The Nature of Critical Thinking

Dumb and Dumberer

In fiction, criminals are often depicted as brilliant masterminds, capable of planning elaborate heists with panache and elan. In real life, however, many criminals are a bit daft. One infamous case involves a bank robber, named McArthur Wheeler, who heard that lemon juice could be used to make invisible ink. He was right too (Murphy, 2011). Then he took the idea a step further, reasoning that if he applied lemon juice to his face, his face would become invisible. He rubbed lemon juice on his face and robbed two banks in one day. Both robberies were caught on security cameras. His face was clearly visible in both. “But I wore the juice,” he protested, when police arrested him that same evening.

Mr. Wheeler’s errant reasoning has been featured in discussions of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which states that the poorest thinkers among us fail to realize that they are among the poorest thinkers (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). We delve into this cognitive deficiency in more detail later in this chapter. For now, though, let’s be honest: Although most of us aren’t as daffy as the bank robber, we all make foolish mistakes from time to time. One of the authors has worn pink underwear and t-shirts on more than one occasion, after combining colored with white clothes in the washer. The other singed his eyebrows and eyelashes halfway off while lighting a gas-powered hot tub. It took weeks for them to grow back. We mention this, in part, to poke fun at ourselves, but also to illustrate that everybody does dumb things. That said, using critical thinking skills and learning from our own and others’ mistakes is one way of avoiding blunders. Critical thinking can also help us solve problems and make better decisions. With that in mind, this chapter explores the nature of critical thinking. First, we examine ignorance and stupidity as impediments to clear thinking. Next, we offer a definition of critical thinking along with an examination of its key characteristics. Finally, we consider the impact of digital technology' on critical thinking ability.

Ignorance Versus Stupidity: No Duh!

Ignorance and stupidity' are the twin enemies of critical thinking, but they are not the same thing (McIntyre, 2015). Specifically, ignorance involves a fundamental lack of knowledge, information, or expertise (Abbott, 2010). To be ignorant is to be uninformed or misinformed about something. For example, a child who picks up a rattlesnake and gets bitten simply' doesn’t know any better. On the other hand, stupidity refers to a person who knows better, but still engages in foolish or risky behavior. For example, a college student who grabs a rattler by the tail, whileshowing off for his buddies, is being stupid. Likewise, if you haven’t seen the fellow who trims his hedges with a chainsaw and a rope, visit

Ignorance is forgivable to a certain extent. As Will Kogers’ old adage goes, “everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects” (1924, p. 64). Ungar (2008) refers to such subjectspecific ignorance as functional cognitive deficits, which, as you might have guessed, are typically situation dependent. Indeed, most people don’t know how to amortize and depreciate assets over time, but if you are an accountant, you should know. Most people don’t know how to administer CPR, but if you are an emergency medical technician (EMT) you darn well better. Neither author is familiar with gang signs, so we avoid playing “rock, paper, scissors” in tough neighborhoods.

Blissful and Willful Ignorance: Failing to See vs Turning a Blind Eye

Some people are blissfully ignorant of even the most basic nuggets of useful information. Did you know that, according to a national survey (Dewey, 2017), seven percent of American adults believe chocolate milk conies from brown cows? We wonder where they think strawberry flavored milk comes from. As another example, one in four Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth, whereas the earth, in fact, orbits the sun (Neuman, 2014).

There is a difference, though, between blissful ignorance and willful ignorance, especially when it affects the behavior of others, and particularly when the blunderer wields more influence, as celebrities often do. Actress Sienna Miller’s comment on cigarettes illustrates such willful ignorance. “Love them,” she said. “I think the more positive approach you have to smoking, the less harmful it is” (Hind, 2008, p. 11). In other words, smokers, if you’re worried about cancer, just give your lungs a little pep talk. Willful ignorance is especially dangerous because the person actively avoids contradictory information.

Some people learn from their previous mistakes. Others don’t always seem to. The actor, Shia LeBeouf, fits into the latter group. He has been caught plagiarizing more than a dozen times (Stampler, 2014). What is remarkable is that, after being exposed, he then plagiarized his apologies. Here is his mea culpa for lifting the words of Daniel Clowes, a graphic novelist and screen-writer (Figure 4.1a).

Shia LaBeouf

IF Follow


It starts with this. I'm sorry @danieldowes

6:52 AM-18 Dec 2013

♦> O 80 * 267

Figure 4. la Shia LeBeouf s apology I. Twitter, 6.52 am, December 18, 20 ІЗ.

LeBeoufs apology is almost identical to Kanye West’s apology to Taylor Swift after grabbing her microphone at the Grammys, “It starts with this . . . I’m sorry Taylor” (CNN, 2010, para. 6). Yet another of Shia’s tweeted apologies was confusingly similar to one offered by Mark Zuckerberg (Figure 4.1b).

Compare LaBeoufs apology with one Mark Zuckerberg wrote at a much earlier date in response to complaints from Facebook users: “I want to thank all of you who have written in and created groups and protested. Even though I wish I hadn’t made so many of you angry, I am glad we got to hear you” (Zuckerberg, 2006, para. 5).

After being called out repeatedly, it’s hard to imagine that LaBeouf didn’t know what was going on. There are other cases where people plead innocence by saying things like, “I didn’t know any better.” What’s to be made of them? On the one hand, we have little doubt that some people who offer this excuse are being sincere, and their ignorance should be taken into account. As noted earlier, everyone makes mistakes. On the other hand, we believe it’s fair to consider whether people should be expected to know and understand certain basic concepts. Take college campuses, for example. Should all college students know that “No means no” when it comes to sexual advances and that silence or a lack of resistance does not imply consent? Should they know that affirmative consent, e.g., a clear and enthusiastic “Yes,” is what counts? Should they know that affirmative consent must be ongoing? A person who agrees on one occasion may not agree on another and a person who agrees to A or B may not agree to C. We think students should know these things. We also think colleges and universities have a responsibility to teach these principles to all incoming students.

Likewise, citizens should have a modicum of information about government. Democracy depends on an informed citizenry capable of choosing wisely between candidates and issues. As Iyengar, Hahn, Bonfadelli, and Marr (2009) emphasized, “informed citizenship is a fundamental premise of democratic government” (p. 341). Yet, a survey revealed that only one in four Americans could name all three branches of U.S. government (the legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch) (Gorman, 2016). Worse yet, that number reflects a decline in civics

Shia LaBeouf



I want to thank all of you who have written in and created groups and protested. Even though I wish I hadn't made so many of you angry.

716 AM -19 Dec 2013

Figure 4. lb Shia LeBeoufs apology 2. Twitter, 7.16 am, December 19, 2013.

knowledge. Why does knowing the three branches of government matter? As Jamieson points out, “those unfamiliar with our three branches of government can’t understand the importance of checks and balances” (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2016, para. 5).

Similarly, a Newsweek survey found that 29 percent of Americans could not name the vice president and 44 percent did not know what the Bill of Kights was (Romano, 2011). Another survey found that 45 percent of respondents thought that the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was part of the U.S. Constitution (Goldberg, 2007). In fact, it is a quote from Karl Marx.

That said, Americans aren’t alone when it comes to ignorance. An international survey revealed that the U.S. shared the top spots for public ignorance with Italy and South Korea (Gover, 2014). Moreover, one poll found that most people in Great Britain were misinformed or ignorant regarding facts related to decisions about “Brexit” (whether their country should leave the European Union) (Somin, 2016). The good news is that ignorance is treatable. We simply have to improve our knowledge and understanding of issues that affect us. Better yet, in the digital age, answers to many questions are but a few keystrokes away.

Random Acts of Stupidity: Learning From Our Mistakes

Stupidity is not so much about a class of persons as it is about a class of behaviors. As Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” The good news is that we can learn from our mistakes, even though not everyone takes life’s lessons to heart. The Peanuts cartoon character Charlie Brown, for example, keeps trying to kick the football, expecting a different outcome, even though Lucy always yanks the football away at the last moment. In the next few pages we present examples of individuals, groups, and organizations that acted foolishly. We offer these examples not to humiliate the people involved, but rather to show that seemingly intelligent people, including those in positions of power, sometimes fail to think before they act.

Caught Pants Down

Charlie Brown is a cartoon character. Former congressman Anthony Weiner is not. He resigned from Congress in 2011 following a sexting scandal appropriately dubbed “Weinergate.” He knew better than to send explicit selfies via cellphone, but he did so anyway. In 2013 Weiner also sabotaged his comeback bid to be mayor of New York City by, once again, sexting. In 2017 he pleaded guilty to sending explicit pictures to a 15-year-old girl. He was sentenced to nearly two years in prison (Demick, 2017).

Weiner’s actions illustrate what is called nonadaptive behavior, that is, making the same mistake over and over. He admitted that what he was doing was wrong, but said he couldn’t stop himself. “I have a disease, but I have no excuses,” he told the judge who sentenced him. “I’m an addict.”

The American Psychological Association, however, does not acknowledge that “sex addiction” is an actual disease (O’Connor, 2014). As Dr. Joye Swan (2016), chair of psychology at Woodbury University, noted, “I’m not saying that people cannot and do not destroy their lives based on impulsive and risky sexual behavior . . . but addiction has a real meaning and a clinical definition” (para. 2). Regrettably, Anthony Weiner became the poster boy for the perils of sexting.

What can be learned from his example? If you are unable to control your impulses or find yourself engaging in self-destructive behavior, seek professional help. Weiner checked himself into rehab twice. He also could have chucked his cellphone and given up using the internet except under supervision. Better that than becoming a punchline for late-night comedians and serving prison time as a sex offender.

Cambridge Police: Don’t Spray Me Bro

People in positions of authority may fail to think critically, and, sometimes, it’s ethnocentric thinking that clouds their judgment. As an illustration, a spokesperson for the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department offered the following explanation for the practice of hog-tying Hispanic suspects who became violent, rather than using pepper spray, which was standard procedure with other suspects: “Pepper spray doesn’t work well on Mexican American suspects,” the source said. Why? “Because Mexicans grow up eating too much spicy food, and because they spend so much time picking hot peppers in the fields” (Tobar, 1999, para. 3).

This explanation is befuddling on multiple levels. First, it doesn’t follow that developing a tolerance to foods you eat would translate into a tolerance for having those foods sprayed in your eyes'. One of the authors managed to get toothpaste in his eyes once. Even though he brushes his teeth every day, it stung like the dickens. The same author has experienced a similar effect with Head & Shoulders shampoo. The eyes, they burn.

Second, many cultures enjoy spicy foods. Cajun, Chinese Sichuan, Jamaican, South Indian, and Thai cuisine come to mind. Would unruly suspects from those cultures/ethnicities have to be hog-tied too?

Third, the explanation presumes that most Mexicans in Massachusetts are pepper pickers, an unlikely occupation for anyone living in the Bay State. Fourth, just in case you are wondering, there is no scientific basis for the belief that Hispanics are immune to pepper spray, this according to medical experts and pepper spray manufacturers (Hsu, 1999, p. B-2).

Flash forward 20 years, when a similar stereotype was applied by a former Border Patrol agent. After pepper spray was used to disperse immigrants, including women and children, at the U.S.-Mexico border, former chief Ron Coleman said “pepper spray is natural” and “you could actually put it on your nachos and eat it” (cited in Daugherty, 2018). As we noted earlier, however, things that might taste fine in your mouth do not feel good in your eyes, including toothpaste and pepper spray.

What, then, can be learned from this example? For one thing, public servants are not immune to biased thinking. Rather than thinking critically about the issue, the Massachusetts police department seemed to be relying on a false negative cultural stereotype. Thinking critically, however, requires that you move beyond such practices. In this case, increasing your cultural sensitivity could help you avoid gaffes and blunders based on cultural stereotypes. Not surprisingly, the Cambridge police department issued a formal apology once the story was publicized and promised that the erroneous information would be stricken from its police training program.

Rape-Lite? To Blurt or Not to Blurt .. .

Regardless of whether people consider themselves liberal or conservative, they are fully capable of engaging in shallow thinking. Consider the off-handed remarks made by Whoopi Goldberg on the TV show The View, and by former congressman Todd Akin in a TV interview. Whoopi’s comment was in response to the arrest of movie director Roman Polanski, in Switzerland, for fleeing the U.S.A, after his rape conviction in 1978. The rape victim was a 13-year-old girl, whom Polanski sexually assaulted in ways too graphic to describe in a textbook. Whoopi commented, “I know it wasn’t raperape. I think it was something else, but 1 don’t believe it was rape-rape.” What was it then? Keep in mind that Polanski had already pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful sex with a minor (Addley & Connolly, 2009). He was awaiting sentencing when he fled the country. Other than being a celebrity, how did Polanski’s actions fail to meet the requirements for rape?

What can we learn from Whoopi’s mistake? To put it bluntly, make sure you know what you’re talking about before putting your foot in your mouth. In her eagerness to weigh in with an opinion, Whoopi seemed to be implying that celebrities should be held to a different legal standard than the rest of us. As a result, her comment performed a disservice to rape victims everywhere. Dismissing a rape as something other than a rape further contributes to the stigmatization of victims.

In a similar vein, former congressman Todd Akin damaged his bid for a senate seat in 2012 when he offered the following reason why rape victims didn’t need legal access to abortions: “Pregnancy from rape is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” (Alter, 2014, para. 1). Really? Apparently, in the former congressman’s eyes, some rapes are more legitimate than others. He was wrong on the facts, however, since the pregnancy rate among rape victims of reproductive age is 5 percent, the same as that for consensual sex, which translates into about 32,000 rape-related pregnancies per year (Clancy, 2012; Holmes, Resnick, Kilpatrick & Best, 1996). With that kind of reasoning, should anyone be surprised that he lost the election?

Illusory Superiority and the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

They Know Not That They Know Not

We began this chapter by describing the ill-conceived crime spree of a bank robber who thought that rubbing lemon juice on his face would make him invisible. Not only was his scheme stupid, he had no idea how stupid it was. How could he be so naïve? The answer is a cognitive deficit known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). The poorest thinkers among us not only fail to recognize that they have poor thinking skills, they also tend to wildly overestimate their thinking ability. For example, those who scored in the bottom 12th percentile on a test of reasoning skills thought they scored in the top 68th percentile. In other words, people who got a low “F” thought they had earned a “C.” Worse yet, because unskilled thinkers don’t realize that they are unskilled, they do little to improve.

But wait. It’s not just poor thinkers who misjudge themselves. Most people are prone to overestimate their abilities, a phenomenon called illusory superiority. That’s right, most people consider themselves to be above average. They see themselves as smarter than the average person, better at driving than the average person, funnier than the average person, and so on. We don’t say it publicly but, privately, we think we are better than everyone else.

Illusory superiority can lead to serious mistakes. A motorist might think he is a better driver than most and that he is capable of texting and driving, even though others shouldn’t. A hiker might believe she has a better sense of direction than other trekkers and winds up needing to be rescued after getting lost. A poker player may think he is better at reading tells than other players and winds up losing his shirt. A stock market investor may be convinced she’s savvier than the average investor and wind up losing her life savings.

By definition, not everyone can be above average. Some people have to be average, or below average, or the concept makes no sense. Not only that, giving the impression that you’re superior can be off putting, even when you know what you’re talking about. Thus, before making a supercilious statement, consider whether anyone asked for your advice. Before weighing in with a confident yet condescending opinion, ask yourself if you are about to engage in “mansplaining.” Before telling everyone in your work group how to do their job, ask yourself if you want to come across as a “know it all.”

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