The Essence of Critical Thinking
Patrice Lumumba, Empress Taitu, Jane Austen, Ai Weiwei, Thomas Sankara, Leonardo Da Vinci, George Orwell, Chiua Achebe, Childish Gambino, Ejigayehu Shibabaw, Meaza Ashenafi, Rosa Parks, Banksy, Malala Yousafzai, James Croll, Waris Dirie– many, if not all, of these names may at least ring familiar. What do they have in common, what is a defining trait that lead to their tremendous impact on society and why is it that their names will continue to inhabit human memory for years to come?
Instinctively, you may recognize them as profound, tenacious, persuasive or otherwise creative in their own respective rights. Each of these trailblazers were valiant enough to see the world through their own lenses, ask the right questions and think critically and logically to propose solutions and/or express them in a way that landed. They are critical thinkers.
What actually is critical thinking? It refers to the act of logically (and carefully) perceiving, processing and analyzing the information we receive. Although this seems like something we all do intuitively, it is in itself, the very skill and art that served as a foundation to human progress.
What critical thinking involves
As with any metaphysical science – what goes into critical thinking is debated, adapted and challenged perpetually (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/#ProcThinCrit). Nonetheless, its pillars are rooted largely in concepts dating back to thought-leader and revered Greek Socrates who, nearly two and a half thousand years ago, advocated for prioritizing beliefs based on logic. He argued fervently against blindly depending on the knowledge of authority figures and gifted us with ‘Socratic questioning’. This form of reasoning involves discourse between speaker and listener and this inquiry is the bedrock of psychology, journalism, pedagogy, scientific reasoning, dialogue, moral reasoning, law, (ideal) political science, research methodology and many other disciplines and works.
At its core, Socratic questioning involved exploring a given argument by asking questions, not to debunk or support it, but to challenge and establish its validity. In fact, he even went as far as to value life on these terms – famously saying, “’The unexamined life is not worth living.’” In Socratic questioning, the listener (or reader) poses questions to the following ends: clarification, probing assumptions, rational and evidence, questioning viewpoints and perspectives, asking about consequences, and inquiring into the initial question itself. (https://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/connections/socratic-questioning)
To bring it into context, let us say you ask for a friend’s guess on what will happen in the next 10 years, and they claim that a new disease will sweep the world over in 2025 just as COVID-19 did in 2020 because of high pollution levels. What questions might you ask? If you follow Socrates’ guidance, you would probably ask “what do you mean by disease? What kind of disease?” (clarifying), “What assumptions are being made that lead to this conclusion? Do high pollution levels correlate with new disease?” (challenging assumptions).
To examine the statement further, you may also ask “Where is the evidence to back this up, is this evidence reliable?” or even “Do they have a political/financial gain if panic ensues? What would an epidemiologist/religious leader/ think and why?”. Further, a good question would be “What does this actually mean for the world? Would the economic fate of developing countries be further affected? How will this affect travel?”. Finally you may ask your friend why they think you asked the initial question, you may ask whether the question itself was relevant or fruitful or demand if there would have been a better question for the context.
Modern-day critical thinking outlines the thought process through which individual and societal learning takes place. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) highlight the components of this process as follows:
- Identifying + analyzing arguments
A critical thinker is not a contrarian
Despite the detailed and clear attributes, behaviors and skills of a critical thinker – perhaps as a result of the similar root of criticism and critic – many a contrarian will profess confidently that they are simply critical thinkers, on the basis that they do not accept thoughts without challenging them. Whereas contrarian thinking advocates for automatically taking the opposite side of a popular argument for the sake of it, and a conformist mindlessly follows generally accepted ideas – critical thinking requires independent thinking. As importantly, whereas contrarians aim to stand out from the crowd with a unique opinion and conformists may fear standing out or challenging norms – a true critical thinker will objectively review the situation with the aim of simply providing a solution
Critical does not mean ethically viable!
Do these skills, behaviors and characters sound like the perfect formula for a perfect society? Will you immediately be in awe of the next critical thinker? Should all future leaders be selected purely on this ability? Is critical thinking applicable to every and all ideas faced by man?
While, as we’ll come to see, logical and organized reasoning is key to the success of every society – it is important to distinguish clearly between ethics and critical thinking. While the are both important factors in our everyday decision making, critical and ethical thinking overlap, contradict and sometimes support each other [https://www.infobloom.com/what-is-the-connection-between-critical-thinking-and-ethics.htm].
This idea, as with many critical thinking concepts can be better illustrated through thought experiments. Let us take two common ones to exemplify this relationship, perhaps consider your initial thoughts or ask someone sitting next to you before considering their moral and logical implications:
Example 1 – You are out of a job and have no ‘ethical’ means of earning an income. Your family, who is more important to you is hungry on the brink of death. Coming across a bakery, whose owners are not much richer than yourself, you have the opportunity to steal just enough bread to feed your family. Should you steal the bread?
Example 2 – A trolley carrying various people is going down a track. Ahead of the trolly is five people working on the tracks that the trolley will definitely hit and kill if it continues along this direction. If:
You see a lever that will change the trolley to a direction that will only kill one person, would you pull that lever – sacrificing the life of one person to save five?
You have the opportunity to push someone large in front of the trolley to stop it, killing that person but still saving the other five?
Whereas critical thinking is about taking in information and using all available data and questions to propose a logically sound solution, ethics concerns itself with questions of morality (i.e. what is right or wrong).
Secondly ethical actions are almost never self-serving – addressing how our actions and behaviors might affect the community or other individual. Critical thinking, while often advocating for the greater good, may take place on an individual or societal level – depending on the logical arguments and conclusions.
Another important distinction is that the critical thinking approach is result-centric and ethics (for many, at least) considers the means.
Furthermore, whereas logic is universal and objective, what is considered ethical is not only different in various parts of the world but is driven by experience, psychology, religion, age, culture, peers upbringing, education and much more. That is, what is ethical to one person may be considered unethical in another.
In short, whereas there is a clear relationship between good ethics and critical thinking, one must certainly not confound the two – thus remembering a critical thinker is not always an ethically sound one and vise versa. Some, like researcher Suzan Scutti argue that “Analytic thinking and moral concern signify two cognitive models and are always in competition with each other” following a study on the correlation of critical thinking and psychopaths 2016. We would pose, instead that, the two feed into each other, are at times complementary and at others contradictory.
Bias as a challenge
A number of biases stand to impede our abilities to reason, and of course, if we are not even aware of these, we could not possibly overcome them. What are they? A number of types of cognitive biases exist within all of us, most of which we are probably not even aware. By running through the types of cognitive bias, perhaps you might identify a few that you or those around you are guilty of.
Confirmation bias – you have an idea in your mind and all the information you come across will (probably purposely) confirm it, whether this is logical or not. For example, if you are certain that a certain political figure has specific intentions – you will only watch media that talks about these intentions, your Facebook and Telegram groups all agree with you, even the friendships and discussions you have are greatly influenced. Anyone who challenges these ideas will be met by pre-existing talking points, anger, irrational response or simply be ignored.
Anchoring Bias – this, perhaps almost as dangerous bias, refers to the tendency of the human mind to associate all memory about a person, idea or place with their initial impression. Why is this dangerous? It impacts people’s (and communities’) negotiation skills, investigations, perceptions of new initiatives in such a way that thoughts can not adopt new ways of thinking. An example may be the frequently cited perceptions of the west towards Ethiopia and other African countries – which are anchored in the images of poverty, war and lifestyles portrayed in media during times of famine and even pre-colonial depictions.
Gender Bias – gender bias – although often called out in western media as a poor explicit work-place practice that widens the gap between men and women. We would rather argue that it is a much more nuanced and multi-faceted issue that subconsciously plagues all of us. For example, even in today’s ‘progressive’ parts of the world, reports show that female doctors are less easily trusted – despite other research saying that the outcomes prove otherwise (https://www.healthline.com/health-news/women-doctors-better-patient-interactions#Similar-patient-outcomes)
Conformity bias – this is the bias most well-known to get in the way of critical thinking, and involves blindly accepting the ideas that your peers believe. One can argue that this form is particularly influential to modern Ethiopia – wherein a number of factors (outlined below) lead, and are affected by this. Cultural determinists like Nathan Nun, would argue vehemently that these biases in our culture are a result of years of subjugation, federalism, religion, education and even geography. In this line of thinking, ethnic divisions and conflicts can only be catalyzed by geographically and culturally similar groups conforming to the accepted truths of their communities.
Where does Ethiopia Stand?
Not much resources look at the critical thinking levels, attributes or outcomes specifically in Ethiopia overall. However, with numerous universities incorporating and even teaching the skill in their curriculums – a gap has clearly been observed. In one document rating critical thinking environment across the world entitled the ‘Critical Thinking Global Report’, researchers attempt to quantify environmental conditions’ ability to foster critical thinking in three ways – finally scoring Ethiopia 7 out of 12 and ranking it 59th in a list of 111 countries.
The first is the individual level, which speaks of the extent to which expressing ideas and freedom of thought. Here, the report gave Ethiopia a score of 2 from 0-5, stating that while, yes generally freedom of thought does exist – it does so with ‘serious limitations’. Secondly, the education system was looked at – by rating how much of a role critical thinking plays in the education policy – where Ethiopia scored 3 out of four. However, a study conducted in the Tigray region (Critical Thinking Skills in Northern Ethiopia: The Views of Prospective Teachers) contradicts this latter statement – highlighting that while instructors understood the theoretical principles – they hadn’t quite grasped practical implementation of critical thinking. Finally, it looked at community values and how much one was able and safe to question prevailing ideologies accepted by society – where such questioning is “possible and usually safe to take” –i.e. a score of 2 out of 4.
In practicing critical thinking for yourself – perhaps consider that the lack of research methodology outlined in this report, no definition of the key assumptions and definitions its based on, the western background of the organization’s founder (and corresponding scores of European countries) and simply take its results with a grain of salt.
Nonetheless, some elements of poor critical thinking are visible through our own anecdotal experiences in Ethiopia. This does not apply to everyone – nor does it mean that Ethiopians are incapable of critical thinking – but rather incites us to ask what unique aspects of the Ethiopian geography, socio-economic structure and culture may impact our critical thinking skills.
In this article, We would argue that a sort of paradox exists in the relationship between the Ethiopian culture and the practice of critical thinking. Ethiopia – which prides itself on the close cultural ties that exist between its people, a people that stood firm against foreign occupation before others in the continent – should in theory be a breeding ground for such thinking. After all, it is a nation that has birthed many influencial leaders, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists and academicians and is home to different faiths, intricate literary craft and numerous languages. In theory, critical thinking should be abundant- so why isn’t it?
We are a social people. There is no denying this. In fact – an identifying feature of the Ethiopian culture is the practice of sitting around a table to eat from a common plate, i.e. what we call the ‘mahiberawi nuro’. Social ties are also an important part of communal living, especially in rural parts where resources are shared and decisions of one household impact another. Despite the opportunities this provides for discourse – few are likely to challenge many a status quo, even if they do question it.
This can be seen in the pervasiveness of female genital mutilation in these societies, which despite its clear medical, psychological and sociological harm has prevailed in 16% of girls today. Beyond this, the close bonds and social interactions may lend to restrictive social behaviors, in which judgement, loss of status and social exclusion are among the punishments.
Yilunta – another cornerstone of Ethiopian social culture – manifests itself today in a way that seems to have diverged from its initial meaning to one closer to its nominalized form. After all, the noun form does come from a phrase that means “what-will-they-say-about-me-ism” That is, whereas Yilunta once referred to behaviors that were considerate of their impact on others (such as giving up a seat for the elderly) – today they seem to mean those that would not invite condemnation from those we know. One blogger described how it is both a source of pride for some, and a “fear of being regarded as misfit which leads to conformism” or even “inability to say no” – which is the usage we generally come across more. Additional definitions I’ve heard include “feeling unnecessary shame” and “doing things so you don’t look like a bad person”
What is the danger of this transformation of such a central social pillar? In addition to some lack of sincerity and sometimes subjectively unnecessary social interactions (such as the denial of food when one is hungry) – this side to the Yilunta coin can encourage people to focus on the appearance of pious or ethical behavior. For example, concerning yourself with visiting someone’s funeral to ensure your face is seen. Adhering to social rules is commonplace, but are some effects of Yilunta culture come at financial, social, time, psychological (after all – an increasingly used synonym for the term is actually shame) and even ethical costs.
Any Ethiopian will tell you proudly that Ethiopia is a deeply religious country. And despite research that intends to prove that either only atheists are critical thinkers or conversely, that critical thinking leads to atheism – many interpretations argue that such thinking, when practiced can lead to better spiritual understanding. To emphasize this point, we would like to raise three key arguments.
Firstly, whether or not you believe in God and whichever faith you practice – you cannot deny that humans, through their ability to reason and question their environment are the only animals to acknowledge the possibility of a higher power and organize religion. Religious figures are often the critical thinkers of their time, whose teachings now guide the very lives of their followers.
Secondly, as Ed Gantt of the BYU Wheatly Institution argues, scientific findings are more challenging to dispute than religious beliefs – as the basis of science, evidence, is seen as concrete and indisputable. “Secular science and liberal politics, both committed to the primacy of reason, necessarily deny that any truth is incontestable”
Moreover, in practice, many religions advocate for the principles found in critical thinkers. Abrahamic religions, which are prevalent in Ethiopia and across much of the world – explore such fundamental ideas as where man himself came from, and sets about rules for a harmonious and generous community. Judaism, an ancient religion though it is, is not rooted simply in ‘old’ ideas that its followers simply accept. In fact, the Talmud, a book described by some as “a study group on wheels” brings together arguments and reflections of teachers and learners to guide Jews in life. Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity, famously spoke in parables – a frequently used tool within critical thinking. Despite perceptions and depictions in certain western media, rational thinking and discourse are encouraged in Islam,- a core principal of the faith, the Tafakkur teaches Muslims that within the scopes of human imagination, all earthly matters require critical thinking, with the term literally meaning ‘thinking’ . Rising faiths from the East such as Taoism and Buddhism also advocate for a clear mind and critical thought as part of their teaching.
That said, interpretations and practice of religion as well as do not always do not always allow for this. In some cases, the need to adhere to traditional/ancient rituals is comfort enough not to even question them in the first place. In some cases, religious texts are perceived literally and thus accepted blindly, without an attempt to read further. What’s more, as cam be seen increasingly in Ethiopia – some (and certainly not all!) religious leaders – who have traditionally held much of the public’s esteem for their dedication and humility before God – today bear the role of public and political figures rather than spiritual guide.
In the case of certain denominations, quick-fix responses discourage the challenging of such behavior – best embodied by the expression coined in the 1689 book ‘Table Talk’: “do as I say, not as I do”. Instead of stimulating the natural curiosities and urge to understand one’s religion better, such religious leaders may be prone to elect which elements of their religions they have incentive to promote.
Literacy and Education
Education, in some form or another is linked directly with the ability to reflect deeply and logically assess before coming to a conclusion. Education, in this case, does not refer to the ability to complete a primary, secondary or university level but the practice of gaining, understanding, questioning and applying new knowledge. Nonetheless – a formal education system has historically resulted in challenges to the status quo. It is for this reason that regimes that fear being challenge often target students, literature and educators preemptively, as can be seen throughout history.
It is heavily impacted on the quality and values associated with education – which, by my personal perception, has declined enormously within the last 10-20 years in our country. This may relate to the scantiness of education in the country and thus expectations held from society for a ‘learned’ person being higher. Where education was less easily available and of better quality, a certain level of esteem was provided to those who could read and write, no less to those who achieved a university education. Today, quality of both student engagement and education appear to have dropped significantly and replaced instead by quantity.
It is important, too, to acknowledge the reason that education impacts society’s ability to think logically. We assume that we know what we want from our governing bodies, but this lies in great part in how we understand what they actually do for us and which actions impact our lives. Plato expressed this in a parable himself, explaining the democratic process through the metaphor of the sweet maker and the doctor. He argues that, if an uneducated public is to vote between a sweet maker and a doctor, the doctor will offer health care whereas the sweet maker would promise candy- implying immediate payoff, the public would naturally select the sweet maker. This principle may apply in a direct sense to Ethiopia’s context – or perhaps better encapsulate the use of ethnic division as a campaigning tool as opposed to practical solutions.
Furthermore, with the rise of various media (both traditional and social), weaker family ties and significantly lower respect for teachers and the teaching-learning process – discussions, which have continued, take place virtually and with no logical or academic context. Therefore, fallacies can easily run amok and no speaker is truly accountable for what they have said.
It is critical here to point out that neither literacy, nor education, are prerequisites to critical thinking – but factors that can help or hinder a society’s ability to normalize it.
Anyone who has spent any substantial time with a four year old will remember, with equal parts delight and annoyance, a time when the child persistently asked about a certain topic. Next time this happens, perhaps stave off rolling your eyes and saying you don’t want to be asked again. Instead, consider that this is the primary means by which children understand the world around them at this stage – a gift from nature we can credit to man’s ability to convey and explore complex thoughts through speech. Also, keep in mind that just the mere act of asking questions provides youth with operational (such as permission or help with something), cognitive (like understanding why the sun comes out during the day) or social (like attention from a parent) skills.
(http://www.inovacijeunastavi.rs/wp-content/uploads/Inovacije2-17en/PR08.pdf) More importantly, this process allows them develop their own inquiry skills, by learning who to ask when they need reliable information, what questions to ask and the level of information they need.
Neuroscientist Dr. Melissa Hues claims that the traditional learning process can strip children of this inherent curiosity. However, in a culture that traditionally expects children to stay out of the way during discussion or alternately shelter them from information – we risk stifling the natural curiosity well into adulthood.
Finally, as with other aspects of a developing body, it has long been proven that diet and other environmental factors impact the development of the brain, cultural determinists would certainly argue that parts of Ethiopia with limited staple diets would lose out on having these skills. The Horn of Africa – State Formation and Decay by Christopher Clapham highlights potential impacts of geography on culture, which also forms the above aspects that influence critical thinking skills.
COVID and critical thinking
January 2020. This is a month that requires no further explanation. The advent of the pandemic lead (or perhaps forced) many of us to reflect on our lives, the state of the world and the fragility of today’s ‘modern’ world. With impacts on the economy, social lives, and above all, health, this is inevitable. However, one of the most visible changes worldwide was the quickly transforming information landscape. Within Ethiopia alone, numerous parties have played a role in shaping the way we view the virus and our collective responses to it. If anything, the world-changing event played out as a social experiment in confirmation bias and the prevalence of fallacies to argue a point, as can be seen in the schism between pro- and anti- vaccination groups.
Solutions/ How to better think critically
Based on the meaning, steps, benefits and challenges to the practice, you might ask yourself how to improve your own critical thinking skills. The first step is to understand it better and, fortunately, there is a world of resources to do so. Beyond the theory, thought experiments such as this one and full courses as provided by Wello University’s Ethiopa-Open CourseWAre will give you the basic skills and patterns of thought to improve your own reasoning. Numurous Critical Thinking skills were opened in Ethiopia, although AWIB was unable to determine whether these were still operational in 2022.
Read more on the topic
Many of us will read an article in a newspaper, watch a documentary or news report or maybe even see a video on Facebook or Youtube that we think satiates our curiosity and provides us with necessary information. But to truly understand and question anything, you must take the next step. Do you disagree with your friend about the state of Addis Ababa’s transportation infrastructure? Try to find out more about solutions in other countries, ask what challenges and benefits the construction of said infrastructure faces, perhaps ask someone with insight into how it works. The Dunning-Kruger effect is yet another logical fallacy wherein someone with a limited basis of knowledge will feel they have sufficient authority and thus confidence to speak on a topic.
Challenge your own assumptions
This is an important step. In order to avoid imprisoning yourself in an echo chamber of the same opinion, listen to both sides. Do you believe that climate change is a lie? Read evidence arguing against this idea before coming to a conclusion. Even when you have a conclusion, come back to it and challenge the idea again.
- Pay attention to your own dispositions that impact your reasoning
- Personal factors not only impact the thinking patterns we have, but our ability and willingness to express them out loud. Some common traits to work on might be:
- Attentiveness – try to pay attention to your surroundings at all time
- Habit of inquiry – bring back your inner four year old and ask questions that might not pertain to your day-to-day life. Doing so, you can develop a habit and passion for learning more.
- Self-confidence – in fearing that our lack of expertise may make us incapable of understanding or exploring a topic, we also risk blocking out knowledge and skills
- Courage – in a community where thinking for yourself has social consequences, it requires intellectual courage to form and express our own thoughts.
- Open-mindedness – be willing to step outside what you think you know and hear someone else’s thoughts on a topic.
- Seeking the truth – so long as your objective is to improve your understanding and use it to improve life for yourself and others, your compass for critical thinking is already in the right direction. Define what attributes make an argument ‘truth’ to you, and chase it perpetually!
Stanford Ecyclopedia of Philisophy page on Critical thinking (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/#ProcThinCrit)
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