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Critical Thinking: Vital For Creating Sustainable And Democratic Societies

photo credit: Wikimedia: Author Carl Revell.This image is from Unsplash and was published prior to 5 June 2017 under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Book Update #1 – Critical Thinking Chapter

Editor’s Note: Author Aaron Karp shares a chapter on critical thinking from his upcoming guidebook.

In book one of my guidebook series, I am writing about how we can cultivate our intellectual, ethical, and emotional resources to embrace ecological limits and advance the transition towards sustainable and democratic societies.

What topic are you writing about?

I’ve drafted a chapter about why critical thinking and holistic knowledge are essential for making the transition, and how everyday people can cultivate these assets.

Why are you writing about this topic?

I believe that all of us, from those involved in planning an ecological transition to everyday people who will decide whether it moves forward or not, must cultivate our ability to think critically. And not just as a tool we use sometimes, but as a core part of our identity. The essence of critical thinking is an active approach to deciding what to believe, in which we fairly and thoroughly search for and evaluate information about consequential topics. It stands in contrast to a passive approach in which we don’t seek to be informed about important issues or only accept what we happen to hear. We must come to see the active pursuit of knowledge about ourselves and about the world as key to who we are, so that both can be transformed.

The prospects for creating societies that respect ecological limits rest in large part on our ability to successfully perform the massive amount of thinking involved. Wealthy countries must significantly reduce their consumption of energy and materials, with major implications for how their populations live. Beliefs about what technology can or cannot accomplish will shape how (and whether) we prepare for a different future. Political systems, economies, and cultures must shift. Public support depends on our collective ability to navigate complex and contested changes to our societies.

For example, we’ll rely on critical thinking to distinguish real complexity from false complexity. The transition is likely to be more challenging than we tend to hear about, with hard choices to be made about what we preserve and lifestyle shifts we’re not yet prepared for. That’s real complexity we’ll need to navigate. There will also be lots of what I think of as false complexity—propaganda, bad faith arguments, and one-sided perspectives spread by opponents of the transition. We’ll need to be able to tell these two categories apart so that we can plan to productively deal with the real complexity we can’t avoid and not fall prey to the false problems and distractions that will constantly arise.

I also want to help others see how the task ahead demands extensive self-development. One of the big reasons why a transition to a sustainable society could occur despite numerous obstacles is because in many ways it would force us to become a fuller, more authentic, and more capable version of ourselves. We’ll need to develop our ability to think clearly about the world, understand our values, and productively channel our emotions to overcome those obstacles. There is a deep well of fulfillment to be discovered by those working to create this new society.

Another reason I write is to envision and bring into being the kind of group that I want to be a part of. I’d like to belong to a group that embraces complexity and nuance, is actively working to becoming widely and deeply informed, and can have productive discussions about topics that challenge our values. In other words, a group in which each member is committed to cultivating their critical thinking identity in service of both their own personal lives and—just as importantly—in service of the transition towards sustainable and democratic societies. I want to build a movement that is intellectually active and masterful at learning, one whose extensive education and discussion networks evoke the revolutionary salons of the Enlightenment.

I think this chapter can be very useful because it details how anyone with sufficient motivation and time can develop a deep understanding of any topic. It’s the process by which I’ve cultivated the analysis presented in all of my essays. I’ve long felt that a lack of clarity about the consequences of our actions is one of the major roots of most if not all human problems, and I’m hoping this chapter is a resource that can help people learn to think with more clarity.

What are some things you learned or wrote about?

Resources discovered: In 1990, experts in the critical thinking movement were surveyed to find consensus perspectives on the dispositions of a critical thinker (listed below). None of them belong to a small, gifted minority of people, but they do take work to live by. I think we’ll need a movement of people working to build these habits to realize sustainable and democratic societies. (Note: Delphi studies, which directly survey the views of experts in a field, can be a great resource for learning about that particular field.)

Resources discovered: In searching for books on critical thinking, the most practical one I found for applying the associated skills and dispositions in your everyday life is Richard Paul and Linda Elder’s Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. Whereas many of these books seem to get bogged down in technical discussions or emulate a philosophy course in logic, which make the lessons less translatable to real life, this book is geared more for a general reader and is consequently more applicable.

Experts: It can be fascinating and highly informative to not just look for explanations of the ideas you’re trying to learn about, but to trace their history. Alec Fisher offers a concise history of some of the major figures in the critical thinking movement and the ideas they emphasized in his essay “What Critical Thinking Is.”

Insights: Your ability to think critically is as much about being critical of the sources of information you find during your research process as about being critical of yourself. You must ensure you’re searching for and evaluating information fairly and thoroughly, only reaching conclusions that the evidence and assumptions allow, and striving to acknowledge when you don’t know enough.

Insights: It’s common to hear that new (or repeated) information doesn’t change how people think. But if information didn’t change opinions and attitudes, then misinformation wouldn’t be an issue. Indeed, what would be the point of an education system or a media system if information changes nothing?

Insights: We can’t live without trust. We learn the vast majority of our beliefs about the world from what others have done rather than our own direct experience. But who do we place our trust in, and why is that trust justified? It’s a vital question to periodically ask ourselves. One can get extremely far in understanding the world by starting out with a solid “credibility framework” that identifies institutions and people who are likely to make claims about reality in good faith. Alternatively, starting out with a poorly developed credibility framework leads to odd outcomes like getting one’s scientific perspectives from politicians rather than (relevant) scientists, believing evidence-free claims because any rationale (however poor) is provided, or placing trust in figures with an easily searchable track record of making untrue or unreasonable statements.

From the chapter: In this chapter, I highlight nearly two dozen common cognitive biases which could impede the transition if left unchallenged. I describe why each bias presents an obstacle and offer a question we can ask ourselves to try to detect and hopefully avoid its effects. One example is the Ostrich Effect, our tendency to to avoid negative information even if it could help us deal with an issue we have. We’ll need to remain open to all information relevant to effectively planning and navigating the transition. To try to detect whether this sort of bias is influencing your thinking, ask yourself: Am I avoiding information because it makes me feel uncomfortable?

From the chapter: Developing a critical thinking identity is an ongoing process, and it doesn’t make us immune to dealing with problems or making bad choices. It just gives us the best chance of avoiding the problems we can avoid, and for those we can’t, making a better decision than we would have without a critical appraisal of the situation. A society will undermine its own longer-term prospects unless enough of its citizens possess this identity.

From the chapter: Those who want to see reality as clearly as possible must be more committed to holding evidence-based beliefs than to “being right” about the beliefs they currently hold.

From the chapter: The transition towards sustainable societies requires us to become more comfortable with doubt and the unknown because the journey is unprecedented, and because no source, including scientific research, provides absolutely certain truth. The challenge of developing and maintaining trust in one another and in our governments will become even more essential than it is today.

From the chapter: School doesn’t teach us how to systematically analyze the society we live in. That means most of us lack not only the information we’d need to transform our society in a positive way, but also that we don’t see ourselves as the kind of people responsible for deeply analyzing and acting on the big problems facing our society. To create a new society, everyday people must start to see themselves as people who actively learn about the collective problems we face and commit to addressing them.

What’s one takeaway?

Our ability to think critically about a topic depends in large part on possessing knowledge about the topic, argues cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. For example, everyday people can be empowered to evaluate claims about technology’s role in an ecological transition if they learn enough about technological feasibility. In my view, that’s a crucial and hopeful observation. Critical thinking isn’t simply about the abilities you’re born with. The better you become at learning and the more effort you spend diving into a topic, the more capable you’ll be of thinking critically about it.

If you’re interested in reading a draft of this book sometime next year and providing feedback, please subscribe here at freedomsurvival.org.

Aaron Karp is an activist writing a book about why our ecological crises demand economic and cultural transformation, not just an energy transition, and how the climate movement can lay the groundwork for these changes. He writes at freedomsurvival.org and tweets @LimitsLiberate

Aaron Karp
Aaron Karp
  Aaron Karp is an activist writing a book about why our ecological crises demand economic and cultural transformation, not just an energy transition, and how the climate movement can lay the groundwork for these changes. He writes at freedomsurvival.org and tweets @LimitsLiberate
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