Weak versus Strong Critical Thinking
Critical thinking involves basic intellectual skills, but these skills can be used to serve two incompatible ends: self-centeredness or fair-mindedness. As we are learning the basic intellectual skills that critical thinking entails, we can begin to use those skills in a selfish or in a fair-minded way. For example, when students are taught how to recognize mistakes in reasoning (commonly called fallacies), most students see those mistakes principally in the reasoning they already disapprove of rather than in their own reasoning. They develop some proficiency in making their opponent’s thinking look bad.
Liberals see mistakes in the arguments of conservatives; conservatives see mistakes in the arguments of liberals. Believers see mistakes in the thinking of nonbelievers; nonbelievers see mistakes in the thinking of believers. Those who oppose abortion readily see mistakes in the arguments for abortion; those who favor abortion readily see mistakes in the arguments against it.
We call these thinkers weak-sense critical thinkers. We call the thinking “weak” because, though it is working well for the thinker in some respects, it is missing certain important higher-level skills and values of critical thinking. Most significantly, it fails to consider, in good faith, viewpoints that contradict its own viewpoint. It lacks fair-mindedness.
Another traditional name for the weak-sense thinker is found in the word sophist. Sophistry is the art of winning arguments regardless of whether there are obvious problems in the thinking being used. There is a set of lower-level skills of rhetoric, or argumentation, by which one can make poor thinking look good and good thinking look bad. We see this often in unethical lawyers and politicians who are more concerned with winning than with anything else. They use emotionalism and trickery in an intellectually skilled way.
Sophistic thinkers succeed only if they do not come up against what we call strong-sense critical thinkers. Strong-sense critical thinkers are not easily tricked by slick argumentation. As William Graham Sumner (1906) said almost a century ago, they
cannot be stampeded . . . are slow to believe . . can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain . . . can wait for evidence and weigh evidence . . . can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices…
Perhaps even more important, strong-sense critical thinkers strive to be fair- minded. They use thinking in an ethically responsible manner. They work to empathize with the viewpoints of others. They are willing to listen to arguments they do not necessarily hold. They change their views when faced with better reasoning. Rather than using their thinking to manipulate others and to hide from the truth (in a weak-sense way), they use thinking in an ethical, reasonable manner.
We believe that the world already has too many skilled selfish thinkers, too many sophists and intellectual con artists, too many unscrupulous lawyers and politicians who specialize in twisting information and evidence to support their selfish interests and the vested interests of those who pay them. We hope that you, the reader, will develop as a highly skilled, fair-minded thinker, one capable of exposing those who are masters at playing intellectual games at the expense of the well-being of innocent people. We hope as well that you develop the intellectual courage to argue publicly against what is unethical in human thinking. We write this book with the assumption that you will take seriously the fair-mindedness implied by strong-sense critical thinking.
To think critically in the strong sense requires that we develop fair-mindedness at the same time that we learn basic critical thinking skills, and thus begin to “practice” fair-mindedness in our thinking. If we do, we avoid using our...