Critical Thinking

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our belief-set as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy suspicion. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution for species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That suspicion is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool as our president.

Predicting The Weather

Consider meteorology for a moment. It’s a pseudo-science in that it tosses around numbers but ultimately depends on intuition. The meteorologist will have several computer models based on a large number of variables and will choose the one the seems to him or her to be most likely. They also like to say things like “The chance of rain is 0% ” which is absurd. In probability theory 0% means that it is logically impossible. Similarly with the suggestion that “there is 100% chance of snow later today.” That would mean it cannot NOT snow, which is also absurd. Meteorology is a pseudo-science. There are many.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch the Weather Channel and see the folks there surrounded by all their elaborate equipment and their L.L. Bean coats telling us with straight faces that there is 0% chance of rain when I know that cannot possibly be the case. But they are pretty people even if they never learned the word “in.” They say things like “It’s raining into Chicago right now,” when we all know that they should say “It is raining in Chicago right now.” The word “into” suggests movement whereas the word “in” suggests place. The Weather Channel folks don’t know that, apparently. But then, they are meteorologists, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t mean they are scientists, or even that they are well educated.

The pseudo sciences draw on probability theory and the notion that if we have numbers to support our claims, then we can call ourselves a “science.” This rests on the indisputable fact that the hard sciences (the REAL sciences) rely heavily on mathematics. I have a good friend who is a physicist and I once asked him what the latest developments in physics were. He answered that there hadn’t been many lately; the physicist must wait for the mathematician to develop the tools for them. But the social (pseudo) sciences abound in numbers convinced that thereby they will pass muster as real science. We are all suckers for numbers. Just think about the polls!

In any event, disciplines like psychology and sociology are pseudo-science because they have nothing more than probability to back them up, and probability theory is a mere shadow of the mathematical calculations on which the physicist and chemist relies. The latter yield certainties, the former not so much. Albert Einstein, for example, knew that his relativity theory was a certainty well before any experiment was devised to verify it. He knew it because the mathematics was correct and that was sufficient of itself. The hard sciences do not rely on probabilities, they rely on exact calculations. Prediction, when it is made, is certain– or as certain as experiments can be when devised by human agents.

In the end, we can still enjoy the pretty people on the Weather Channel with all their state-of-the-art, fancy equipment and their computer models predicting what will happen tomorrow “into” Chicago while, at the same time, we recognize the fact that they are playing at being scientists. It’s just make-believe, like so much on television.