(This originally appeared at Globis.jp, as the first in a series on critical thinking.)
Students don’t think. That’s easy for me to say, being a professor.
Neither do professors. That’s hard for me to say, being a professor.
More accurately, I should say, we don’t think enough. We might ponder a problem — even worry about it through an entire night. It may haunt our day, making us edgy and preoccupied, but often we’re not really thinking about the problem in a useful way. We don’t run through a complete process of defining the situation; finding the cause and which factors are most influential. Even if we do apply critical thinking tools, we often stop once we’ve run through the process, without considering the alternatives or ramifications of our decisions.
We may think we are doing something like that, but usually we’re focusing on two or three key points based on our experience and our emotional preferences. We rely on a handful of unstated assumptions that prejudice our interpretation of data, arriving at a decision based on what we want to do rather than what we should do. If our action is successful, it becomes a reference point for future decisions – a good luck charm that we refer to when making other decisions. (I got that right, so maybe I know what I’m doing.) If we are not successful, we curse our luck and try something else because we know that eventually we’ll be able to solve the problem. (This is try-and-try-again thinking, taken to its extreme means that even a monkey on a typewriter will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare – if given enough chances.)
Even after taking a course in critical thinking – or in my case teaching it many times — we still shoot from the hip; go with our gut. We can tell just by looking at someone whether they have what it takes to be a good hire, a good investment, a good friend.
We are all like Harvard’s most famous MBA, George W. Bush, deciders-in-chief, who go with our gut feelings. This makes us not very good at it being deciders, though it’s what we do so often. (As every marketer knows, we buy on emotion and justify with logic.) Despite being endowed with a large collection of grey matter encased in a hard bucket between our ears, we don’t use it much. We are capable of brilliant insight and reasoning, but too often we fake it because, well, thinking is hard work and too often results in answers that are inconvenient at best and unwelcome at worst.
So a course in critical thinking can be empowering, providing us with tools that can be applied to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant, and define alternative solutions, while thinking broadly enough to ensure that nothing is overlooked. The logic tree is but one of these tools and it can be useful when practiced often. But a tool is only as good as the person wielding it. A golf club in the hands of Tiger Woods is an extraordinarily precise, yet powerful instrument. In my hands it is a metal stick weighted on one end. The same goes for the tools of critical thinking. Practice them often; develop the skills for using them, and we have powerful tools. Use them once in a while and they are obtuse exercises that waste time.
So there you have it, deciders. We need to think better more often. That’s my gut feeling.