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Critical Thinking – A Lost Art Form

February 15, 2011

“All rules have exceptions, but don’t make your rules by the exceptions”

– Dr Michael Unger

What is critical thinking?  I’m glad I asked!

Critical Thinking, in its broadest sense, is purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do.  Critical thinking clarifies goals, examines assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, accomplishes actions, and assesses conclusions.

There is very little critical thinking that occurs amongst most people in the United States.  It is a skill which is no longer being taught, except in advanced science curricula, and this inability to assess information in a valid way is undermining huge swaths of the American World.  We lack the ability to make “sense” out of information, or even to assess if the information we are reading makes “sense” in the first place.  The result is that when someone reads something in print, or hears it on the television, most Americans take it as fact.  They accept it on face value.  They assume that someone ELSE did the critical thinking for them, and would not allow such things to be printed or said if they were not true.  Sadly, this is not the case.

Some examples might be helpful?  How about a simple one…

Some months ago, a smoke plume was seen across the ocean off the coast of Los Angeles.  Glen Beck got on the air and declared that a Chinese submarine had test fired a missile in American airspace.  True?  Of course not, but millions of Glen Beck followers believed it without a second thought.  Individuals with even a hint of common sense in them would have thought, critically, “that just doesn’t seem likely”.  After all, test firing a ballistic missile in our airspace would be an act of war.  The diplomatic repercussions alone would have been devastating to China, across the planet.  Doing so would have served no useful purpose but to anger the entire planet.  This simple step of critical thinking was not performed by millions of people who believed, en mass, that the Chinese had indeed fired a missile in our air space.  This created fear, unnecessarily, which was Glen Beck’s chief motivation in the first place.  I think most people can see where critical thinking should have applied here.

How about a more complicated one?

Your doctor has prescribed a medication for you to lower your cholesterol, which is very high.  This medication has been shown, in very large and well-designed trials, to lower your risk of heart attack or stroke by 50%.  When you get home, you call your best friend and tell her about your new medicine.  She tells you that she took the same medication but it inflamed her liver and she had to stop it.  This frightens you, even though your doctor warned you that it was a rare side effect of the medicine.  You decide not to take it.  Does this thinking process sound familiar?  Perhaps this one is even more familiar:  Your doctor recommends that you take a baby aspirin every day, to prevent heart attacks.  You don’t tell your doctor, but your dad had a heart attack and he took aspirin every day of his life!  You don’t think it works, so you don’t take it.  After all, your mom never took aspirin and she never had a heart attack!  Or, how about this one?  Your doctor tells you to get a colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer.  You decide not to do it, because your uncle got one and had a lot of bleeding afterwards, and after all, no one in your family has ever had colon cancer.  You also know your neighbor got colon cancer even when he had his colonoscopy.  It must not work.

All of these examples are called “Anecdotal Data” and they are the scourge of physicians/scientists everywhere.  It harkens back to the quote I placed at the beginning of this article.  There are, of course, exceptions to all rules.  It is a catastrophic mistake to allow those exceptions to become your guiding influence.  After all, they are called “exceptions” for a reason!  Personal experience and anecdotes ought never be the guiding influence when it comes to critical decision making.  The experiences of 10,000+ people (or millions of people…) over many years are much more likely to predict your experience than the experience of a single random individual.  This type of non-critical decision making is actually so common in the real world, that it is a constant uphill battle for physicians to oppose such influences.  It is also a constant uphill battle in other arenas such as politics, where candidates can sling lies and partial truths at voters, in an effort to sway their opinion.  Even though I am a very moderate, middle-of-the-road individual when it comes to politics, I have become angered beyond indignation at the recent ploys of the Republican Party, as they use lies, partial truths and a manipulation of true facts as their chief weapons since the 2008 elections.  It offends me, as a seeker of truth, that such things can occur without the righteous indignation of the people.  But, sadly, the people don’t even know they are being served up lies, as truth; for they do not think critically.  They do not think to even doubt what is being told to them, either in print, in commercials or in speeches.

Thomas Jefferson once said that the purpose of education was to create an informed electorate.  I believe that the American Educational System has failed us on a mammoth scale, in this regard.  I believe the most important tool that education can give a child before he graduates high school, is the ability to think critically.  The ability to collate through information, asses the truth of that information, and formulate an informed opinion.  Everyone has opinions these days.  Very few of them are informed opinions.  I do not mind if someone has a difference of opinion.  In fact, I welcome it.  I mind, very much, if someone has a difference of opinion which is based on something other than the fact and truth of the matter.  If someone tells me they don’t like Barack Obama because he raised their taxes, I fume.  This is a common thing I hear, because the republican party has said it so many times.  However, it’s not true.  98% of americans (that is a real number) got a tax BREAK under Obama, yet most americans believe what they have heard from the republicans because it’s an easy way to generate ill will towards a standing democratic president.

When lies, deceit and partial truths are the best way to make progress in this country, we have already lost the most important battle.  Honest and impartial debate, based on the objective facts, lead towards decisions which are validated in reality and are much more likely to lead to good results.  This may sound obvious, but it is not the way the world is spinning at the moment.

I encourage everyone to screen all information with a critical eye.  Do not accept information, from any source, without evaluating it for yourself.  Does it make sense?  Is the source reliable?  Does the source have a vested interest in making you believe what they are presenting as fact?

I encourage everyone to get their information online from reputable sources.  Do not read someone’s random blog to find out if some new herb will cure your cancer.  Go to WebMD, or the National Institute of Health or the medical site of the Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins.  Don’t even believe me, if you think what I am writing doesn’t make sense.  Find out for yourself.  Get the facts.  Always the facts.  Base your opinions on facts.  Just the facts, Ma’am.

Remember this…people will usually believe what validates their own view of the world (remember how hard it was for Galileo to convince the Christian World that the Earth was not the center of the universe?).  It is very hard work to make them believe the facts of a matter, if they do not correlate with their internal world view.  True objectivity is very rare, but make it a worthy goal for you and your children.

Good Health!

Dr Mike


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  1. Great read, Mike. In the particular case of medicine, I think the thing that makes it difficult is that too many doctors (and I am confident you are not one of them) are also guilty of failure to think critically. They read the study that listed the statistics on the drug, and decided that drug must work on everybody. Now they’re prescribing it to whoever comes in with a set of symptoms that roughly fit what that drug treats, and we start the mad roll down side-effect mountain. I run across people who are taking 15, 20, 25 different scrips, half of which are just counteracting the side effects of the others. In these cases, both the patient AND the doctor need to do some critical thinking. No, don’t fail to follow doc’s orders because your cousin once got a hangnail from taking whatever you’ve just had prescribed. But also don’t just blindly accept a bunch more drugs without making certain doc is paying attention to what you’re already on, what specific issues you’re having, and what is and isn’t appearing to help.

    It frustrates me how little time people seem to spend in the doc’s office — and I think both the patient AND the doctor are culpable for the problem. Don’t complain that the doc doesn’t take time for you; block the door until your questions are answered. And don’t complain that the patient doesn’t do what you tell them; find out what’s really going on and make sure they feel they are being treated as a whole person.

    And, of course, when we talk about critical thinking, let’s not dismiss the value of direct personal experience. If what you are doing is getting you the results you want, that’s great. If it’s not, it’s probably time to re-evaluate. (It’s a GREAT question for your bedside toolbox, too, Mike — ask the patient if their current behavior is getting them the results they want. It’s straight up, nonjudgmental, and very hard to argue with.)

  2. I believe everyone (doctors alike) can be guilty of not applying Critical Thinking to their lives, especially in their day-to-day living and in areas where we think he have an exceptional knowledge base (i.e. Doctors).

    There is rarely a time when all medicines will be right for all people in all situations. If the physicians are not examining their patients for both tolerability and efficacy, they are not doing their job.

  3. Yvonne permalink

    Very good post. Hope all is well. : )

  4. In general I agree. BUT: many countries (China, India, etc.) have educational systems emphasizing rote memorization. This contrasts with the USA, where “new math” (1970’s) emphasized method at least as much as results. Our students are acculturated to question everything, to disbelieve experts, etc.

    Also: ESTIMATION skills. Happily, my kids are getting it. We didn’t. When Atticus asked how far away the moon was, I said 1.5 seconds at lightspeed, but the sun was 8 minutes away at lightspeed, and the nearest star 4 years at lightspeed. Telling him 286K miles, 93M miles, and some gawdawful number of cubits away for the star means nothing. Reposting on FB.

  5. Candy permalink

    This is SO true. My mother-in-law was loaded with “truths” that she had about raising babies such as “wind on their heads will make them sick”. *ugh* Now that she has been dxed with NHL, I am certain she will think of many reasons why she “caught” it. . .

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