Dr. Linda Elder discusses the obstacles we all face to achieving true critical thinking.

Producer: Serena Balani
07/14/2022 • 09:09 AM EST

Dr. Linda Elder, president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and co-author of Fact over Fake: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Media Bias and Political Propaganda, discusses the key attributes that make for a good critical thinker. She also discusses the obstacles that our natural egocentric and sociocentric tendencies pose to criticality and how the term "critical thinking" is all too often thrown around superficially, without a proper understanding of what it means to think critically.

0:00: Serena Balani:

With us today we have Dr. Linda Elder, an educational psychologist, president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, and executive director of the Center for Critical Thinking. She's also the co author of Fact over Fake: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Media Bias and Political Propaganda, and a number of other books on critical thinking. Dr. Elder, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:22: Dr. Linda Elder:

Thank you for inviting me. I'm delighted to be here.

0:25: Serena Balani:

So, Dr. Elder, first of all, could you clarify for us what is a critical thinker?

0:30: Dr. Linda Elder:

Well, it's important to recognize that there isn't one exact definition of critical thinking. But there are some ways to begin. So let me give you some ways into the concept. So critical thinking is being aware of your thinking, while you're thinking in order to do the best thinking that you can, in every situation. And in its highest form, it is a way of living. And it embraces certain virtues, such as intellectual empathy, which is the propensity to think within viewpoints, especially those within which you disagree. Confidence in reason, which means we want to follow the facts wherever they lead us, no matter where that is, even if we don't like where that takes us. We still follow the facts, because we have confidence in reason, when we're thinking at this highest level of quality.

We also embrace intellectual integrity, so that we say what we mean we mean what we say and we expect the same of ourselves as we expect of others. So, if we expect others not to be selfish, then we ourselves are not selfish, or we aspire to that. So, these are some of the virtues that the critical thinking person will aspire to. And it also includes fair mindedness, intellectual autonomy, which is the propensity to think independently, even if your thinking is different from everyone else's thinking in the room, in the group, in the family, in the country, in the world. In other words, you can stand alone in your beliefs, once you have thought at the highest level of quality, using the tools of criticality. So, this is the highest form of critical thinking. And it entails again a way of living, which includes constantly trying to reach higher levels of understanding of yourself and of others, of other people and other sentient creatures.

So now, critical thinking is sometimes narrowly thought of. And this is a mistake. And it's a mistake, because although I could look at any given person's life, and I can see examples of critical thinking. All of us think critically to some degree or we wouldn't be alive, right? You have to think about your thinking to some degree to even survive in this world that we live in. So, the question is not do you or do I or do any of us think critically. The question is, are we as a species thinking critically enough to have a critical mass in the right direction? Or are we on the edge? Do we have enough critical thinking to actually survive? This is a question which is facing us as we know.

So, if we think of critical thinking in a more narrow way, then people can very frequently make the move, well, I'm thinking in the following ways, I'm clarifying my thinking. I'm gathering relevant information. Yes, you may be gathering relevant information, but if that information is not sufficient to answer the question, then you have failed in your reasoning. So, there is a lot involved in critical thinking. There are many tools that have been developed in the field over the last 40 years or so beginning around 1980. And so, this is a beginning place hopefully, for a definition of critical thinking.

4:27: Serena Balani:

So, to what degree can you teach critical thinking skills? And if so, how early should that education begin?

4:34: Dr. Linda Elder:

Well, this is again a deep question. We have the theory and we have the reality. So theoretically, we can all, and all do, start learning to think critically as very young children. And so, it's clear that we can teach very young children to make very basic critical thinking moves. But what is facing us all are two primary barriers to criticality, and those we place under the broad categories of egocentric and sociocentric thinking. So again, we see this in very young children. It's very clear to see their egocentricity, right. I mean, anyone who's ever had a child or been around one very young child, you can see that there sort of all ego sometimes. And they're out there with their ego, right. They're not hiding it yet.

But this herein lies a big part of the problem. So, as we develop and grow, we learn to hide our egocentricity. So now we become manipulative. And now we learn to justify all of our beliefs under this way of thinking called intellectual arrogance. All of us engage in it, every human being. It's a question of degree. It's a question of when, how, why, and what your purposes are. So we are naturally self-deceived animals. We don't learn to be self-deceived. No one teaches us that. It's a mechanism of the mind that we use for survival and also it turns against us.

And then we had the other huge part of that phenomenon, which is sociocentric thinking. And this is a very serious problem with our immediate topic today, propaganda. Which is that people like to be validated at all levels of society. We seem to need to be validated in a kind of pathological way. And now and when I say that what I mean is that being social seems to be an inherent part of us. But we're also much more than that. We're highly complex. We're also individuals and we're also trying to achieve our individuality, while also being egocentric, which is keeping us from achievement. Even though it may feel like it's helping us, it's actually harming us.

So, we have all of these variables occurring within the unconscious mind. We remember Freud in certain ways, we distort Freud in certain ways, but we forget is his most important contribution sometimes. And one of them is the focus on the understanding of, the illumination of the unconscious mind. So, if you don't have that in your definition of critical thinking, then you're also not going to have a rich definition.

So can we teach critical thinking? yes. Will it be internalized by the individual human? That is a question that we cannot answer and again it lies at the heart of the question, is it nature or is it nurture? You see, because you bring your personality, your tendencies, your will, or your lack of will to the teaching moment. And I or any other person may be the best teacher in the world. But if you're not open to that learning, then how in the world can you be taught? And if you've got a very powerful ego telling you, you already know the way, the truth, and the light, you see, then how can anyone teach you?

So, this leads to the will, why is it that some people achieve? So, we have Martin Luther King and we have Nelson Mandela. We have many other great thinkers, Jane Goodall, why are these people able to achieve something very significant while the rest seem to be following the crowd? So, can it be taught? Can critical thinking be taught? Theoretically, yes. Has it ever been taught broadly in human societies? Not to my knowledge, at any historical point.

Critical thinking has always contained a very narrow part of human societies. But it has always been there. And so, we can go back to Socrates 2400 years ago or so. And what was Socrates doing? He was teaching critical thinking, and ethics. And he was saying if you're not also fair, then you don't have a reasonable conception of how to live. Now he didn't call it critical thinking, but we don't have to use the term to have the phenomenon and the phenomenon is what we're looking for, not people using the words.

So now in 1980, almost no one had heard of critical thinking unless you are a specialized academician. Now the word is floating around like democracy and apple pie and motherhood. But what is it? Stand on a street corner and do this study and then you can turn it in for a dissertation of a master's degree. So, ask, "do you think critically" to every person who walks by, and what do you think they'll say? Well, yes, or I hope so or something like that. Well, then what is critical thinking? Then you will hear a great pause. And you will see some red faces where people are blushing, and you will be seeing people being very uncomfortable. Suddenly they realize they don't know what it is. So let me see if I get this right. You know what it is, you're engaging in it, but you don't know what it is.

So, this is the norm in human societies. So, everyone wants critical thinking yes, of course for their neighbor, because they themselves are the critical thinkers. At the right, at the left, everywhere in between the political spectrum in every other part. of human life. People think I'm the one who thinks correctly. Doesn't that make sense? Because if you think their thoughts then you think they're correct. So now we're carrying around these thoughts, however distorted they may be, and then we're being validated by other people who also are carrying those same pathological thoughts and see we've got it covered. Now we've got millions who believe like us, and then you have very terrible things happen. So yes, we can teach it. Are we capable of learning it? That is a question that remains to be seen.

11:45: Serena Balani:

Are there any key successes that you're seeing or you have seen in the last few years when it comes to addressing this issue?

11:52: Dr. Linda Elder:

You're asking me for something positive. I think that the most positive thing that I have seen, well not, let me just say one positive thing that I've seen in the last, let's say in the history of critical thinking, is that critical thinking, to the degree that it is taking root, which is still a very, very small degree, but to the degree that it is, it's tending to be an international movement. And so, in other words, I'm seeing people able to connect across the world, trying to use their critical thinking abilities to solve the problems that we face. But you see, you could take any advocacy role that is admirable, any advocacy group that's doing important work, and I would say this, if we first learned critical thinking, we could do all of those things better. And some of them we wouldn't even need to do, because we'd have covered through our critical thinking. Do you see?

So, what we've got to do is focus on the foundations. And so, I think that this is a positive trend, that we're seeing more people internationally coming to the work. And it may be that the fact that the term is being more widely used, although often superficially, that the very use of the term will drive some people to ask, but what is critical thinking? And unfortunately, many people there don't realize that there is scholarship in critical thinking that we can count on. It's been developing through the past four decades or more. And one of the reasons why this is not happening is because critical thinking is not recognized as a bona fide field of academic study. And until then, you see it's going to be sort of owned and operated by other fields according to their agendas and their philosophies. And we're going to see a lot of partial notions, but some of those partial notions can add up. So, I think that some people see that it is our thinking that we have to improve and that I hope will build.

14:35: Serena Balani:

Okay, so it looks like we're out of time. We've been talking to Dr. Linda Elder, author, educational psychologist, and the president of the Foundation for Critical Thinking and executive director for the Center of Critical Thinking. Dr. Elder, thank you so much for joining us today.

14:52: Dr. Linda Elder:

Thank you for having me.