Why It’s Not Enough to Have Critical Thinking Skills

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Last year, a University of Illinois at Chicago researcher published a paper showing a distinction between people who personally value their own critical thinking skills and those who feel a moral imperative for everyone to be rational. The latter group may think they’re above moral indignation until they realize that they think less of a person for making an irrational choice.

That same researcher has teamed up with a colleague in Amsterdam to publish a new paper exploring the traits a person needs to be an active critical thinker — someone who doesn’t hold irrational beliefs about things like religion and the paranormal. What they found isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does merit some discussion: essentially, it’s not enough to have analytical skills. A person also has to be in that group of people who values their own critical thinking skills enough to use them.

This makes sense: I have both a hammer and nails and yet I have a framed print that I haven’t hung up for the past four months. I have the tools, but I lack the motivation to use them because I don’t respect the importance of not having sad, empty walls.

The researchers showed this by asking 300 people questions about their beliefs in conspiracy theories like “the moon landing was faked” and then judging how analytical each person was in their thinking. They also figured out whether the subjects fell into one of the two groups from the previous research — did they value their own critical thinking skills and/or did they have a moral imperative for rationality?

The people who were least likely to believe in nonsense were not necessarily the people who had analytical skills, but those who both had the skills and valued their personal skills. I found it really interesting that there was no correlation between a lack of belief in nonsense and the other group, subjects with a desire for all people to think rationally.

I suspect that many people in the skeptic and atheist communities are in that latter group of people who make moral judgments about those who make irrational decisions, but I’m not sure how many are in the group who truly value their own personal critical thinking skills. I’ve often wondered why a group of people so vocal about critical thinking can hold so many irrational beliefs, like those who think all the social sciences are useless, or (to refer to a video I made last month) who believe anything Steven Pinker says.

The moral of this study (pun intended) is to spend less time worrying about other people’s irrational decisions and more time worrying about your own if you want to rid your world of irrationality.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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