Why does no-one do 24/7 critical thinking: a thought-piece

Critical thinking, as philosophers traditionally define it, requires scrutiny of assumptions, evidence, and reasoning involved in any proposition. Of course, none of us do that scrutiny all the time. I don’t, for example, question whether the appendage coming out of my left shoulder—my arm—is part of my own body.
(See Sacks 1984 for experiences people have of doubting that.) Another example: I’m not sure that I can articulate the relevant assumptions and reasoning behind accepting the salary I get paid as a professor, when the nurses who cared for me in hospital a few years ago get paid considerably less. And so on. (You might take some time out here to list issues you don’t scrutinize.) The question then is why don’t we do critical thinking all the time?

You can surely begin to come up with many reasons. “We don’t have enough time in the day.” “It didn’t occur to us that we were making assumptions, that there was even a proposition involved.” (You might take some more time out here to brainstorm reasons why you don’t scrutinize every proposition.)

Let me pick up on the second reason and explore an example. It was not until my 30s that I asked why, given that the sun is so much more massive than the earth, that its gravity did not suck me towards it off the earth. Once I asked that I soon wondered why, given that the galaxy is so much more massive than the sun, I did not find myself accelerating towards the center of the galaxy. Now I can imagine that few readers have been worried by these questions. Perhaps you even think that I am crazy to have come up with them. (If so, what assumptions, evidence, and reasoning went into your thinking?) It is quite reasonable, based on prior experience, for you to assume that there is no likelihood of these possibilities. (When, you might ask, does such prior experience fail you?) But flying off the earth was not the issue for me. The issue was realizing that I did not understand what I thought I had, namely, why gravity keeps me on the earth.

Perhaps you think that you can rely on there being scientists who can explain how gravity works; you don’t have to bother with that. I can accept that view but would ask when do you decide to accept the knowledge that others provide you and when do you decide to generate your own understanding? Note, for example, that Newton, who formulated the classical understanding of the inverse square law of gravity, believed that there had to be some medium—an ether—through which gravity was transmitted. Paraphrasing here from memory, he claimed that to believe that such a force could apply over such a distance without some medium was to entertain a proposition that was so ridiculous that no thinking person could entertain it. It took another 200 years before physicists showed that the ether did not exist. Revolutions then followed in concepts of space, time, matter, energy, force, and so on.

Perhaps you think that you can leave it to scientists to decide when to question established explanations, even if that takes 200 years. But are there circumstances in which you decide that the knowledge of others provides grounds to stimulate your own questioning? Let me elaborate with three examples.

As a teenager I was quite taken with the claims of Erich von Däniken, in his book Chariots of the Gods?, that there were many pieces of evidence that only made sense if aliens had been visitors of the earth. He acknowledged some conventional explanations for each piece of evidence but they seemed like particular explanations—von Däniken’s theory bound them together into a neat whole. Before long I came across critiques of von Däniken that made particular explanations plausible and undermined his all-encompassing explanation. My curiosity about possible alien visitation faded away.

Around the time of the millennium I came across a link to a website that catalogued evidence and questions for further inquiry concerning the extent of voyages of Chinese fleets in the early 15th century. I was very impressed by the openness to scrutiny and dispute evident in this catalog. Later I read the first book, 1421, by the instigator of the website, Gavin Menzies. I enjoyed the way it assembled many pieces of evidence that made sense—that formed a neat whole—if the fleets had sailed as far away as New Zealand and New England—that is, to the places we now know by those names. Now, although I recalled the rise and fall of my enthusiasm for the Chariots of the Gods, the openness of the 1421 website to further inquiry gave me more confidence in the work of Menzies. I didn’t get involved in such inquiry myself, but I was intrigued by the thought that there was an alternative to the dominant history of the world that centers on Western Europe and its colonization of the rest of the world starting later in the 15th century. I wondered how often my views of the world had been shaped by unwitting assumptions derived from having accepted that history. Moreover, when I encounter specialists who can refute particular claims or hypotheses of Menzies, I am not ready to join them when they discount his work as a whole. Instead, I ask why they do not take the occasion to examine the historical roots of their fields, to scrutinize assumptions, evidence, and reasoning they had been relying on. The result of such an examination could be a firmer basis for the dominant view or it could lead to a reframing, say, of how to understand the resurgent power of China since the 1970s.

Perhaps the possibility of visits by aliens or 15th century Chinese fleets does not move you. Consider, however, current debates about childhood vaccination in the USA. I do not see evidence that supports a link with autism and I understand the benefits for public health of high levels of vaccination in the population. That is, I understand the dangers if parental hesitancy leads to vaccination levels low enough that epidemics of, say, mumps can occur again. Yet, I am also aware that, as the debate has evolved, questions are being asked by critics of vaccination about the role and power of pharmaceutical corporations in promoting and profiting from new programs. I wonder whether my reluctance to be associated with people who hold onto the discredited vaccine-autism link is affecting the degree to which I am prepared to undertake critical thinking about the positions of defenders of vaccination and the connection between public health and pharmaceutical profit making.

to be continued

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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