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When Critical Thinking Proponents Fail to Think Critically

Written by Zoe Weil | 1 Comment | Published on March 28, 2013 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2013/03/28/when-critical-thinking-proponents-fail-to-think-critically/
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For the past several years I’ve been reading lots of books about why we often believe so many unsubstantiated things.

Part of this reading is due to my fascination with human belief systems – something I’ve pursued for decades and which compelled me to study world religions at Harvard Divinity School. Part of it is due to my commitment to find a good book on critical thinking to include in our graduate programs at the Institute for Humane Education. And part of it is because I want to understand how to better teach, inspire, and ignite critical thinking myself, because not only are critical and creative thinking hallmarks of humane education, but also because I don’t think we’ll be able to solve our gravest challenges if young people don’t learn to think critically and creatively.

I’ve written about critical thinking many times (such as here, here, and here), but I’ve yet to find the perfect book to include in our graduate programs. Over the weekend I began a book titled Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why we need Critical Thinking. I had high hopes. This book seemed to have all the right ingredients. But very quickly I read this paragraph:

“Possession of emotions is one of the things that defines us as people. While other animals may be said to have moods, instincts, or even thoughts, the human animal is the only one with true emotions as we know them. We experience avarice and anger, joy and jealousy, hatred and love….”

For such thoughtful authors — who are attempting to raise the bar on critical thinking and ensure that readers learn to distinguish fact from opinion and make reasoned arguments — to make such an unsubstantiated, and really quite ridiculous assertion (particularly when it doesn’t even advance their thesis), undermined for me their ability to do the job their book demanded and diminished their credibility.

Ironically, in this case, their statement actually stands in opposition to most of the false claims about human and nonhuman animal distinctions, which argue that animals may have emotions (one need not look far to witness jealousy, joy, and love among other species, not to mention fear) but cannot think.

I am trying to not judge the entire book by such an early statement, but it casts doubt on the authors’ own ability to think critically, not a good sign in a book on critical thinking.

But their flip comment about human v. animal emotions also raised a bigger issue for me. Too many sociologists, psychologists, cognitive scientists and others feel compelled to insert false and regularly debunked (and practically always different) claims about human uniqueness, even when entirely misplaced to advance their larger argument.

Until and unless these specious comments cease and these science-loving authors cite actual scientific studies of nonhuman animals, they can’t expect others not to embrace their own equally unsubstantiated beliefs.

~ Zoe

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach
My TEDxYouth@BFS “Educating for Freedom”
My TEDxYouth@CEHS “How to Be a Solutionary”

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About Zoe Weil

Zoe is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education She's the author of several books, including Most Good, Least Harm; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education. See her TEDx talk, "The World Becomes What You Teach": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5HEV96dIuY

Contact Zoe View all articles by Zoe Weil

1 Comment

This issue is something I have been dealing with quite directly for some time now. I once had almost no opinions – didn’t feel worthy or smart enough…or something. Gradually I learned things and then began to be more opinionated. Lately I realize many of my opinions are based on falsehoods or even fairy tales. I have brought my thinking around toward being more “critical” but have a long way to go. I have to watch I don’t have knee-jerk reactions to things and am trying to look deeper into issues that concern me…to learn the truth as much as possible. A good book on this subject would be most welcome! (One of my favorite topics is animal intelligence – just read “Alex & Me” by Irene M. Pepperberg. Gives a whole new perspective of “bird brain” and animal intelligence in general. They are much more like us than they have ever been given credit for).