Are We Serious About Critical Thinking?

In 1979 philosopher Douglas Stalker (University of Delaware, now retired) adopted the stage persona Captain Ray of Light, a pseudo-science hawking speaker whose humorous presentations educated his audience about pseudo-science and poor thinking.

He toured and interviewed as Captain Ray of Light, and was featured in newspaper and magazine articles. You can read about it in this interview with him at 3:16AM.

Ironically, the man who once dressed up in a dollar-sign-adorned costume to satirize pseudo-science doesn’t think that we’re “serious” about improving how people think.

In response to a question from interviewer Richard Marshall, Professor Stalker says:

You ask about whether people can learn to be clear thinkers, and whether philosophers should spend more of their time teaching clear thinking. Some people end up thinking pretty clearly, and since they didn’t come from the womb this way, I presume they learned it at some time or other. You probably mean something else by your question: viz., can you teach someone to think clearly? My answer is an unqualified one: you can, for some of the people, some of the time, to some extent. I don’t know who these people are and when you best can teach them or to what extent you succeed. No one has been serious enough to identify and measure these things. When I came up for tenure at Delaware, my dossier included a pre- and post-test, analyzed by a grad student in the ED school, suggesting that something was happening over the course of the semester; perhaps because of me, perhaps in spite of me. It had the look of a real experiment but it wasn’t; it was just a bluff for colleagues, chairs, and Deans. I never recall submitting my students to pre and post-tests again, though I have taught this course, and its relabeled successor, critical thinking, for almost thirty years. I started in 1977 teaching courses like this and didn’t stop until the end of fall semester 2005.

Nowadays, every college, department, and course claims to teach students how to think better. They use the misnomer of the day, ‘critical thinking’. There is no such kind of thinking, while there is clear and confused thinking. The tin ear of academia! Lord knows how they fill in the specifics under the label of the today, critical thinking, since there is no fixed meaning to the phrase. Moreover, almost everyone simply assumes they are delivering what they advertise. It is taken on faith, which is just a sign that they are not serious about any of this. Happy talk is the order of the day down on the mall.

That is why I would not enjoin more philosophers to start teaching their little critical thinking courses sea to shining sea. It would just be going through the motions. For the most part, we give canned lectures, most of which is baby logic and a haphazard array of so-called fallacies, with some Mill’s methods thrown in for good measure. How much of this really applies to real world reasoning? We give canned little tests with minor, remote rewards and penalties. And no one checks to see if anything is happening other than more contact hours for the head count.

The world would be a better place, I wager, if our students could parse and separate the claims in a few paragraphs of prose; detect blatant inconsistencies and equivocations; recognize where there are common sense alternatives to outlandish theories; recognize that an explanation is not evidence; recognize when real evidence is being presented and for which claims; and recognize and discount ad hominem appeals dressed up as arguments. This is a short list, but we can at least start here. And to get our students to do these six things, we need to make them practice, practice, practice, practice, and then hold out real rewards and penalties. In today’s world, we need video games in which players make their way through good and bad arguments and get a prize if they do. It didn’t take that in my day as an undergrad, but then I was odder than odd, and still am. As things stand, we largely don’t even try to teach clear thinking, or even put up much of a pretense. No one, it seems—from the administration on down to lowly adjunct faculty—is serious, and they are not because there are no academic incentives or levers to get the job done.

I’m curious if others share Professor Stalker’s assessment about the teaching of critical thinking. Discussion welcome.

Related: “The Benefits of Pre-College Exposure to Philosophy: Data Needed“, “Philosophy Majors & High Standardized Test Scores: Not Just Correlation“, “Empirical Support for a Method of Teaching Critical Thinking“, “The Evidence Supporting Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy

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Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

another way to think about this is “how much can you really get people to give a shit about the truth if they think of you as a very temporary course to give a shit about, rather than something that should occupy their brain long-term”

look at dialogue everywhere else. here, social media, in bars and restaurants that aren’t university-tied, whatever — corrections of logic outside of philosophy are dismissed with “this isn’t debate class”, as if the concern is something someone would only have if they were grade-grubbing for material gain, or ego, or whatever other bottom line someone has.

most people don’t think critical thinking is going to apply to what they say with their friends, or on whatever their preferred social media is, or whatever.

essentially I think professor stalker is right; probably moreso than it appears.

2 years ago

I haven’t thought seriously about critical thinking before but I always thought of the “critical” part of the term to be something like critique or emphasizing normativity in some way that “clear” or “analytical” thinking, for example, might not emphasize.

I have plans for my day that include running errands, meeting with a friend, cleaning my apartment, and getting heavily intoxicated by myself. I can think clearly about everything in the list without bothering to ask myself questions about whether I should actually follow through with them, what order I should perform them in, how the plans relate to plans I usually make, etc.

I could start doing what some might call “analytical thinking” by breaking the plans into constituent parts, finding correlations between the parts, with my typical plans, and with their effects on the world around me, for example. Clear thinking is probably required for the analysis to be of much use but I’m not sure it’s a requirement of thinking analytically, or maybe we want to say that analytical thinking is a species of clear thinking.

I could take the analysis further by critically thinking. Why should I have these plans? Is there an optimal order for my list of plans? Clear thinking would also help here but again I’m not sure it’s required

Sam Clark
2 years ago

‘The Sanskrit word for philosophy—darsana—also means seeing clearly. Philosophy does have much to do with clarifying matters—not through specialized knowledge but through reasoning. It is possible, of course, to be wonderfully clear and dead wrong. But lucidity does not help the survival of baseless beliefs, silly deductions, groundless prejudice, or the justification of needless misery. Well, that’s something for clear reasoning, even though it won’t solve all our problems.‘ – Amartya Sen

Jason Swartwood
2 years ago

I think he gets lots of things right. Teaching critical thinking requires teaching skills, and teaching skills requires identifying the component skills that make up a more global skill (Tae Kwon do skill, piano skill, moral reasoning skill) and then providing scaffolded, deliberate practice with feedback. This is a challenging but important task that does seem to have been given less attention by the discipline than it is due.

Which is why my colleague and I wrote a textbook that does just that for one area of critical thinking: practical ethics.

I hope similar approaches will proliferate in other areas of Philosophy.
(Apologies for the shameless plug, but we really care about sharing the empowering skills doing philosophy can provide!)

Milos Bilanovic
2 years ago

Professor Stalker is completely right. But the problem is a lot more fundamental. We lack clear methodology for this demand of his. Theres no step by step way of teaching someone to think critically. We only have examples in history of philosophy in which the “criticallity” of thinking is displayed but we dont really know what is its essence. Our best method is classifying examples of what critical thinking is not and then proclaiming that thinking which avoids these mistakes is critical. Thats what we call by the name of logical fallacies: the one who makes them doesnt think critically. So, by “thinking critically” we have in mind only negative doctrine which can be practiced so that one can detect bad, uncritical arguments but in no way is there a positive doctrine by which we can establish creation of only good, critical arguments.

2 years ago

Last year, a team of researchers at Institut Jean Nicod produced a magisterial report, as part of an ongoing project, surveying the “critical thinking” literature from a perspective informed by evolutionary cognitive science. (Hugo Mercier was consulted during its preparation.)

More recently, they’ve published the following article:
“Naturalizing Critical Thinking: Consequences for Education, Blueprint for Future Research in Cognitive Science”

2 years ago

As I understand it, the limited empirical evidence that there is, does not support transfer of critical thinking skills from one domain to another. At best, CT teaches students to perform better at CT tests. [See, for instance, That said, I suspect there is still domain-transferable value in institutions offering CT as it can be a gateway to more analytic disciples (e.g. logic), and, when taught well, ought to promote general respect & diligence for careful thinking, deliberation and dialogue.  

Adam Piovarchy
2 years ago

I’d encourage anyone who believes that critical thinking courses generally improve students’ critical thinking beyond ability to complete the exam to actually look at these reviews – we simply are not warranted in believing that it does. Of course there are ways of constructing plausible sounding responses that we just can’t detect the benefit, or cautioning against overweighting certain forms of evidence by e.g. pointing to how we know parachutes work despite never having done an RCT, but I think such responses smack of post hoc rationalisation; we wouldn’t accept them if e.g. it was some other humanities field claiming to improve critical thinking finding only null results. I’d suggest that anyone who wants to defend the value of learning critical thinking would better demonstrate those benefits by openly admitting what the evidence says and acknowledging that deferring to the conclusions of such studies is typically a pretty good heuristic.

Ortiz had some promising results:
Ortiz, C. M. A. (2007). Does Philosophy Improve Reasoning Skills. MA Thesis, University of Melbourne, 

But these two meta-analyses are far more pessimistic:
Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2016). Does college teach critical thinking? A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 431-468. 
El Soufi, N., & See, B. H. (2019). Does explicit teaching of critical thinking improve critical thinking skills of English language learners in higher education? A critical review of causal evidence. Studies in educational evaluation, 60, 140-162. 

Heath White
Heath White
2 years ago

Two brief comments:

  • an enormous amount of fallacious thinking is one variety or another of motivated reasoning. No amount of learned *skill* can defeat motivated reasoning. You have to have a countervailing motivation. And that is hard to teach.
  • another large amount of fallacious thinking has to do with statistical fallacies. I have never seen these taught in a philosophy course.
Matthew Knachel
Matthew Knachel
Reply to  Heath White
2 years ago

I cover them in my intro logic class! I wrote the book and I give it away for free: (see chapter 6)

Robert McGarry
2 years ago

I totally agree.
Part of the problem, I feel, is that people do not seem to understand how to compartmentalize their thoughts. Like a Venn diagram. There is no framework or notation to describe the level of observation. We built the scientific method for science. We finally came to terms with numbers when Gödel virtualized math with his Gödel numbers. Quantum mechanics has renormalization to help describe level of observation. Yet, nothing like this exists for language. Linguistics and semantics are not good enough. There is no way to hold together a culture if the definition of words differ between places. Critical thinking is metaphysical by nature. But people do not seem to like thinking about metacognition, let alone how that and levels of observation help create the stable framework which ideas that can be shared, are built upon. Everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel, by not thinking outside of themselves, by not having the tools to externalize their arguments. Transcendent, just means not from your point of view, above you. We have to find a way to externalize the process, like math and science and physics have. Then we need to remake the whole of language based off of that framework and process. Failing this, every school of thought that does have this will become so oblique and jargon filled, so far from understandability that they will in essence become separate from normal society. First, we were warned by Huxley about the rise of technology. Then Orwell, warned us about the dangers of messing with definition through double speak. More modern thoughts from Carl Sagan, and even today from Richard Dawkins, warn us about the loss of culture through a drifting away from curiosity. However that is achieved, we must stop stifling the child spirit if we are ever to make a meaningful difference on this front. Otherwise it’s just individuals using circular language to pontificate their opinions, which, without science and math cannot be shared meaningfully anyway. Are we really all just Ayn Rands? I don’t buy it, we just haven’t put the work in. I believe we have the capacity to understand, like Socrates did, that language helps us understand nothing. It’s the process itself, the associations made along the way that build the register and recall mechanisms. But, like science, if the associations are based on reproducibility and agreement, it can and will eventually yield a useful language.

Cathy Legg
2 years ago

For the most part, we give canned lectures, most of which is baby logic and a haphazard array of so-called fallacies, with some Mill’s methods thrown in for good measure. How much of this really applies to real world reasoning? We give canned little tests with minor, remote rewards and penalties. And no one checks to see if anything is happening other than more contact hours for the head count….”

Professor Stalker could have made it his business to check (and amend his practice accordingly) presumably, if he was earning a living doing this kind of teaching across decades. I can’t see that anything was stopping him.

I entirely agree that there’s work to be done to shift Critical Thinking courses taught by philosophers away from traditional models of ‘Fallacy Bingo’, towards facilitating skills in real-world reasoning, particularly ‘digital criticality’ (my term, re. which I currently have a wee research project on the go…)

Mr DJ Perkins
Mr DJ Perkins
Reply to  Cathy Legg
2 years ago

The one fallacy I can see in your point/argument is assuming that he didn’t make the effort to do what you say he should have done but didn’t. Do you have evidence of this?

Cathy Legg
Reply to  Mr DJ Perkins
2 years ago

Ah yes, the ‘burden of proof’! (haha)
Prof. Stalker did say “no-one checks…”. He himself lies in the scope of that quantifier, and I imagine he would be in a position to know, if he had.

Steve R.Hreha
2 years ago

Apart from clarifying “critical thinking” we also need to clarify “teaching” and “learning”. Asking the question “Can critical thinking be taught?” is like the question “Can virtue be taught?” Socrates, in the Meno, replies “No”. Apart from the observations offered by Stalker there are other possibilities that he does not consider (his essay, after all, was written in 1979 – more than 40 years ago). If you consider yourself to be a “critical thinker” then what evidence do you have to support this view of yourself? What evidence might those who know you provide in support of this view? And if you really are a critical thinker, then how did you get to be that way? My guess is that you were fortunate to be in the company of people who were themselves critical thinks and who did not “teach” you how to be one but who modeled critical think in what ever they did. To help students become more critical I think we need to model this aspect of thinking in everything we teach (doing this across different disciplines would be even better). Regardless of the course we are teaching we need to challenge students to explore the text and its meaning. There is too much to review here but an example might suffice to illustrate what I have in mind. “Anti-vaxxers are anti scientific.” Is this the case? It could be – but this is not a necessary truth so we need support of some kind for this claim. Does the claim “mean” that no anti-vaxxer accepts the findings of science? Or does it mean that anti-vaxxers put individual liberty above life and health (their own as well as that of others) in their value hierarchy? (BTW – I am not an anti-vaxxer). There are many more questions along these lines. Once they are raised they need to be explored and responses to them considered. Treating critical thinking as a stand-alone subject is not likely to produce the result intended.

Asia Zanders
2 years ago

I am in a graduate program that focuses on Transformative Learning Communities and other socially conscious ideas. I would say this university (Antioch) is the best place to understand people, share ideas, and gain more knowledge. Interestingly, some of my classmates lack the ability to critically think. (There are other factors such as self efficacy and a lack of dialectic skills, as well.) One would think in the mid-30s to 40s critical thinking skills would be developed. Reality hit me hard. Why are we teaching critical thinking and dialectic skills in a MASTER’S program? These skills should be foundational and begun in high school at the latest. After those skills are developed, then we can make way for clear thinking, but I critical thinking is essential.

2 years ago

I am fully for it.

Rasmus R Larsen
2 years ago

I’m in the early stages of preparing a grant application for a large scale study on improving critical (or “clear”) thinking skills in people working in law enforcement. Although this earlier study hints at some successes, I think there is room for improvement in the methodology:

James Michael Okapal
2 years ago

I am sorry to have come to this discussion so late, but here are my thoughts after teaching forms of logic courses for over 20 years:

Prof. Stalker has hit on many good points, and I see them as a call to action to reconceptualize how we teach various forms of logic courses to both majors and non-majors. Step one–think of them as skills courses, not content courses. Step two–try to come up with a way to practice the important skills that have use beyond the classroom.

One experiment I have been conducting for years is to think of the course not as a logic course per se, but a reading and writing course that focuses on logical examination of argumentative texts. In essence, this is to focus on the logical elements (as opposed to rhetorical elements) of the composition course persuasive essay.

How does this look, in part, in my case? I teach them premise, conclusion, inference, argument and how to write out a argument in standard form. Then give them an opportunity to practice reconstructing arguments from academic papers both in class and on their own. Then, I have them practice writing, in response to an article, an expository papers that is like an extended annotated bibliography entry. Then, after introducing fallacies and explaining to me why a particular simple argument commits a particular fallacy, take that and have them write a paper critiquing one argument in the original essay they read in terms of a fallacy, and do it as a scaffolded assignment so that they write one paragraph, get feedback, revise said paragraph and the move on to the next paragraph, repeat process until paper is done.

Then have them repeat this process with a new article, only the critique cannot use a fallacy but must find another way of critiquing an argument. Now have them do this again, but only with something more fun–treat a meme as a text and repeat the process.

Along the way you will likely find it helpful to teach them the symbolic representation of sentential logic, how to construct counter examples, the notion of validity and valid argument forms, fallacies, etc. Truth tables become helpful when the goal is to have the write a paragraph, with a high level of precision, explaining why arguments with inconsistent premises are valid (kind of like a informal proof ) to get them to work on clarity, efficiency and precision in their writing.

Other options: have them critique a political commentary on tv; have them go to a talk at the university and at least reconstruct the arguments even if they lack the expertise to critique them; etc.

Finally, for the philosophy majors, who need to know more advanced levels of proof systems and modal logics, do not just teach them the system, but have them read philosophical papers that use these logical systems to make arguments in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. As an easy example, after you have taught them first order predicate logic with identity, have them read, in the original, Russell’s “On Denoting” or have them reconstruct a passage from a text of ancient philosophy using both Aristotelian and Boolean interpretations of syllogistic logic to see if the argument works when universals do not entail existence.

Hopefully these are enough examples for everyone to be creative in their own course construction.

In short, still teach them all of the basics of logic that we were taught in the 80s and early 90s, but include as part of the course both skill development and demonstrate how all of this actually is used by people in academia and real life.