We need to develop our critical thinking skills, but it is striking to note that it is often lacking on a daily basis: frequent references to ‘damning statements’ or ‘punchlines’ in the political debate, locking oneself in a victim attitude when one’s bank is taken over by a competitor, failing to involve other relevant sources when writing an article, being able to lie thousands of times in the case of a US President and getting away with it, being unable to listen to critical advisers in the case of an isolated leader in the Kremlin, tending to believe everything being circulated on social networks or being prone to finding it normal for anonymity to reign supreme on Twitter or Instagram.
What has become of the legacy of Plato, the Enlightenment, Raymond Aron, and Jürgen Habermas? Even if it is easier to follow the silent majority, it is up to responsible citizens to perfect their critical thinking skills, all the more so in a world made of half-truths, excuses, conspiracy theories, outrageous statements, and media excesses of all kinds.
The root of the lack of critical thinking lies in the fact that we all have cognitive biases which, according to scientists, are similar to a deviation in the rational processing of information.Jérôme Koechlin
Here’s a quick reminder of the various steps involved in practising the great virtue of critical thinking.
First of all, it is important to really take the time to find out what’s going on and understand before making a judgement. The next step is to evaluate the information by getting to the root in order to understand how knowledge is built. Then you need to sort factual information from arguments and opinions. The fourth stage consists in duly noting the debates between interpretations and the need for pluralism of ideas and projects. And finally, we need to distinguish between interpretations validated by experience, or hypotheses, and opinions based on beliefs.
The root of the lack of critical thinking lies in the fact that we all have cognitive biases which, according to scientists, are similar to a deviation in the rational processing of information. Because of cognitive biases, a person is led to give different weight to facts of the same nature, leading to errors of judgement or reasoning.
Here are a few examples of judgement bias. The anchoring bias influences first impressions; the self-indulgence bias consists in thinking that we are responsible for our successes, but not for our failures; the normalcy bias consists in thinking that everything will happen as usual, disbelieving warning signs; the egocentric bias leads people to self-assess in an inappropriate auspicious way. Finally, the Dunning-Kruger effect bias highlights the fact that people who are less competent in a field tend to overestimate their skills, while those who are more competent underestimate theirs.
Critical thinking is the lifeblood of a vibrant democracy.Jérôme Koechlin
Here are a few examples of reasoning bias. The hypothesis-confirmation bias consists in preferring information that confirms our hypothesis rather than information that invalidates it; the availability bias emphasises the fact of validating immediately available information without taking the time to look for other sources; the selective perception bias aims to interpret information selectively according to one’s own experience and cultural environment; finally, the sunk cost bias consists in considering the costs already incurred in a decision, for example in crisis management, without thinking that there may still be a long way to go.
The allegory of the cave
In his famous allegory of the cave, Plato defines the first place – the cave – as one of imprisonment, ignorance and appearances. This is the area of cognitive bias. The second place – the outside world – is that of freedom, knowledge and the real world. In his view, the role of the philosopher is to take the risk of sharing the truth he has reached. It requires determination, courage, and humility. Thus, according to Plato, there are four possible stages for the individual: imagination, belief, intuition and understanding, the latter being the highest of the soul’s operations.
Critical thinking is the lifeblood of a vibrant democracy. There is an unwavering link between critical thinking and knowledgeable leadership. Managers should always give priority to the competence and loyalty of their close colleagues and accept that they should make constant use of their critical skills. By adopting a critical mindset and being aware of their own cognitive biases, leaders are able to listen to the collective intelligence gathered by those around them, put issues into perspective, and encourage expert and adversarial discussion.