Every other year or so I find myself returning to Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn’s critical thinking text, How to Think about Weird Things, and rereading the whole darn thing through again. Schick and Vaughn’s book is a rather popular college text, and it’s in its sixth edition. My references to it will be from the 5th edition. In any case, it’s really, really good. And this time in reading it, I thought that I might generate a blog post to accompany each chapter, responding to things that leap out at me on this particular read-through.
So what, this time, did I notice in the book’s introductory chapter?
Well, what jumped out at me were two quotes. The first is from Bertrand Russell (11):
What we need is not the will to believe, but the will to find out.
What strikes me about this quote is its moral gravity. Many of the things that we believe give us pleasure, and we are inclined not to doubt them unless they begin to make for some unpleasantness in us. And so the will and effort to inquire closely into the very things that we might want to believe is a difficult thing to do. We may not have the energy to question our most cherished beliefs, or to test them in a particularly rigorous way. And we may not especially want to know the truth about ourselves or about the things that we are considering looking into. And so there is a certain measure of bravery, fortitude, and will required whenever we engage in critical thought and investigation—especially upon subjects where we hope that one answer, and not another, will be returned to us from our inquiry.
But before Russell’s quote jumped out at me this afternoon, I hadn’t really thought of critical thinking and investigation in this way, but they really can be framed as a character issue. And Schick and Vaughn, by quoting Russell, are, in fact, making it one: are you, the reader of this book, brave enough to follow the truth wherever it leads?
As for myself, I can’t help but to think of Sophocles’s noble Oedipus, that great and brave lover of truth, who nevertheless found that, in the end, he really could not handle its revelations, and so plucked out his eyes. There’s something in Greek tragedy that I think is in Schick and Vaughn’s intellectual blind spot, but it appears to be in mine as well, and so I can’t quite put my finger on it (as yet).
The second quote that struck me was at the very end of the introductory chapter, on page 13. It is there that the authors quote Harvard biologist Stephen Gould:
When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.
Schick and Vaughn are, I think, raising the stakes here. In quoting Gould they’re trying to show why critical thinking is so important to a functioning democracy, and why pseudoscience is so corrosive to it: when people get in the habit of shutting off their critical faculties, and hoping against hope in improbable or irrational things, they open themselves to manipulation by political demagogues. This is pretty sobering medicine: if you don’t know the tools for evaluating whether a ghost is in your house, you might not have the tools for evaluating whether, say, an authoritarian politician lurks in your favored political party.
It’s often said that knowledge is power. But knowledge can also be transmitted to a passive receiver: it can simply be absorbed, not necessarily thought about. And it can be true or false. But what shall we say of the tools of critical thinking and investigation? Wow. There is power, indeed.