Last week the Huffington Post published an article titled "It's a Matter of Mindset: Ten Principles for Unleashing Critical Thinking," written by Christine Riordan, the Dean of Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. I am always pleased to find media articles on Critical Thinking, and when I noticed that this article was written by the Dean of a business school, I was even more intrigued. Unfortunately, much of the article has little to do with Critical Thinking with Riordan even promoting principles which involve uncritical thought.
The article starts off well with Riordan stressing the need for critical thinking skills in a business world that is "changing at an astonishing and complex pace." Businesses need employees with strong critical thinking skills to "capture opportunities, make sound decisions, create new revenue streams, expand their customer base, and create strength for the future." However, she argues, critical thinking skills are not enough. She distinguishes between critical thinking skills and a critical thinking mindset, claiming that organizational success requires both.
There is some truth to this last point, having critical thinking skills is not enough. But I would argue that if you don't have a critical thinking mindset, then you don't really have the skills. The reason being that to be a critical thinker takes practice. You first learn some basic critical thinking skills, and then develop the ability to think critically by applying these skills. In this sense, critical thinking is like any other skill, such as riding a bike or playing the piano. One can be given instruction on how to ride a bike, but one doesn't learn how to ride a bike without actually riding a bike. Similarly one can be given instruction on how to think critically, but one does not become skilled at thinking critically without developing a critical thinking mindset that one gets from practice.
Riordan, however, seems to mean something quite different when she speaks of a critical thinking mindset. She claims, "individuals with a critical thinking mindset believe they can solve any problem and no challenge is too great. They approach problems with the attitude of optimism, persistence, confidence, and resolution to improve the situation." Again, there is some truth to what she says. It is true that employing critical thinking will make one more confident and optimistic that a particular challenge can be met. Using critical thinking basically means having good reasons. By gathering sufficient evidence, uncovering hidden assumptions, drawing only justified conclusions, you will have reason to be confident and optimistic in the outcome. But it is entirely unreasonable to think that any problem can be solved or that no challenge is too great. Nor is it wise to be blindly optimistic. Blind optimism, being optimistic when one has no reason to be optimistic, can be extremely harmful. To claim that one should merely adopt an attitude of confidence and optimism without reason is, in fact, to promote uncritical thinking.
As the title of her article suggests, Riordan also offers "Ten Principles underlying a Critical Thinking Mindset." Some are indeed valuable, particularly the last, which prescribes fostering a critical thinking environment. It is certainly true that executives should create an environment conducive to critical thinking. One way to do this is to provide critical thinking training workshops for their employees.
Some of Riordan's principles, however, have little to do with critical thinking. Indeed, some again promote uncritical thinking. In particular, is her suggestion to "blink" following the advice given by Malcolm Gladwell in his book with that title. According to Riordan, in times where information is incomplete executives must "use their hunches, gut reactions, and intuition because they don't have access to complete information."
The problem is that we rarely, if ever, have access to complete information when making a decision or solving problems. To have complete information when deciding to do x would mean that we have a deductively valid argument to that effect. A deductively valid argument is one which has the following property: If the premises (the reasons offered in support of the conclusion) are true, the conclusion must be true. So a valid deductive argument for deciding to do x, would be an argument, such that, if the premises of the argument (our reasons for doing x) were true, the conclusion (that we should do x) must be true. But when do we have reasons as good as that?
This is why part of being able to think critically is to be familiar with non-deductive forms of argument, to know when non-deductive arguments are nonetheless good arguments. That is, to know when it is the case that if the premises of an argument of true, the conclusion is most likely true.
What this does not mean is that we should use our hunches, gut reactions, and intuition. Why? Because these are often wrong. Over the past 30 years, research in cognitive science and social psychology has shown how cognitive biases (psychological tendencies that cause the human brain to draw incorrect conclusions) can lead us astray in a wide variety of ways. Quite simply, human beings are not good at reasoning intuitively. To go with one's intuitions is, therefore, not to operate with a critical thinking mindset. Rather, to engage in critical thinking is to be aware that one's intuitions are often misleading and to overcome these biases by properly analyzing arguments.
David Laverty, Ph.D.