Blog Post: A Sound Theory of Critical Thinking is Not Proven Through Scientific Research

Linda Elder
Aug 02, 2020 • 3y ago
A Sound Theory of Critical Thinking is Not Proven Through Scientific Research

{"ops":[{"insert":"I recently received an email from a professor who said he could see how advantageous it would be to have the Paulian Framework adopted as a first-year university course at his institution, but that some of his colleagues cited a lack of supportive evidence for its effectiveness.\n \nThroughout our 40 years of advancing critical thinking, this argument has frequently been made by skeptical academicians. On the one hand this is completely understandable given the fluff and nonsense that frequently passes for critical thinking, along with the many superficial approaches to bringing thinking skills across the curriculum faculty have been encouraged (or even required) to use over the past few decades.\n \nOn the other hand, this viewpoint illuminates a lack of understanding of a robust, integrative conception of critical thinking. This is connected with the fact that a sound theory of critical thinking is not proven by science, nor through research. It is proven through its conceptual soundness; its effectiveness is proven through application of its principles to real life situations (as is the case with all theory).\n \nUnfortunately, in this postmodern era people tend to equate “proof” with "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"proof through scientific research"},{"insert":". In other words, everything is seen through the lens of science and especially scientific proof. But again, critical thinking is fundamentally conceptual and therefore must be understood conceptually; a reasonable theory of critical thinking is proven when it makes sense conceptually, not scientifically.\n \nFurther, very few teachers at any level understand critical thinking (as a rich set of concepts) well enough to teach it, much less conduct sound research focused on it. This is a criticism of academic systems far more than a criticism of individual faculty. Instructors at all levels typically study a discipline - but without the explicit tools of critical thinking that give rise to that discipline. Many faculty become well-versed in their academic discipline or profession without understanding the reasoning that guides and controls the paths of thinking within the discipline. Some of them are able to intuitively teach at least some critical thinking embedded in their disciplines, but mostly at an implicit level. Very few faculty clearly see their disciplines as a mode of thinking, or are able to explain the intellectual standards needed to reason well within their disciplines. Hence the dearth of high-quality research in critical thinking.\n \nWhat is needed is critical thinking at an explicit level, as well as an agreed–upon conception of critical thinking that entails these dimensions at minimum:\n1.    precise in detailing useful concepts for improving thought,\n2.    accessible to all students,\n3.    based in natural languages (not special languages like formal logic),\n4.    relevant to reasoning within all fields of study, and\n5.    provides explicit tools for analyzing, assessing, and improving reasoning across all domains of human thought.\n \nWe agree that more research is needed to “prove” the importance of critical thinking in the classroom, but only because faculty and administrators desire that proof. In a memorial edition of the journal "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Inquiry"},{"insert":": "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines"},{"insert":", I made the following argument which lays out minimal first principles in critical thinking that cannot be denied. Some of these principles are more intuitive than others, but all of them are essential to a robust, efficacious conception of critical thinking that provides the means for developing reasoning across every domain of study and thought where reasoning is employed (which is all legitimate fields of study).\n \nWhen researchers have command of these principles, and effective means for cultivating understanding of them in teaching and learning, they are then in a position to study the extent to which students come to learn and effectively use or embody them. Some few studies extant are helpful in this regard, but far more research is needed to convince those who lack understanding of these principles and who can only be convinced through scientific studies. When, however, faculty understand these principles as conceptual guides for reasoning, they should see the importance of critical thinking to reasoning within their fields, and to teaching students to understand the reasoning that makes up their fields. Through learning these principles, they should be convinced of the essential role of critical thinking in reasoning through questions and issues within any subject.\n \nThe rest of this article is excerpted and adapted from my article in the Richard Paul Memorial Edition of "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines, "},{"insert":"entitled R"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"ichard Paul’s Contributions to the Field of Critical and to the establishment of first principles in critical Thinking"},{"insert":" (Spring 2016, Vol. XXI No. 1, p. 8). This excerpt details Paul’s contribution to first principles in critical thinking. These are principles that are conceptual in nature (and, again, therefore not proven through science) and that would not be denied by reasonable persons. The degree to which faculty foster these first principles can be studied through social studies research, assuming that researchers and teachers involved have an acceptable understanding of them, how to teach them, and how to assess the extent to which they are utilized or embodied by students.\n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"\n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Paul’s Contribution to First Principles in Critical Thinking"},{"insert":"\nThough Paul’s theory of critical thinking can be detailed according to its complexities, by narrowing in on three conceptual sets of understandings in his theory --"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"the elements of reasoning, universal intellectual standards, "},{"insert":"and"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" intellectual virtues"},{"insert":" -- as Paul conceptualized, articulated, and expanded them, we can locate and develop what may be termed "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"logical first principles in critical thinking"},{"insert":". Some of the most essential may be briefly articulated as follows:\n \n1. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning has a purpose, objective, goal or function."},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related"},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" If we are clear about our purpose, about what we are trying to accomplish or achieve, we are far more likely to achieve it than when we are not. Moreover, the pursuit of any specific purpose is justified only when the purpose is fair to all relevant persons, other sentient creatures, and/or groups. Be clear about your purpose, and be certain it is fair and justifiable in context.\n \n2. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, settle some question, or solve some problem."},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" To settle a question, we must know what it is asking and how to go about answering it. In other words, for every question one might ask, there are conditions that must be met before the question can be settled. Clearly delineate these conditions as you reason through questions and problems.\n \n3. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning is based on some data, information, evidence, experience or research. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" Thinking can only be as sound as the information upon which it is based."},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"Make sure the information you use when reasoning through a question is relevant to the question, and that it is accurate.\n \n4. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning contains inferences from which we draw conclusions and give meaning to information, experiences, and situations."},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" Thinking can only be as sound as the inferences it makes (or the conclusions it comes to). Infer only what is implied by the evidence.\n \n5. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning is based on assumptions— beliefs we take for granted"},{"insert":". "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" Thinking can only be as sound as the assumptions (beliefs) upon which it is based. Assess assumptions for soundness and justifiability before accepting them, or acting upon them.\n \n6. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts, ideas, theories, principles and definitions."},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" Thinking can only be as clear, relevant, realistic and deep as the concepts that shape it. Be aware of how your concepts shape how you interpret life’s events and situations. Control the concepts that guide your thinking and your actions.\n \n7. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All reasoning leads somewhere, entails implications and, when acted upon, has consequences. "},{"insert":"Implications may emanate in many directions from a given thought."},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"Every human thought entails implications – ideas that may radiate in many directions, and that may originate from many potential sources."},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"Implications of our thinking and behavior exist"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"whether we perceive them or not. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"It is essential to identify and think through the major implications that"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"follow from, or are connected with, the thinking you are focused on. Follow out the implications of reasoning in many potential directions when dealing with complex issues. Think through the significant consequences likely to"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"follow from your decisions before you make them.\n \n8. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All thinking occurs within some point of view, perspective, or frame of reference, situated within a worldview"},{"insert":". "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" To reason justifiably through an issue, you must identify significant points of view relevant to the issue and enter them empathically. Enter opposing viewpoints "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"to be moved by"},{"insert":" superior reasoning, rather than to defend a position you already hold. Always bank on the best reasoning in a given circumstance, rather than following a given person - including yourself. [See "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"The Wheel of Reason"},{"insert":" in our Academy to learn about the elements of reasoning - "},{"attributes":{"link":""},"insert":""},{"insert":"; also see the "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Thinker’s Guide to Analytic Reasoning - "},{"attributes":{"link":""},"insert":""},{"insert":"]\n \n9. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"All thinking has potential intellectual strengths and weaknesses and hence should be routinely and systematically assessed according to objective criteria for thought."},{"insert":" These criteria have been documented and developed throughout human history, and are found in all ordinary, or natural, languages, and hence in all primary dictionaries within natural languages. Intellectuals reasoning at the highest levels within all "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"bona fide"},{"insert":" disciplines and fields of study faithfully attempt to adhere to these criteria. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" To reason well on a consistent basis, across the domains of your life, you must monitor your thinking to ensure that it is adheres to universal intellectual standards. Here are a few essential intellectual standards: clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and fairness. [See Criteria Corner in our Academy for a deeper understanding of intellectual standards - "},{"attributes":{"link":""},"insert":""},{"insert":". Also see the Thinker’s Guide to Intellectual Standards - "},{"attributes":{"link":""},"insert":""},{"insert":"]\n \n10. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Human"},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"thinking is not necessarily fair, since humans, frequently driven by selfish and narrow group-centered goals, are given to ignoring or downplaying the rights and needs of others. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" Fairmindedness requires that people consider all viewpoints with an open mind, without reference to their own feelings or vested interests, or the feelings or vested interests of their friends, community, nation, or species. It implies adherence to intellectual standards, again, without reference to one’s own advantage or the advantage of one’s group. To reason critically in the fullest sense of the term, you must strive to be fairminded in all domains of your life entailing an ethical dimension.\n\n11. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally distinguish between what it knows and what it does not know, and therefore is not intrinsically predisposed toward "},{"attributes":{"italic":true,"bold":true},"insert":"intellectual humility"},{"insert":". Rather the natural state of humans at any given moment is to believe themselves to be in possession of the truth, or to think they know more than they know. The human mind is naturally intellectually arrogant, which entails intrinsic self-validation and protection of one’s belief systems. People do not tend to intrinsically seek to discover their misunderstandings, distortions, and ignorance. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" To embody intellectual humility you must actively work against the natural human tendency to be intellectually arrogant; this necessitates regularly distinguishing what you know from what you do not know. To a large degree, you must build your knowledge base through the knowledge of your own ignorance.\n \n12. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally develop "},{"attributes":{"italic":true,"bold":true},"insert":"intellectual courage"},{"insert":"—the willingness to examine beliefs one holds dear and which one may have protected for many long years. Most people are not naturally comfortable standing up for beliefs that, though reasonable, are unpopular. Instead the intrinsic inclination of the human mind is to protect its beliefs and to conform to group standards of acceptability. The mind innately avoids, and even fears, discovering its false beliefs. And people are often, by nature, afraid of ridicule or exclusion from a social groups. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" To embody intellectual courage, you must be willing to challenge a given belief, whether the belief is your own or another’s. You must work past your natural egocentric and sociocentric tendencies to determine what makes most sense to believe - without regard to whether you have believed it in the past, how long you may have held the belief, or whether it is popular to hold the belief.\n \n13. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally develop "},{"attributes":{"italic":true,"bold":true},"insert":"intellectual empathy"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"."},{"insert":" Rather it is frequently predisposed toward its opposite -- narrowness of vision, or reasoning within its own constricted and often self-serving viewpoint. Intellectual empathy entails understanding the need to imaginatively put oneself in the place of others to genuinely understand them; it requires practice in thinking within the viewpoints of others, especially those with whom one disagrees. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle: "},{"insert":"To embody intellectual empathy, you must sympathetically enter into points of view that differ from your own and articulate those views faithfully and insightfully.\n \n14. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally develop intellectual integrity, which "},{"insert":"is manifested in the commitment to hold oneself to the same standards of evidence and proof one expects others to meet (especially one’s antagonists). Humans do not naturally embody intellectual integrity. Instead, they tend to hold others to higher standards than the standards they impose on themselves. They often say they believe one thing, while their behavior implies that they in fact believe something else. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle"},{"insert":": To exemplify intellectual integrity, consistently and systematically hold yourself to the same standards you expect others to meet. Say what you mean and mean what you say.\n \n15. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally develop intellectual perseverance --"},{"insert":" the disposition to work one’s way through intellectual complexities despite frustrations inherent in a given intellectual task. Intellectual perseverance is not natural to the mind, as it requires the mind to be flexible rather than adhering to old patterns, the latter of which is more comfortable. The mind does not easily and naturally tolerate, much less invite, confusions, difficulties, and frustrations when working through problems and issues. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle: "},{"insert":"Developing your mind to a high degree requires the cultivation of intellectual perseverance, which inherently entails working through, and even inviting, complexities and frustrations without giving up.\n \n16. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally develop confidence in reason, "},{"insert":"or in other words, the disposition to recognize that humans consistently engaging in high-quality reasoning is essential to living a rational life, and to creating a more fair and just world. Confidence in reason is based on the belief that, in the long run, one’s own higher interests and those of humankind at large are best served by giving the freest play to reason, by encouraging people to come to their own conclusions, by developing, as far as possible, the rational faculties of everyone living in a society. Those who embody confidence in reason are keenly aware of the fact that the mind does not naturally use intellectual standards to determine what to believe and what to reject. They therefore attempt at all times to adhere to intellectual standards in determining what to accept and what to reject in human thought. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle"},{"insert":": To develop confidence in reason, you must always seek to discern, and then follow, the best reasoning in a given context and situation. This means, among other things, understanding the irrational propensities of the human mind that stand in the way of your ability to open your mind to reasoning you would rather not have to consider, and actively working to minimize these irrational tendencies. It entails strict adherence to intellectual standards when determining what to believe.\n \n17. "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"The mind does not naturally develop intellectual autonomy, "},{"insert":"or in other words, the disposition to take responsibility for one’s own thinking, beliefs, values and actions. Intellectual autonomy is acquired as one increasingly takes responsibility for one’s own thinking and the quality of one’s life. It is the opposite of being dependent on others for the direction and control of one’s decisions. Intellectual autonomy is rare in human life. Most people, rather than thinking autonomously, conform to group beliefs and actions. The groups they join and within which they are born often control their thoughts. "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Related Critical Thinking Principle:"},{"insert":" To develop intellectual autonomy entails taking full responsibility for your own thinking, as well as your own actions. It means having the courage to stand alone in your beliefs, against even large crowds, when your views are those best justified given the evidence.\n \nThese seventeen first principles in critical thinking are "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"some"},{"insert":" of the principles central to any substantive conception of critical thinking, or in other words, of critical reasoning. All of them entail interrelationships, and many overlap with one another. Again, all of these particular first principles arise from three conceptual sets in the Paulian approach to critical thinking: "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"the elements of reasoning, intellectual standards, "},{"insert":"and"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" intellectual virtues"},{"insert":". Importantly, these principles intimately connect with other best thinking and best theory in the field of critical thinking, originating from the time of Socrates. [For an expansion of these principles, see "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"The Thinker’s Guide to Critical Thinking Competency Standards"},{"insert":". (Elder & Paul, 2007 - "},{"attributes":{"link":""},"insert":""},{"insert":").}\n \nHowever, if these first principles are not yet intuitive to you, the reader, as first principles in critical thinking, consider this: taking together the elements of reasoning and intellectual standards, as a set of interconnected concepts at the heart of critical thinking, one must assume the theory of both in order to negate either, should one be so inclined. For instance, if one were to argue that “neither the elements of reasoning nor the intellectual standards are central to analyzing and assessing reasoning,” one would, by necessity, be "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"using"},{"insert":" the elements and intellectual standards in the very act of attempting to negate them. This is true because, in making such a statement, one would be saying something one considers to be both "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"clear"},{"insert":" and "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"accurate"},{"insert":", and one would have some "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"purpose"},{"insert":" in making the statement. By perceiving oneself to be both "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"clear"},{"insert":" and "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"accurate"},{"insert":", one proves the importance of intellectual standards in reasoning. Further, since the speaker will naturally have some purpose in making the statement, the element of purpose is proven as a theoretical construct. And where one element of reasoning can be identified, the other seven are implied.\n\nFrom an instructional viewpoint, you can look at these first principles by attempting to negate them; by so doing you should clearly see the absurdity in such an attempt. Imagine, for example, telling students you are going to teach them (your subject, for instance, psychology) but you will not teach them to:\n1.    identify primary "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"purposes"},{"insert":" in psychology,\n2.    pursue psychological "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"questions"},{"insert":" or identify key questions psychologist ask.\n3.    gather and consider "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"information"},{"insert":" relevant to reasoning through psychological questions,\n4.    make psychological "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"inferences"},{"insert":" based on information gathered,\n5.    identify "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"assumptions"},{"insert":" within different primary theoretical schools of psychology,\n6.    follow out "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"implications"},{"insert":" of psychological reasoning,\n7.    master understanding of primary "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"viewpoints"},{"insert":" within core theoretical schools in psychology,\n8.    think within psychological "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"concepts"},{"insert":" and create psychological webs of understanding using these concepts.\n \nThe same type of reasoning holds in support of intellectual standards. Imagine teaching a course in which you argue that you will not be concerned with whether students’ thinking is clear, precise, accurate, relevant, deep, broad, significant, fair, logical, sufficient, or indeed whether it adheres to any other intellectual standards relevant to reasoning well within your discipline.\n\n \nFurther, if we presuppose the importance of the ethical dimension in human life, as well as intrinsic pathologies of the human mind such as egocentric and sociocentric thinking that work against ethical reasoning, we demonstrate the essential importance of intellectual virtues as guiding theory for first principles in critical thinking, as outlined in numbers 10-17 above. Those who reason at the highest levels of human thought and understanding will embody these, and other related, intellectual virtues, to a significant degree.\n \nMany additional first principles in critical thinking can be identified from the seminal work of Richard Paul, but again, those introduced here are the most intuitive, and form a central web of foundational concepts at the heart of a future field of critical thinking studies.\n\nThese principles cannot be proved through science or research. Instead they must be accepted "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"a priori"},{"insert":" (or without the need for proof); then the question becomes how can these principles best be fostered in teaching and learning.\n\n"}]}

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Posted by: Joseph Halter

{"ops":[{"insert":"The seventeen first principles seem timeless and universal. The concepts are shared by all cultures and previous and future generations. We are fortunate that Richard Paul has studied this subject of critical thinking and had the wisdom to develop the Paulian Framework for us to understand and use for self and other.\n\nThe statement, \"Further, very few teachers at any level understand critical thinking (as a rich set of concepts) well enough to teach it, much less conduct sound research focused on it. This is a criticism of academic systems far more than a criticism of individual faculty.\"\n\nFrom my own experience, this statement seem true to me in the 22 years of teaching at the high school and collegiate level. I have been using the elements, traits and standards of the model since 2006 and found them highly useful for me and my students. It is a endless journey to fully understand and utilize.\n\nDown the road, I think we will understand more about the human mind and this will add credence to the concepts.\n\n\n"}]}

Posted by: Joseph Halter

{"ops":[{"insert":"I enjoy read the blogs by Dr Elder and Dr Nosich and I hope others are learning more about fair-minded critical thinking from individuals who have researched and pioneered many of the ideas in critical thinking.\n\nIn looking at this post, the real value of the Paulian Model for critical thinking is the practicality of it and its use for real world issues. It is a major challenge to have more individuals who understand the elements, standards, traits, centric thinking and having the ability to apply them with self and others. I would hope more of my colleagues in this community would become more engaged in the model so we can look at real issues that need a fair review and solutions.\n\nI recently came aross this excellent summary of the current issues we are facing. "},{"attributes":{"link":""},"insert":"The Great Accleration"},{"insert":". How can we use critical thinking to solve some of these issues?\n"}]}