Critical thinking requires… critical thought

During the past month or so, the anti-vaccination movement has (re)surfaced as a topic of discussion in Finland. I had hoped that this line of thought wouldn’t gain much foothold in Finland, but, alas, I was wrong. According to Helsingin Sanomat, there are now parts of Finland in which vaccination coverage has dropped to a critical low, seriously damaging herd immunity and increasing the risk for dangerous epidemics.

I am alarmed and saddened by this development – even more so when I think of it being linked to a broader anti-intellectual attitude. This attitude manifests itself as reluctance towards expertise and expert knowledge, and as an emphasis on how individuals are the best experts of their own lives and should therefore have significant individual autonomy. This is labelled ‘critical thinking’: one should not take so-called official truths as a given, but question dominant paradigms (authoritative and normative information and knowledge) and educate oneself on marginal or alternative knowledge.

Formulated like that, I don’t disagree with the idea of critical thinking. On the contrary – it is of utmost importance that our hegemonic knowledge production and policy apparatus is under critical scrutiny and adequately contested. Information and knowledge certainly should not be taken as a given, but they should be constantly be challenged and updated.

But here’s the problem: in order to be able to critically evaluate and challenge something, you need to have a profound understanding of that said something. Mere reluctance or hostility towards prevailing scientific and expert conceptions or policies does not count as critical questioning. Scepticism or doubtfulness, sure (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing), but critical questioning implies that you actually have valid criticism to offer. For this, your knowledge base needs to be on par with what you are criticising.

In various conversations, I have encountered the disgruntled claim that experts undermine the layperson’s ability to understand scientific knowledge (e.g., non-popularised scientific articles). It is perceived as elitist and patronising, and I get that. Scientists and other experts are not always masters of communication and rhetoric – especially if they don’t bother to properly argument and explain their cause but refer to their expert authority, it comes across as an arrogant ‘Because I say so, end of discussion’ attitude.

Nevertheless, in all their obnoxiousness, these experts are right – really understanding scientific knowledge is difficult. Sure, you might understand what the abstract and conclusions state, i.e., the sentences make somewhat sense to you and you get a grasp of what the researcher is trying to say. This, however, is not to really-really understand the text.

While academic education by default trains the skill of critical thought, holding a degree does not come with a magic ability to critically scrutinise and contribute to any and all kind of knowledge. I, for example, can with intellectual dignity say something meaningful about a ridiculously small portion of scientific knowledge. Heck, I can’t even evaluate most of the knowledge produced in historical research, my own discipline! So how on earth could masses of laypeople be equipped with the skills for digesting papers in, say, medicine or nutrition? Well, they can’t. Introducing level 1 of critical thought: understanding the limits of one’s own knowledge. Overlooking this is intellectually insincere arrogance.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some central issues on which I can’t say much anything for the majority of the research out there. Firstly: who are the authors? Are they specialised in this topic, what have they done previously? What are their past and present affiliations, and who have they collaborated with? In short, who are they as scholars? Secondly: what is the study actually about, what is its context? What academic discussion and discourse does it contribute to? Why has this particular problem or phenomenon been taken into focus? Has this already been researched? If yes, how is this study related to that research? Does the study position itself in regard to key studies in the field or theme? What kind of reputation does the journal or publisher have? Thirdly: execution of the research – does the study make sense? Are the research questions (and possible hypotheses) clearly and sensibly formulated? Are the data or research material and the research questions compatible? Can the research questions actually be answered on the basis of the data/material? Is the data/material appropriate for this study, or are there critical redundancies or, worse, omissions? How, exactly, is the data gathered? What can the data actually reveal and what not? Are the selected methods and theories appropriate, or would some other theory or method be better suited? Are the methods and theories well applied? Are the findings and interpretations (conclusions) transparently and credibly represented and argued? Are the authors open about possible shortcomings? Are there any ethical considerations to take into account?

And so on, and so on; the list is far from exhaustive. It serves to show how critically contesting scientific knowledge requires an understanding of not only the subject matter, but also of the entire academic context, culture and discourse in which knowledge is produced – at least if criticism is to be given with intellectual dignity (and academic self-respect, if the contributor is a scientist). This is level 2 of critical thinking, and as fun and informative as Wikipedia surfing is, it generally does not provide these skills. There is, however, absolutely no shame in not reaching level 2 or being just a sporadic visitor. Then, in accordance with level 1, you just have to humbly accept that the most you can say is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and you just have to trust what experts are saying. Or at least admit that your scepticism isn’t necessarily justified and you could be wrong, but you just can’t shake the feeling of reluctance. Level 1 definitely provides enough challenge!

Scientific knowledge production has many built-in problems, which I won’t discuss in detail in this post but nevertheless want to briefly acknowledge. For starters, research funding guides research trends and isn’t evenly distributed. While it is highly unethical and unprofessional to deliberately try to conform to the interests of the sponsor, even non-shady funding skews the academic operating environment. Sadly, scientific knowledge is subject to politics: some research topics and disciplines are favoured over others, and not necessarily or only on academic grounds. Many important issues go unstudied because they do not get funded; they are not science, media or policy sexy (for instance, don’t fit in the latest scientific ‘it’ themes, or can’t be commercialised = turned into money). Secondly, not all science is good science. Some studies are just unintentionally poorly executed. Some studies deliberately apply questionable methods in order to get ‘better’ results (i.e., easily publishable): selective samples; ambiguous, misleading and non-transparent representation of results and arguments; tinkering with results, e.g., selecting an ill-suited method, omitting relevant information, p hacking… Not to mention ingrained big problems, such as the overall issue with p values; the replication crisis; the reluctance to fund, conduct and publish null studies; or predatory journals, and how they are monitored (Beall’s list).

As you can see, the field that by definition should be ethically and professionally committed to producing, critically evaluating and correcting knowledge is far from objective or unproblematic. Yet, it is the most rigorous system we have in terms of knowledge production. All other forms have it easier. Especially nowadays, anyone can publish and spread anything online with whatever criteria (or lack thereof) they want. They are free to call it ‘critical’, ‘true’, and ‘real’, and nevertheless rely merely on persuasive rhetoric or deliberately flawed data. To an alarming extent, they are even free to cash in on such activities.

In the era of ‘Google expertise’ and ‘experts of their own life’, there is a call for treating all opinions equal. But all opinions aren’t equal – some opinions are better educated, argued and justified than others. And this certainly holds true for information and knowledge as well. The internet is ridden with dangerous and harmful misinformation, and it is produced and spread through uncritical enthusiasm and gullibility as well as ruthless maliciousness. The detrimental effect of misinformation can only be prevented and mitigated through… critical thought. Both level 1 and level 2 are utterly important – and trust me, you can never have too much XP on either level.

(For more on this topic, I recommend the blog post The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols. A slightly longer read, but worth it.)