Am I being critical?

I have a young relative who is severely dyslectic. Now well into his twenties, he is a top designer currently working on a major prestige project in London. That may seem an unlikely career, but I know why because he addressed it in his university dissertation. He explained that dyslexia can produce a difficulty in recognising patterns, and patterns are an important shortcut for most of us in arriving at sound conclusions from initial evidence. But for a creative designer that may be a problem because his skills rely on radical thinking – he must not be trapped into easy assumptions based on conventional experience.

I remembered this when I was reading a recent study which examined whether IQ or critical thinking was the most important in making decisions.This was measured by the positive or negative real world outcomes. It showed that, although high IQ was needed for making good decisions, critical thinking was even more important. Loosely defined, critical thinking uses relatively organised approaches to problem solving; it employs a variety of methods and attitudes which assist us in analysis and warn us of the tendencies to error built into the human system. Formal IQ tests tend to focus in a somewhat abstract way on the thinking process, while critical thinking is more closely related to the real world.

Let’s imagine a doctor (not yours of course) who listens to your symptoms. He has been trained to the eyeballs and is assisted by several years of experience. This may prejudice his critical thinking because his mind is full of pre-suppositions and likely answers from his existing patterns. We know, for instance, that doctors are susceptible to reading symptoms in the light of their own specialities, and they may, like all of us, be influenced by recent experiences, irrelevant evidence and even, if the neurologists are to be believed, by what they had for breakfast.

Of course that is likely to be true of all the learned professions whose success depends on the veil of omniscience. And by contrast it shows why critical thinking is not common. That is because the critical thinker must first aim his criticism at himself. He must constantly doubt his own views and solicit ideas from those who disagree with him. His triumph is to spot his own errors – which moves him closer to the truth, and so towards the good outcome he seeks. When I become prime minister I shall have a high level team, called “The Swines”. Their job will be to find the flaws in all my proposed policies.

Our imaginary doctor stands in for experts in general. And experts are the people we naturally go to in our uncertainties. Our doctor, like the lawyer and the investment adviser, is forecasting the outcomes of symptoms and forecasting the outcomes of potential remedies. Unfortunately the average expert is not much better at forecasting than the rest of us. When we read of a proposed political decision of consequence we hope to find an expert to forecast the outcome. We probably need not bother: we would do better to consult the professional forecasters. And the evidence broadly supports this.

What can we learn from these forecasters? They tend to work in groups. This broadens the range of mental and psychological ideas, encouraging cooperative work and welcoming challenges. They are quick to recognise, and to abandon, analyses which can never be more than guesswork. As far as possible they use hard data, distinguishing the bad from the good, and they employ a variety of statistical methods which may be used for analysing mathematical probabilities.

We would expect them to be knowledgeable about a range of disciplines. They cannot be expert in all of these but they must know enough to recognise the principles of a relevant discipline and how to get help in its application. And they must be humble in accepting that their own judgments may be skewed by their individual personalities born from genes and experience. They will be continuously aware that there is a range of tendencies leading to error which exists in the human psyche. One example of this is the confirmation bias. Once our minds have begun to form a view we start to favour evidence which supports that growing view. There are several others.

While we could not be expected to use such expertise in everyday life, it is valuable to consider how we can at least approach the principles that forecasters use: the use of good information rather than guesswork, a broad understanding of probability, awareness of our susceptibility to a variety of prejudices and, most importantly, acceptance that uncertainty is unavoidable can all improve our critical thinking.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Neuroscience, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Am I being critical?

  1. galerimo says:

    I would (cheekily) suggest you have a closer look at that talented relation of yours Quentin. You will find it is not the critical thinking that ought to be acknowledged but rather the much rarer and harder to achieve creativity that is the secret of success.

    It is bred into us – critical thinking. From the Socratic method of eliciting opposing view points – like the “Swines” sitting around your Cabinet table, to that constant “sed contra” which St Thomas used in every thesis of his Summa. It floods down through the ages.

    From the enlightenment effect of Descartes and Kant’s systematic doubting of everything that turned the world, as we knew it, on its head (thank God) with their contrary shift to the subject.

    And in the 19th and 20th centuries the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ advocating refusal to accept the conventions of established tradition, applied to the Quest for the Historical Jesus (19th) and later the rise of Feminism (20th). All relying on “critique” to deconstruct the categories of thinking that we take so much for granted.

    Critical thinking – though clearly absent in the young (the reason for my cheek!) does settle on the mature mind as a minor faculty. It is negative, adversarial and just as self serving as plain bias.

    Creativity on the other hand – now that is available at every age and rare in both history and life.
    It is not something that can be taught – more caught. Caught from simple awareness – the most universal and seemingly missing trait in humanity. You get it from the olfactory and tactile senses, from dreaming, and from simply seeing what is in front of your face. Really seeing!

    Oh Dear – its not the experts relying on their stats and patterns of observed, measured and electronically processed behaviours that can tell us anything of substance. As always it will be the creative, imaginative and fully grounded dreamers connected in every way to the world of animals (including human ones), plants and atmospherics who will do it.

    And the most creative thinkers of all, in my humble opinion, are designers. They should be running the world. So just be careful how you design the selection criteria for your “swine”!!!

  2. Catherine says:

    Re Critical thinking I believe you must be pretty confident in one’s own abilities to be able to think critically and accept the results. I work as a nurse and I know I don’t think critically enough partly because that takes a lot of knowledge and personal confidence.

    • Vincent says:

      I don’t think that critical thinking means that you always end up with the right answer. What it does require is setting about getting the right answer in a sensible way. For instance deciding that a situation is beyond your competence, and must be referred to a senior person is perfectly good critical thinking.

  3. G.D. says:

    I completely concur with galerimo’s comments. He taps into my ‘confirmation bias’!

    For me the crux of the matter is in the statement in your (Quentin’s) post ….
    “And they must be humble in accepting that their own judgments may be skewed by their individual personalities born from genes and experience”

    Is it not true to say that the ‘professional training’ culture is to deny the above, and do away with the needed criteria in your last paragraph?
    And so actually do away with (true) critical thinking?
    Hard data (needed and vital as it is when humbly used) is often (mostly even!) twisted and used for supporting ‘confirmation bias’.
    In this the ‘devil (truly) is in the detail’.

    We, as a culture mostly regurgitate the old flaws with ‘justified facts’ and carry on carrying on.

    Of course there are plenty who try and ‘step outside the boxes’ of limiting & limited “hard data” but they are up against an almighty struggle. Many ostracised, in varying ways and to varying degrees, from their particular peer groups.
    Thank’s be to God for them that don’t succumb to peer pressure.
    They, as galerimo indicated, are the ones who bring real and creative expertise to change for the better.

  4. John Candido says:

    Critical thinking is something that is in everyone’s interest to develop. It is not something that one can master in a short period of time, as it is a lifelong task.

    One should never stop reviewing one’s thinking whether or not it leads to success or failure. Indeed, it is likely that lots more can be learnt from all sorts of personal failures. Experience is a part of being a good critical thinker and attitudes such as humility are essential to its attainment.

    Critical thinking should be a part of any educational curriculum. Whether or not it deserves to be taught separately or as a part of English, philosophy, or some other discipline, I am not sure. I suspect the latter.

    • Quentin says:

      I agree that it should come within other subjects, but I think there is a value in teaching it as a skill in its own right.

      I was educated by the Jesuits and I found that I could not make a proposition without being challenged by the question ‘why?’ It has marked me for life. We once had a Mexican lodger who claimed that I had had a Jesuit education. I asked him how he knew. He said that it was because I used the phrase: ‘But first we have to distinguish between…’ He turned out to be a Jesuit priest in mufti.

  5. John Nolan says:

    It is a feature of modern life and especially of modern politics that certain propositions and moral conclusions are accepted uncritically. The hapless Tim Farron was tripped up by the question ‘Do you think gay sex is a sin?’ This was despite the fact that he had voted for same-sex marriage. This type of leading question needs to be dealt with by inviting the questioner to apply some critical thinking of his own; something along these lines.

    ‘You need to explain in precise terms what you mean by “gay”, “sex” and “sin”. Unless I understand what philosophy underlies your use of these concepts, I cannot answer what amounts to a meaningless question.’

    Some years ago I found myself dragooned into attending a study day. The subject was ‘Equality and Diversity’, two favourite buzzwords at the time. After the presenter had spoken for an hour or so and invited contributions from those of his audience who were still paying attention, I essayed the following:

    ‘Equality in the sight of God and before the law is a fundamental principle. Equality in every other aspect of human life is a chimera, the pursuit of which is inherently futile, and attempts to impose it have resulted in much misery. Diversity is a fact of nature over which we have no control whatsoever. Moreover, you appear to think that the two concepts are complementary, whereas a moment’s thought will lead to the obvious conclusion that they are mutually incompatible, if not diametrically opposite.’

  6. Geordie says:

    I like your post, John Nolan. We live in strange times when people can hold contradictory views and be passionate about both. Is an apple equal to an orange?

    • G.D. says:

      No but ‘a banana’ is equal to ‘a fruit’ (it’s a berry actually, but for the sake of critical thinking) ‘an apple’ is equal to ‘a fruit’ .. so …. in some sense … a banana is equal to an apple??

  7. John Nolan says:


    If I like eating bananas as much as I like eating apples, then (in my subjective judgement) there is equality between the two. The same would apply to a banana and a fillet steak. This does not mean that they have anything in common, apart from being food, or being composed of atoms and molecules, or what have you.

    ‘Equal opportunities’ is another phrase that does not stand up to critical analysis. Opportunity is dependent to a large degree on chance, and chance cannot be equalized.

    • G.D. says:

      yes John, i was jesting somewhat. ……..
      But, the circumstances that would more enable an opportunity to be gained, can be altered through whatever means – social political economic physiologically menatlly etc – and so increase or decrease the ‘chance’ of the outcome.
      Is it not in this ‘effect’ that the conundrum in the phrase is applicable; in some sense?
      (Perhaps it should be ‘more equal an oppertunity?).
      If i stack the deck somewhat when playing poker, my chance of an opportunistic win is more than others.

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