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Giving Critical Thinking Some Critical Thought

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

This is a useful, quick read…

Why Do Smart People Do Foolish Things?: Intelligence is not the same as critical thinking and the difference matters

….The advantages of being intelligent are undeniable. Intelligent people are more likely to get better grades and go farther in school. They are more likely to be successful at work. And they are less likely to get into trouble (e.g., commit crimes) as adolescents. Given all the advantages of intelligence, though, you may be surprised to learn that it does not predict other life outcomes, such as well-being. You might imagine that doing well in school or at work might lead to greater life satisfaction, but several large-scale studies have failed to find evidence that IQ impacts life satisfaction or longevity. University of Waterloo psychologist Igor Grossmann and his colleagues argue that most intelligence tests fail to capture real-world decision-making and our ability to interact well with others. This is, in other words, perhaps why “smart” people, do “dumb” things.

The ability to think critically, on the other hand, has been associated with wellness and longevity. Though often confused with intelligence, critical thinking is not intelligence. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion, and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate. Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases (e.g., hindsight bias, confirmation bias).

Read the rest here.

Most people will say (without critical thought) that critical thinking is a good thing but fail to define what they mean by that term. Usually right before they complain that schools and higher ed aren’t imparting the desired but undefined critical thinking skills to their students. While this stereotypical complaint is accurate as far as a generalization, it underestimates how much imparting such skills in students is generally opposed in practice by Left and Right. Argumentative peons who can think for themselves? Really, when in history has this ever been popular? Seldom with rulers and not often with the ruled; sheep do not enjoy the bark of the sheepdog even when the dog is defending the flock from the wolf.

There are idiotic factions on the Right, often socially conservative home schooler types who openly complain about “critical thinking” in the public schools as s kind of liberal conspiracy to replace content knowledge. It isn’t. Though the reverse idea, to minimize the idea of a canon of core content knowledge,  has appeared in ed fads, including aspects of the (deservedly) controversial Common Core Standards which was pushed by a cabal of billionaires, establishment GOP hacks, the Pearson corporation and the Obama administration in order to nationalize the school curriculum and vastly increase standardized testing. It is this recurring pattern of of political-academic-big business charlatanism in American education that gives this perennial right wing complaint traction. The public ed community in the past 40 years has pushed a lot of dubious programs and theories on students and the taxpayers. And still are; often in service of bureaucratic or political agendas like corporate ed reform.

The political  Left is no better and in some ways, worse. If ever there was a cultish, anti-critical thinking, movement for brain dead indoctrination, it’s the social justice/identity politics movement. Rarely have more intelligent people been made to say stupidly nonsensical things on a college campus than in the past two years. It’s play-acting Red Guardism  and vicious moral one-upmanship but as an ideology, SJW identity politics works socially as a self-referential, closed system to inoculate the believer from any need to consider contrary ideas and justify, if need be, violently suppressing them in others.

Critical thinking involves a capacity to use logical reasoning, the skills at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, probabilistic reasoning and several other important intellectual skills in pursuit of rational, skeptical inquiry. It’s powerful.  So powerful that it has been an engine of mankind’s progress whenever it has been given enough freedom to flourish. The flip side is that critical thinking in essence and outcome is also ultimately subversive of all ideologies and regimes. Without exception – and there is the rub. There’s a reason in other words, that Athens put Socrates to death. And we are no better. We do it daily on Twitter, albeit metaphorically because millions of Americans today can neither think critically nor stand to see others do it if it calls their cherished sacred cows to account.

We can teach critical thinking skills along with content. It’s not hard, assuming you can think critically yourself. We don’t systemically do this because we create ed systems designed to prevent it (public ed) or hire an army of people opposed to critical thinking on principle (university diversity bureaucracy). I’ll end my rant on this thought: immediately improving American education across the board at all levels could be done without costing one additional cent, but it means getting a lot of self-serving, politicized, rubbish out of the way.

15 Responses to “Giving Critical Thinking Some Critical Thought”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Zen– a while back, you wrote:

    Unfortunately, with Alcibiades, his numerous gifts could never be separated from his equally stupendous flaws – sexual libertinism, flamboyant profligacy, megalomaniacal ambition and reckless hubris – that were frequently his undoing. A psychological chameleon and demagogue, Waterfield argues that the Athenians, as much as they repeatedly forgave and embraced Alcibiades and his schemes, ultimately feared him as an aspiring tyrant.

    That sounds somewhat familliar, as though we might have a somewhar similar figure today, And that is followed by a scapgoating, then and now? Pray say more.. I have a very limited knowledge of matters Athenian

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Marvelous, thought provoking topic, BTW.

  3. Jim Gant Says:

    Zen, Enjoy today’s post. I keep a copy of “Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools” by Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder on my desk. Tried to apply critical thinking in Afghanistan and am trying very hard to be aware of my very real biases as I continue to struggle through writing “One Tribe at a Time II”. Agree with post wholeheartedly.

    Charles, one of my favorite books is “Tides of War” by Steven Pressfield. It is about Alcibiades, an intriguing figure to say the least.

    Best to both of you.


  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Jim.

  5. zen Says:

    Hey Charles,
    Reading the Waterfield book on Socrates gave me a more nuanced view of Alcibiades who in the Thucydides telling comes off primarily as an irresponsible politician and habitual traitor. Alcibiades was probably the most promising political figure of his generation and had every advantage an aspiring politician could have wanted, from wealth to education to family connections to oratorical skill and charisma. Alcibiades could charm the enemy as well as fellow citizens who already knew him for a proven traitor and possible desecrator of sacred rites. Even in desperate exile he assembled a small private army and fleet and as a Thracian warlord offered to help Athens militarily against her enemies in return for a pardon ( the Athenian generals rebuffed Alcibiades).
    Hi JIm,
    I’ve heard of Paul & Elder but not read their book. What are your thoughts on the recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan in the news?

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Can you say more about a “possible desecrator of sacred rites”? I feel like there’s some illumination here.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’m clear, I think, that one owes piety to father, mother and city, and that Oedipus, all unknowing offends — oh and how he offends — agianst filial and maternal pieties, and that one’s dead would not be left exposed on land outside the city, but there’s a conflict of pieties in Antigone that I’m not so clear on
    Good grief, Zen, I’m just now realizing how concentrated on the Hebrew side of things my education was, and dow ligtle attention wa paid to thr Hellenistic side!

  8. zen Says:

    Hi Charles,
    Leo Strauss and his disciple probably intellectual heir – Allan Bloom made much of the Athens-Jerusalem polarity in the Western intellectual tradition. I’m not well versed in the latter. my review of On Sacrifice was pretty much my solitary foray into Old Testament theological-mythical scholarship.
    The mysteries that were defiled by unknown persons in Athens were the Mysteries of Eleusis. Very, very old and very sacred rites dating to the Bronze Age civilizations before the Dorian invasions, before the Greek Dark Age and the Archaic Greece of Homer.
    Alcibiades was suspected of having put the culprits, aristocratic and wealthy youths of the oligarchic faction who confessed under torture, up to the deed. His enemies charged Alcibiades with the crime and the Assembly recalled Alcibiades from the Expedition to Syracuse where shared co-command with the unfortunate and incompetent Nicias back to Athens to face trial. Rather than face trial, Alcibiades turned traitor (for the first time) and defected to Sparta. Such was his wiliness that Alcibiades within a year had charmed his hosts into making him a key military adviser in their war against Athens. Meanwhile, Nicias, left as sole strategos for a time in Sicily, led Athenians into one of the greatest self-created military disasters in all history. One on par with Napoleon and Hitler’s invasions of Russia

  9. Jim Gant Says:


    Hope all is well. In regards to the recent assessment of Afghanistan…


    Sigh. Deep sigh. Nothing is impossible. However, many things are highly improbable. Afghanistan is of course a deeply emotional question for many. When I think about what to do there, I truly try and take my emotion and the morals of it – out of the question. A lot of us gave much there, some lost their lives and I still have Afghans there who I love and care for very much. Those facts of course should not play into thinking about what to do now. I have some very general thoughts:

    We decided a few years back that we were not going to put in the time and resources needed (not to mention the lack of political will) to stand up a successful, self-sufficient Afghan national government. Implied tasks in order to get this done would be a very tall order: Dealing with Pakistan, Iran and Russia in a strategic, proxy wrestling match, diminishing the Taliban to a point that they lost physical control of territory, and just as importantly, the loss of the psychological stranglehold they have on the population, minimize the corruption at all level of government to culturally acceptable levels, build the Afghan National Security Forces to a level that can defeat the Taliban on the battlefield without US assistance (which we have been unable to do minus a few units such as the Afghan Commandos and the old Counter-Terrorist Pursuit Teams), deal with the massive poverty that is in Afghanistan (how do we really do that?) and finally make a long-term, reliable ally of Afghanistan. The question is no longer one of can we “win” but what is the best choice between maintaining the status quo or a complete withdrawal? Can we afford to “lose” and completely leave Afghanistan? What is the long-term implication of that? If we maintain our current level of funding and enablers the Taliban more than likely won’t regain power. However, a modest reduction in either funding or enablers and the Taliban will eventually regain control of the government. What are our real options?

    The main ingredient in the government of any country to defeat an insurgency is the “government response.” We will all agree that we are a long time away (decades, if ever) from the Afghan government being able to properly “govern” or are we? If we use our standards of “govern” then obviously that will never happen. But is there an acceptable (and reachable) level of “governance” that would allow for a shift in the current paradigm that is Afghanistan?

    I have tossed around in my mind what a total withdrawal would look like…and I can find both positive and negative aspects of a complete withdrawal. The argument that we have to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe-haven for terrorists rings hollow to me. We have to keep everywhere from becoming a safe-haven for terrorists (Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, not to mention France, England and oh, the Untied States as well).

    One last comment: It has taken me years and years to inculcate into my own mind that this type of warfare (4GW) is psychological, political and lastly, spiritual. It is a hard thing to truly understand. Few really understand the full meaning of that statement. The more I think I understand it – the more I realize I don’t.

    Warfare of any kind is complex, dangerous and hard.

    We should avoid them the best we can.

    Sorry, I have no answers. I trust Mattis and McMaster, but man we gotta do something different. 4,000 more advisors doing the same thing they have always done won’t cut it. We really don’t think we “have turned the corner in Afghanistan” – do we?


  10. zen Says:

    Hi Jim,
    The article was very depressing.
    To me, a withdrawal spells not just chaos or Taliban takeover but a return of famine to the Afghan people. If you remove from Afghanistan’s GDP all of the direct military and development aid, economic aid from other states and international agencies and the value of drugs and other illicit activities, what’s left?
    Hardly anything. certainly not enough to import the roughly 1 million MT of grain required annually above what Afghanistan can produce and fund even a fraction of the military and security agencies fighting the Taliban. And since I can’t conceive of the national government being able to force farmers to plant grains in place of cash crops (opium, melons etc) that raise the little money poor farmers earn in a year, that means the surplus population either becomes refugees or starves where they are.
    Perhaps we should threaten to let a million or two Afghans relocate to Pakistan since we have been unwilling or unable to get tough on Pakistan’s unyielding proxy war against the US and Kabul

  11. Jim Gant Says:


    You are correct on all…I can’t even bear to think about the human tragedy that would be a full withdrawal.

    I always told all the Afghans that I dealt with, “The United States won’t be here forever. Let’s do what we can now – while we are here.” Some understood that. Others didn’t. I can assure you that the T(t)aliban understood (understands) that.

    Painful stuff.

    I will get a little sleep tonight knowing I did all I could. But it was far from enough.

    Keep up the great work.


  12. Charles Cameron Says:

    In our prayers.

  13. Grurray Says:

    Tim Lynch wrote a couple weeks ago that he thought they could grow saffron instead of opium. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to buy saffron. It’s not easy to get, and it’s ridiculously expensive.

  14. carl Says:

    Zen, why did you call an expression of your opinion a rant? You expressed your thoughts clearly and intelligently. You don’t have to give a left handed apology for having strong opinions by calling them a “rant”. Where is it written, except in the dripping, madmen haunted halls of political correctness, that someone expressing firm opinions has to preemptively undercut themselves by calling their thoughts a rant?

  15. zen Says:

    Hmmm. I know nothing about saffron or if it is suited to Afghanistan. If it is and can be demonstrated on a very small scale that it will make money for villagers it might take, after a time. There’s a stubborn resistance to new ideas in every peasant society because in a subsistence economy there’s very little margin for error. You guess wrong and your family starves. So outsiders with newfangled ideas are historically greeted with skepticism by farmers from Astrakhan to Appalachia to Afghanistan. A friend of mine, Pete Turner, has a good story about our Army’s engineers vs. an Afghan Water Elder.
    Originally this post was a twitter thread and I was tweeting tongue in cheek as I don’t do a lot of long threads there normally. Mostly Offhand snark or RT.

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