How the innumerable errors and misunderstandings have led to the formation of critical thinking

How the innumerable errors and misunderstandings about political and ideological judgments laid the foundations of what is called critical thinking.

How the innumerable errors and misunderstandings have led to the formation of critical thinking
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It is not easy to give a univocal definition of what is meant by the phrase critical thinking. For some, it is the art and science of applying logical skills correctly to a situation or problem, and by what the context demands, specifically traditional material logic and forms of correct reasoning; for this, they recognize that the development of metacognition is also necessary.

From this perspective, Matsagouras, a researcher at the University of Thessaloniki, states in one of his programs that develop this ability:

... inductive, deductive, and analogical reasoning, together with a number of cognitive skills, such as ordering, comparing, analyzing, and hypothesizing, together with metacognition constitute what we have called critical thinking.

Another meaning of critical thinking that we regularly employ points toward prejudice-suspension of judgment until the validity of what is held to be true is verified. Therefore, this second conception of critical thinking demands analyzing the validity or correctness of the arguments that support a judgment, knowing and discovering, if it is the case, the possible fallacies, sophisms, and errors in the reasoning; it also implies verifying and testing the sources of information.

Critical thinking, from this perspective, should be applied mainly to concrete political and social contexts, where thinking and the judgments derived from it are diverted from their purposes and corrupted by ideology, prejudices, and ingrained beliefs.

Finally, it implies, in addition to metacognitive skills (knowing and criticizing what one knows and does), a set of attitudes that need to be developed. While the two definitions do not contradict each other, since they both imply the use of logical skills, they do represent two different approaches to critical thinking.

In what follows we will emphasize the second approach. A good part of the methods for fostering critical thinking is based on the Socratic or maieutic method. Allan Collins discussed the basic process of this method:

Positive and negative examples are selected to exemplify the characteristics of the concept to be analyzed.

Cases are systematically varied to highlight specific cases.

Counterexamples are used to critique the learner's hasty conclusions.

Hypothetical cases are proposed for the student to reflect on other situations.

Strategies for evaluating hypotheses are defined.

The search for other hypotheses that explain the phenomenon in question is encouraged.

The student is induced through captious cases to erroneous answers so that the student recognizes the faults of the thought.

Students are encouraged to deduce the consequences of a hypothesis until they reach a contradiction so that they learn to build valid and consistent theories.

Students seek out and critique invalid opinions from the environment to foster independent thinking.

Critical thinking, in addition to logical skills, involves the development of attitudes such as humility (recognizing limitations of knowledge and mistakes), emotional control (not affirming something without proving it, just because we "like it"), intellectual courage (affirming what we think even when it is not to the liking of others) and the desire to know the truth.

Critical thinking is especially necessary for matters of political opinion and decision-making in social action. Critical thinking implies knowing the prejudices and sources of error in reasoning and discovering them. Among the prejudices, we can mention ideological Manichaeism, fallacies and sophisms, ignorance, psychological biases, social prejudices.

Ideological Manichaeism

There are only two poles: the good and the bad. So whatever they do, the bad guys are the right, the left, the foreigners, the businessmen, the blacks, the Latinos, those of this or that religion, the atheists, the believers, etc. The Manichean attitude is reinforced by selective memory and selective attention in terms of the psychologist Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance.

A mind biased toward a single pole will remember and pay attention only to that which favors its ideas and will overlook that which contradicts it. Worse still is when people embrace uncritical radical ideas as if they were a religion that gives them meaning in life. In these cases, citizenship is always resolved as protest and actions to "eliminate the enemy".

Undoubtedly there are cases in which this is convenient, but it is very suspicious that these behaviors are always rigid and do not offer, above all, consistent arguments. It does not matter that a person is very skilled or intelligent in some area of knowledge to avoid falling into political-ideological prejudices. We have seen how writers, philosophers, scientists defend Manichean ideas with such passion that they border almost on madness or stupidity.

Sometimes Manichaeism can lead to hate crimes or the justification of such crimes consciously or sometimes unconsciously. Fortunately, the reason is public, and little by little things take their place and evidence prevails (although sometimes this process takes a long time). This does not mean that each person embraces ideas and preferences that he/she believes are more convenient and criticizes those that do not satisfy him/her, but it is also necessary to develop self-criticism in order not to fall into fanaticism and simplistic solutions.

Fallacies and sophistry

A large number of sophisms in judgments on social issues prevent critical thinking. We can mention, among them: ignorance of the cast, ad hominem fallacies and tu quoque (or "you too") so common among politicians (discrediting the person instead of showing the invalidity of their arguments), the naturalistic fallacy, false analogies, false disjunction, accidental attribution, false inferences, lack of evidence, among others. Let us explain some of them:

Ad hominem: consists of attacking the prestige of the person instead of the arguments and proposals he presents.


Deputy X, who proposes the reform to article Z, has always been an irresponsible person who rarely attends the sessions, did not fulfill the promises he made in his campaign and contradicted himself several times; in addition, he has been seen talking with M of the power group B, who only see for their interests. This law he is proposing should not be considered because it will surely be bad and will only benefit his power group.

Let us think that someone tells us that our house is on fire and a friend tells us: "Do not believe him, that person does not give the expense to his wife and he has been seen drunk in the streets". Surely we would not be calm and we would immediately look for evidence that our house is on fire or not, we would ask others if they agree with what that person tells us. Of course, prudence would command us to be careful in reviewing the arguments presented by the discredited, but not to reject them out of hand.

The ad hominem fallacy sometimes takes an indirect form:

The law you propose should not be accepted and is not even worthy of analysis, it was also proposed last year by Congressman X, who has always been noted for lying and for being a quarrelsome disrespectful of institutions.

The tu quoque fallacy ("but so are you") consists in accusing the other of the same thing he demands or of other faults or offenses: "I acted badly, but you are worse". For example:

You attack me saying that I committed fraud in the past elections, but look who says it, five years ago they accused one of your supporters of committing fraud in such a state; with what right do you do it.

It is clear that in both cases there is guilt and that the fault of one does not justify the fault of the other. An acquaintance, upon hearing criticism of the act committed by normalistas in burning 17 trucks and defacing their school, adduced, "But the president has set the country on fire!" That is to say, the underlying argument is "we are even" or even "you are left owing me." If the president has set the country on fire then both the president and the students are responsible, and the failure of one does not justify the failure of the other.

It is clear that in this fallacy there is a Manichaeism that they do not confess, and where there are only two poles, the government and the bad businessmen, and the good ones who are the students and the "people"; therefore, everything that the good ones do is good and the only thing they do is to destroy the goods of the bad ones (even if they affect other people's work). This argument could be good, certainly if they would prove it.

Another common example: it is clear that if a vicious doctor tells me that I should quit smoking I would not reply, "But if you smoke, how come you are asking me to quit smoking?" Sometimes with the tu quoque fallacy, they go completely off-topic:

You accuse me of having committed fraud in the past elections, but you have never fulfilled your promises and crime has established itself in the places you govern; you are lousy governors. You have no right to judge me.

False analogies and bad comparisons are also common: "How do you ask the government to build houses quickly if you haven't finished building yours?" (criticism once leveled at Winston Churchill). Another example: "How can you ask the federal government to create more security in the country if you have not been able to control crime in your municipality?

Another example: "If the head is right, everything else will be right; therefore, if we have a good government, everything will be right in society". Or: "The government is the only one to blame for poverty in our country". Here we identify head with government and assume that the government has all the power (and is not subject to a powerful social structure or global phenomena such as recessions); but, furthermore, why not compare the "head" with a university or a thinking and educated community?

We now know that even if a government is good it can do little if the community is degraded; likewise, the analogy is incomplete because having a good head does not free us from genetic or environmental bodily diseases. By the way, this mistake, i.e., attributing all social and political responsibility to the government, has greatly delayed citizen participation. Inappropriate comparisons. Let's take another example that arrived in an e-mail to the author:

Everyone complains about the lack of virtues in young people, but ever since Plato, and even before, philosophers complained that young people are selfish and disrespectful; therefore, it is foolish to worry that they are now "more" selfish and ill-mannered.

Although we can sympathize with this opinion, the reasoning is erroneous. We can also say that wars have existed since ancient times and this does not mean that it is not a constant concern to eradicate them; even more so now that armaments are much more destructive. Thus, the phenomenon of lack of virtues in young people -violence, selfishness, etc.- may have worsened in some communities or nations, and therefore be worrisome by our aspirations for peace and human progress.

Confusion of the cause with the consequence: peoples are underdeveloped because they have bad governments; but in a great number of cases it is the other way around: "Peoples have bad governments because they are underdeveloped". In each case, the cause and the consequence must be analyzed.

The naturalistic fallacy is a classic fallacy: moving from judgments of fact to judgments of value. Example: "There are hundreds of women who die from abortions in bad places and unsanitary conditions. Therefore, abortion should be legalized so that this does not happen". See that from the premise it is not possible to go to the ought to be and, in addition, it gives rise to other equally fallacious conclusions from the point of view of the validity of the reasoning: "Abortion should be avoided at all costs", or "Those who have abortions should be punished harshly so as not to generate a health problem and to encourage sexual responsibility". However, it is possible to argue well using the so-called lesser evil:

In a clandestine abortion the health and life of the mother is put at risk; since the fetus of X development does not reach human dignity, then the life project of the mother is more important and the abortion should be authorized.

But in this case, of course, it is under discussion whether the fetus enjoys the same dignity as a born human being, or only acquires it with a certain time of development, which is precisely what is being debated.

Another example: "Thousands of deaths cause immigrants to cross borders to work in another country, so then there should be no borders." This fallacy also leads to diverse and contrary conclusions, e.g.; "there should be no immigrants"; "potential immigrants should be monitored so that they do not cross borders". Moreover, this argument has the form of the fallacy of "accidental attribution" (something accidental is taken as something essential): borders do not exist to kill immigrants but for other purposes. This fallacy of accidental attribution even takes a comical form: "We must put an end to what causes suffering, but whoever loves you will make you suffer, so we must eliminate whoever loves you".


Ignorance of things, lack of information, and little culture prevent freedom of reasoning. Ignorance can lead people to accept sophistic and populist reasoning, based fundamentally on emotions. In this way -from ignorance- people have tried to prove the existence of extraterrestrials by arguing that the monumental works of the Egyptians or primitive peoples could only have been made, due to their magnitude, by beings from other planets with advanced technology.

Another similar judgment: poverty is caused by the exploitation and wickedness of the rich; although one of the problems is indeed the poor distribution of wealth, this is one of the factors and not the main one of poverty in the world; and there is extreme poverty where there are no rich people either.

Psychological die-cuts

People who commit fallacies and who have a poor personalities are often victims of family, media, or other attitudes they have developed as they go through life. This leads them to be pessimistic and destructive about the vision of social problems and their possible solutions. The excess of optimism can also be an expression of psychic problems.

Of course, psychic experiences also depend on the social class; the immoral phrase that "the poor are poor because they want to be because they are lazy", is often heard in the upper and middle classes - not in all countries - who have many resources. Of course, the arguments they present are poor and often take on merely anecdotal forms: "I once offered a job to a fruit seller and she did not want to accept it: the poor are poor because they want to be".

Social prejudices

These are judgments that by inertia are accepted uncritically and constitute a powerful obstacle to the development of critical thinking. The following is a typology of prejudices that lead to fallacies of all kinds:

Political correctness is the true thing: only that which does not cause conflict with what the majority of people think is acceptable.

Nationalism or group: belonging to a group, party, or nation biases many judgments in principle. Thus, the average American refuses to accept the imperialist and arms-owning character of his country despite the innumerable arbitrary and unjust interventions it has had in many countries since the 19th century; just as the Latin American finds it difficult to see how certain habits foster poverty. In the first case, the Americans justify their interventions by inventing powerful enemies or disguising their economic interests as humanitarian or democratic ends. In the second case, in Latin America, governments are blamed for all ills and wait for the "savior" or the good dictator to arrive.

Absolute freedom: for example: "The poor are poor because they want to be, they don't like to work"; "I am free to do what I want with my body and if I want to remove a fetus it is my right". These are judgments that sound good because they appeal to freedom, but they are fallacious. In the first case because social limitations affect the freedom of the poor. In the second case, there is an error of judgment because a fetus is not part of the body (its biological identity is different); but even if it were, it would be necessary to discuss whether, as members of a society, it is fair and convenient for everyone to do what they want with their bodies, for example, selling kidneys or other organs or committing suicide.

These behaviors have social repercussions that need to be studied and mediated by law and social ethics. Another example: "If you don't like the television programming because it is pernicious (dumb or violent), you are free to turn it off: don't accuse us of forcing you to watch it" or "We only offer to program that people like and you are free to turn it off if you don't like it". It also appeals to freedom, which sounds "good", but it is a fallacy since it passes to an individual decide what is a criticism of the social impact of the media.

Social determinism is the formation of traits: the environment defines who we are; examples: "Most homosexuals are made, they are the product of the education they received". At one time this led to the statement: "Homosexuals are sick because they are the product of family traumas or deviations of the parents who educated them".

Another example: Men and women are the same, we only differ because of the education we receive: men are taught to play with cars and women with dolls, hence their attitudes are different; men are repressed in their emotions and women are not, men are not reproached for their sexual freedom and women are, and so on. Although this seems reasonable, it is not, and those who maintain it do not provide any conclusive evidence in this regard; gender distinctions have deep biological roots.

Roles or functions: an example of the absolute responsibility of authority: "Childhood obesity occurs because schools have not taken measures to prevent it"; "Television was made to entertain, not to educate". Sometimes roles are established ambiguously, for example: "The virtue of young people is to be rebellious and critical, otherwise they cease to be young". It is not clear, at first, whether young people are rebels or should be rebels (or both: they are rebels and should be rebels); however, whatever it is, in everyday communicative environments it is stated or implied that being rebellious is a virtuous characteristic of being young.

But it is clear that those who participated enthusiastically in the First World War, those who brought Hitler to power or various communist dictatorships were young, nationalistic, and rebellious; also that they can demand irrational things: ask their parents for pernicious concessions; demonstrate in support of a dictator, etc. But if they are already rebellious by nature or should be, they mustn't stop being critical. Rebelliousness that obeys fair criticism is always welcome regardless of age, which happens in many cases.

Other examples of misattribution of roles: a dictatorship may assume that its role is to eliminate the opposition with the argument that: "First and foremost the State must take care of the order, whatever the cost, it is a matter of national security". Another: "People are critical and thoughtful if they always attack the status quo: churches, laws, customs, government, businessmen, authorities; they are heroes, social fighters, etc."; or the other way around. There is no doubt that social criticism is extremely important, but it must be truly critical. Just as the economy of a country cannot be fixed with a presidential decree, many social problems cannot be solved with protest marches, but require the exercise of new laws, oversight bodies, government restructuring, new forms of education, and others.

Of course, skepticism and criticism of the actions of social systems is part of critical thinking, and questioning bad practices derived from powerful elites is very important to generate changes, especially if those systems cause serious unjust situations. However, biased attitudes must be subjected to critical thinking in order not to fall into simplistic solutions: falsely attributing the cause of a problem to an element of the problematic system, for example.

Prejudice of infallible science: "In the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century: it was claimed that science has shown that blacks, indigenous people, and Asians are inferior and cannot lead themselves: they are savages by nature".

There were also mass psychologists such as Gustave le Bon who thought something similar about women; or there are also the errors of the inexorability of technology: "the problems caused by technology are corrected by technology itself, ethics has nothing to say about it". Today we know that ethics must intervene to steer technological advances in the right direction, because even if technology can correct its errors - pollution, for example - when it does correct them there is already very serious damage to the population and, even more seriously, hidden dangers, such as the threat of nuclear war. On the other hand, animal experimentation has been severely criticized by ethics to good effect.

A priori ethical determination: "Animals have no rights, they do not think or reason, nor do they have duties, so we can use them as we see fit". We know very well that animals suffer and that they possess some kind of intelligence and that consequently, we can grant them rights, just as we grant them to children and the mentally handicapped. In other times women were forbidden to participate in politics or science because: "They are suggestible and infantile" or because "If women vote, the Church will gain power".

Sometimes these pernicious and unsubstantiated judgments are manifested as popular sayings that are accepted without further ado as popular wisdom: "Think wrong and you will be right"; "Better bad things are better known than good things are unknown", among others. Health criteria can also be affected by these a priori judgments: "Good medicines are the natural ones and bad ones are those synthesized in laboratories". But many plants are malignant if not properly dosed and, on the other hand, most of the "artificial" medicines are synthesized from plants.

Modernity and progress: everything that is new is good. For example: "We are living in a new visual and technological culture, where new codes emerge. All this makes reading obsolete". Another: "All new customs are good, those who oppose them are old people who live in the past". Today we know that reading is a source of culture and meaning in life and that it is also indispensable for taking advantage of information networks.

Psychologist León Festinger
Psychologist León Festinger

The effective limits of critical thinking

Leon Festinger's well-founded theory of cognitive dissonance tells us that when faced with ideas or arguments that contradict those we already have ingrained, our mind will tend to pay attention only to those that reaffirm the former, and that we will tend to remember those that also do so (selective memory and attention); that is, if someone is a follower of this or that political party, he will probably tend not to pay attention to the faults of his political association and will only remember its good works and actions. Of course, this is not always the case; the human being is capable of holding two contradictory ideas if they serve him in different cases.

For example, the one who holds that we are free and build our destiny, but at the same time believes that man must adapt to his circumstances and his environment (without explaining in which cases one criterion applies and in which cases the other). As political and religious topics are not scientific judgments but free opinion, it is easy that the sympathies in favor of this or that idea are made by markings that the child receives from an early age through his parents or siblings, and then the laws of attention and selective memory of Festinguer take effect.

Furthermore, there are ad hoc hypotheses that justify any theoretical failure; thus it is still possible to find racist and neo-Nazi groups. There are also supporters of Marxism who continue to believe that the fall of the iron curtain is a transitory event or that the time for revolution has not yet come. If pure emotionality, and not reason, reigns in education, it will not even be possible to listen to those who have opposing arguments, which is precisely why the formation of rationality from childhood - along with the education of emotions - is the fertile ground where tolerance and the ability to listen and dialogue can take root.

Given all this, we can say that if it is not possible to convince someone to change political or ideological sides based on arguments, we can at least get them to begin to be critical within their ideology, which will help them to be congruent with their points of view. At the same time, it is to be expected that children trained in correct argumentation will, in the long run, be people who do not participate in intolerant Manichaeism, who at least do not commit fallacies in their reasoning, and who develop their ability to listen.

Dr. Richard Paul
Dr. Richard Paul

Critical thinking by Richard Paul

Richard Paul, who comes from philosophy like Matthew Lipman, points out that a large majority of first-time college students are not capable of writing a well-designed analytical essay; that their expositions are unclear, incoherent, inconsistent, and poorly integrated; that they are apathetic and have not become autonomous in their thoughts and beliefs.

For Paul, closely related to Lipman's conception, critical thinking consists of:

The art of thinking about thinking while one is thinking, in such a way as to make thinking clearer, more precise, accurate, relevant, consistent, and fair.

The art of constructive skepticism.

The art of identifying and removing biases and one-sidedness from thinking.

The art of self-directed, in-depth, and rational learning.

The thought is that rationality should certify what one knows and clarify what one ignores.

Richard Paul provides a definition of critical thinking that leads to the analysis of three crucial dimensions: the perfections of thought, the elements of thinking, and domains.

Thus, critical thinking is disciplined, self-directed thinking that exemplifies the perfections of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thinking. It can take two forms: 1) if thinking is disciplined to serve the interests of a particular individual or group to the exclusion of other relevant groups or persons, it is called sophistic or weak critical thinking; 2) if thinking is disciplined to take into account the interests of diverse persons or groups, it would be just or strong critical thinking.

He establishes at least seven interdependent mental attitudes that need to be cultivated if we are to achieve critical thinkers in a strong sense:

Intellectual humility and self-criticism: awareness of one's limits for what one knows.

Intellectual courage: the willingness to face and fairly evaluate ideas, beliefs, or points of view, despite strong rejections of them.

Intellectual empathy: listening attentively and willing to understand the ideas of others before criticizing them.

Intellectual integrity: honesty in handling information.

Intellectual perseverance.

Confidence in reason.

Intellectual sense of justice.

To avoid imperfections, thinking requires some mastery of the elements that compose it, and includes the ability to formulate, analyze and evaluate these elements:

The problem at hand.

The purpose or goal of the thinking.

The frame of reference or viewpoints involved.

The underlying assumptions.

The central concepts and ideas involved.

Principles or theories employed.

Evidence, data, or reasons were given.

Interpretations and claims made.

Inference, reasoning, and lines of thought formulated.

Implications and consequences derived.

The advantages of this project are the utilization of broad skills using materials that relate to students' academic and everyday lives. For example, Richard Paul presents a procedure for detecting prejudices in American society and analyzing them (the motives although inoperative because of the end of the cold war can be easily adapted to other national or international contexts).

By José Luis Espíndola Castro, Source: