than the more freedom and diversity-skewed left, but both are generalizations with little more utility beyond these broad brush strokes.
Fancy Initials, aka Ph.D., May Not Help You
Remove political identification from the discussion, for instance, and you will find the vast majority of society, even at the highest levels of education impressively gullible to deceit, deception, and fraud as perhaps best accounted by James Randi’s “An Honest Liar” documentary where he successfully fooled a group of Stanford University PhDs — for over four years — that they were observing paranormal activity, only for Randi to reveal the hoax himself on national television, much to the embarrassment of the Stanford team.
What Trump, or the many televangelists who share his persuasive talents, is doing, let alone the peddlers of literally incredible conspiracy theories, New Age divinations, and healings, as well as the average grift somewhere within that vast spectrum, is “lying with great confidence”. That he lacks the normal emotive sensitivities such as guilt and shame, due to his sociopathy, only makes him that much more successful at his life-long grift.
Perhaps history will someday show mercy on Trump for his most unfortunate upbringing by a sadistic and narcissistic father who surely contributed greatly to Trump’s own narcissism, sociopathy, and compulsive lying that would largely define him for the rest of his life. But that’s a discussion for another day.
What you can do to be part of the solution?
Baby steps matter. Please make your sentiments known in the comments section. Show the world you understand the magnitude of the critical thinking literacy crisis and that you demand real solutions before it’s too late. Or alternatively, please share this article on your favorite social media. These little gestures are what give causes legs.
In my next article, I will present my own critical thinking intervention model (CTIM) to take on the numerous problems set forth throughout this article, including:
- How to “hack” into your unconscious heuristics and uncover as much as 98 percent of decision-making that previously was not available to conscious awareness. This is a very big deal!
- How to assess the efficacy or utility of this content before it becomes consequential behavior. This is a very big deal!
- How to reframe this content (when necessary) so it comports with your goals, values, and well-being, (i.e., works for you rather than against you). This is a very big deal!
- How all of this can be compressed into a few critical words and concepts that can fit on the back of any business card. In other words, the model can be implemented in a matter of minutes; this is not just an abstract theory (although it’s that too). It’s a descriptive intervention that allows you to change your decision-making in real-time. This is a very big deal!
- How to prevent an irrational or unhelpful belief from manifesting as behavior and thus achieve greater awareness of your own cognition, including formerly unconscious cognition.
- And most importantly, how the model is teachable to virtually anyone who has the desire to make better decisions, achieve more of their goals, and improve their well-being.
Until then, check out An Honest Liar. Perhaps never before has there been so much critical thinking lessons presented in such a short timeframe. I recommend it to anyone as a first step toward acquiring critical thinking literacy (CTL). It changed the entire trajectory of my life and who knows? It may have a similar impact on yours. And that goes for my academic friends too. May it accomplish what I heretofore have failed to do, to convince you of the magnitude of the problem, that this is truly an all-hands-on-deck moment.
About John David Balla
John David Balla is a behavioral economist and skeptic whose mission is to bring Critical Thinking Literacy (CTL) to anyone interested in enhanced decision-making, goal achievement, and general well-being. John also is a business consultant, leadership coach, and group facilitator specializing in optimal well-being outcomes. He is slated to defend his Ph.D. dissertation in organizational leadership in 2024. Contact John.