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Thinking Critically with Leah Goldrick

This month I talk with Leah Goldrick, creator of Common Sense Ethics, about logic and critical thinking. See our video chat on the Common Sense Ethics Youtube channel. I hope you enjoy our interview!

Brittany: One of your primary topics at Common Sense Ethics is critical thinking. Could you explain what critical thinking means and why you are interested in it?

Leah: When I say critical thinking, strictly, I'm referring to logic, or the science of how arguments need to be formed in order to be correct. I'm also referring more generally to skills like being slow to form opinions, having standards of evidence, separating truth from falsehood, being able to accurately evaluate other people's arguments, being open-minded, not being afraid to be wrong, changing your mind in light of better information, and thinking with a degree of detachment (rather than from a dogmatic or emotionally driven mindset). I would also add to this a working knowledge of cognitive bias and group dynamics. All these things are helpful for being able to think more clearly.

I suppose that I am interested in critical thinking because I’ve always been a bit of a contrarian. I think that we always need to look at the other side of an argument, and never just accept anything uncritically, no matter who is saying it.

Brittany: You are a big believer in the Socratic method as a means of thinking deeply and critically about issues. In your blog post “How to Get Rid of the Need to be Right,” you define the Socratic method as

a system of cooperative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions (raising doubts) to draw out underlying presumptions. It is a dialectical method, involving a discussion in which one point of view is questioned and one participant may lead another to contradict themselves in some way, thus weakening the defender's original point that they were very certain about before the process began.

Can you tell us more about how the Socratic method can help us engage in dialogue with others and get to the bottom of complex issues?

Leah: The Socratic Method seems complicated but doesn’t have to be. I’ve linked to an article here for people to learn about it more detail. The Socratic Method is simply a way of working together to discover the truth or at least get closer to it.

The Socratic Method helps us get closer to the truth via asking questions (rather than making statements). There are two reasons for this. The first is that this type of dialectical questioning helps to see that what we assumed is true may not be so when counterarguments are given. The second reason is that by asking questions, you are more likely to make someone feel comfortable (and consequently have them consider your arguments) than if you merely disagree with them. People love to give their opinion and by asking questions, you are showing them respect as a person (even if you disagree with their conclusions).

Brittany: You also frequently mention cognitive biases and offer advice on how to overcome them. Could you share some of your thoughts here on cognitive biases?

Leah: There are numerous cognitive biases which can impinge on critical thinking, too many to list here. But two of the more obvious ones are confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Confirmation bias results from the fact that we form fairly rigid belief systems or perceptual frameworks out of necessity as we go through life (in order to handle the information continually coming at us). Usually, our perceptual framework serves us quite well. But it can also be a major intellectual handicap when we are confronted with information which undercuts our established belief systems.

We tend to interpret new information in a way that strengthens our preexisting beliefs. ​​When we are confronted with information which conflicts with our beliefs, we will often find ways to discard it. Everybody does this, even scientists. We also tend to search out information which confirms our beliefs rather than looking for more neutral or contradictory information. One way to avoid confirmation bias is to first, remember that we have blind spots, and second, to intentionally teach ourselves to consider whether the opposite side of any proposition has merit.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is another cognitive bias that limits critical thinking. It simply means that people of lower skill or understanding mistakenly feel that their knowledge of something is greater than it really is. Paradoxically, the more mastery one gains, the less one may feel that one knows. Maybe this is why Socrates felt that he knew nothing. One way to counteract the Dunning-Kruger effect is to stay humble and consider that there could be more to learn.

Brittany: In your blog post “38 Life Lessons in 38 Years,” you write:

One of humanity's worst qualities is that we are a programmable species. Add in some cognitive biases, and the fact that we derive a lot of our self worth from other people's approval, and you have a situation where many people just go along to get along. Don't be like that. Dig deeper. Look for the truth even if it is disturbing or it differs from what you have been taught.

How do we learn to dig deeper into situations and escape from groupthink?

Leah: The term groupthink derives from psychologist Irving Janis’ work on group dynamics in the early 1970s. He coined the term after George Orwell’s “newspeak” in 1984. Groupthink is a “non-deliberate suppression of critical thought as a result of internalization of the group’s norms.” As groups gain more internal cohesion, the risk of groupthink increases because people won’t do anything that might jeopardize membership in that group.

You should suspect groupthink is at play if there is any group in which you or others pressure a dissenter to change his or her views. Is there any group in which you automatically agree with all the opinions of the group? Are you in any group which views the “opposing” groups as evil, stupid, or weak? If so, some examination of your beliefs is probably in order. I suggest several ways to dig deeper throughout the course of this interview.

Brittany: One of the themes in your work on critical thinking is nuance. You argue that many issues society is facing today are falsely presented in simplistic terms, when really they are incredibly complex and nuanced. How does the lack of nuance in political and popular discourse harm us? Is there anything we can do to reintroduce nuance into the conversation?

Leah: I’m not exactly sure I have the full answer, but I can speculate about why this might be the case. True understanding requires time, energy, and open-mindedness to sort through nuances. All these prerequisites are at a premium today. People are busy, journalists have tight deadlines, politicians are in a rush to get things done. Most people’s goal isn’t to better understand things.

There is a philosopher named Terrance Hoyt who argues that there should be more philosophers in public service. I’m not totally convinced that would help, since some philosophers are just as partisan and intellectually rigid as the next person, but it might be a start. I do wish, however, that people would stop thinking that the government can or should solve every problem. A lot of times in the haste to fix things with legislation, things are made worse and unintended consequences are created because no one takes the time to sort through the details.

Brittany: You often mention critical thinking skills as an antidote to two big, messy problems confronting us today: partisan politics and the manipulative news media. How does critical thinking help us fight back against the dumbing-down influence of politics and news?

Leah: To think critically about politics, it helps not to take sides. Not taking sides lets you focus on the bigger picture. It’s better to be committed to principles generally than to be partisan. Marcus Aurelius’ mentor, Rusticus, always advised not taking sides politically. He served twice as consul, which was the highest elected position at that time. That would be like a head of state today saying not to take sides politically. Can you imagine that in today's world?

Political parties seem to exist more for consensus forming and other practical reasons, not because they are committed to upholding any sort of virtues. All political parties will violate the same principles which they supposedly hold dear, and it’s easy to see this if you if you can think about it with a degree of detachment. Partisanship also means being subject to groupthink, as least to some extent. Identity politics is problematic as well in that it can induce groupthink and tribalism.

Public trust in traditional media is now at an all-time low. I have done a lot of work on both propaganda and the decline in journalistic ethics, and it just scratches the surface of the problems. I have further articles and videos planned on the subject. But in short, yes, critical thinking can help us deal with the media. I would recommend not taking most of what is said by the media at face value. Assume most reporting is now agenda-driven. Check sources yourself if you can. Consider the opposite perspective.

Brittany: You also describe the need for intellectual humility and curiosity, quoting Socrates: “All wisdom begins in wonder.” Could you say more about how humility and curiosity make us better?

Leah: Critical thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. If you think you already know something, then you are less likely to seek more information or to question your own beliefs. This results in intellectual stagnation and rigidity.

Humility is necessary because you should always consider the possibility that you could be wrong. Having humility takes a certain amount of maturity. Stoics and Christians alike view this virtue the one of the proper end goals of social and personal development. We are not doing well reaching this goal as a society. If you look around you can see the opposite. Many people so arrogant and so sure that they are right, that they are willing to shout down, cancel and censor people who hold different opinions.

Brittany: Could you describe the relationship between emotions and critical thinking? Do you think Stoicism can help us recognize when emotions are interfering with our thought processes?

Leah: It’s important to be able to separate your ideas and beliefs from your ego. Many people have not learned this skill, so I think Stoicism can help with that. Stoicism helps us control negative emotions like anger, which can stop us from thinking clearly.

Brittany: In general, do you see a relationship between Stoicism and critical thinking?

Leah: The beginnings are there. The modern Stoicism movement concentrates almost exclusively on Stoic ethics and not on logic (or metaphysics). The ancient Stoics would have studied both Aristotelian logic and Stoic logic (as the Stoics had their own system). The closest thing in the modern Stoic movement that might assist critical thinking are the Stoic dictates that we are supposed to question our impressions and not let anger take hold of us. Both practices are helpful for being able to think critically and with more emotional distance. To this I would also recommend a greater exploration of logic, cognitive bias, and the psychology of group dynamics, which I have discussed elsewhere in this interview.

Brittany: You shared some excellent critical thinking books for children and teens on my other website, Apparent Stoic. Do you have suggestions for actively teaching children and teens critical thinking skills?

Leah: We have to be intentional about teaching these skills to our children outside of school unless they are going to a specialized school, like a Classical school, that specifically teaches the trivium (logic, rhetoric, and grammar). Most schools do not teach the trivium, logic, or any of the specific skills I mentioned in my response to the first question above, although they may have critical thinking components rolled into other subjects. This is not enough in my opinion. Critical thinking should be its own area of study. (I, for example, never had any formal logic taught to me until I was in college. I have had to teach myself skills like being slow to form opinions, thinking with a degree of detachment, and about things like cognitive biases and group dynamics.)

In addition to getting some of the books that I recommend in this post you referenced, there are online or homeschool critical thinking courses you can enroll your child in or buy materials for. You can also make freethinking and/or Socratic dialog part of your family culture. True critical thinking begins developmentally speaking at the Logic stage (in Classical education), when a child is roughly age 11-15. Parents can cultivate critical thinking skills in their children and teens by engaging in lively conversation, encouraging their child to inquire and to respectfully dispute. Conversation should focus on finding proper support for arguments, considering alternate possibilities, and not debating issues in an overly emotional or dogmatic way.

Brittany: What resources would you recommend for readers who would like to improve their critical thinking skills?

Leah: There are a lot of free resources and inexpensive study materials for adults available at Trivium Education linked here.

Brittany: Is there anything else you would like to share with Stoics who are interested in thinking more clearly and accurately about the world?

Leah: Stoics may be interested in cultivating a more Socratic temperament generally, which is more or less the character traits and virtues that I have advocated for throughout this interview: having humility, not fearing being wrong or changing your mind, taking joy in learning, and being generally reasonable. You can learn more about the Socratic temperament here.

Many thanks to Leah Goldrick for her insightful comments on critical thinking! You can see more of Leah's philosophy at Common Sense Ethics or her parenting website, Common Sense Mother.

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