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Critical Thinking as Knowledge of Biases
Critical Thinking as Knowledge of Biases
Clutch Munny
Published by Clutch Munny
01-07-2007
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What is it to think critically? Many people seem to believe that thinking critically amounts to thinking logically, or thinking scientifically. It is not my aim in these brief remarks to prove that these conceptions of critical thought are mistaken, though I believe the former is badly mistaken, while the latter is true only in a sense of “scientific” that is not widely adopted. Instead, I want to explain a different understanding of critical thought.

I contend that the best way to master skeptical or critical thought is, first, by understanding the biases that affect human thinking; second, by attending to the behaviour of oneself and others, as a matter of sheer reflexive habit, in order to recognize these biases at work; and third, to leave open always the element of doubt introduced by the knowledge that many such biases are invisible. Cognitive virtue, I contend, is essentially a matter of thinking in accordance with these habits. Acquiring this virtue is a process that is, in its way, as long-term and demanding as the process of learning how to swim. An essay of this sort can no more impart cognitive virtue than it can impart the ability to swim the Butterfly, but I hope to convince you both of the ubiquity of the biases in question, and of the importance of habitual cognitive virtue.

In order to monitor your own reasoning and that of others for factors that can bias it, the most important thing is to have the fullest possible understanding of just what kinds of biases regularly condition our ways of thought. Most of the following remarks are devoted to cataloging and explaining these different biases, and the distinct levels at which they operate. Some of these are obvious and commonsense kinds of cognitive bias, while others may surprise you.

First, however, a note on how I will be using the term "bias". In common parlance this term has universally negative connotations. I will not be using it in that way. A bias, as I use the term, is simply a factor that predisposes one to reach a particular kind of judgment. In itself, this is neither good nor bad. Most often, though, it is good. We could hardly be the thinking machines we are, were we not biased to pare away the huge number of irrelevant judgements and inferences surrounding any daily action or decision, inferences that a more open-minded system would have to crunch through, somehow, in real time. (Which is why it is so incredibly difficult to build computers that mimic our reasoning skills, even though their inference-crunching capacity is, in some obvious respects, vastly superior to our own. The trick is to engineer the right, and enough, overlapping biases to restrict the class of relevant inferences in any particular case. And it turns out to be a very difficult trick indeed.)


Biases get a bad reputation because they tend not to come to our attention unless something has gone wrong with them. In this way the term has acquired the connotation of a pure prejudice, often with overtones of racism, misogyny, and the like. Since I am discussing critical thinking, I too will be disproportionately interested in the cases in which something goes wrong. But understanding those cases, understanding how they go wrong, requires a broader conception of biases as systematic shapers of our thought, normally for better and occasionally for worse.

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  #1  
By Qingdai on 05-10-2009, 03:45 AM
Default Re: Critical Thinking as Knowledge of Biases

I am glad this article was brought to my attention. It's been a long time since I studied this sort of thing, and the fragility of memory is very interesting.
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  #2  
By viscousmemories on 05-12-2009, 02:59 AM
Default Re: Critical Thinking as Knowledge of Biases

I moved the recent comments to the ancient discussion thread created for that purpose.
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  #3  
By BracesForImpact on 05-12-2009, 01:49 PM
Default Re: Critical Thinking as Knowledge of Biases

Excellent and fascinating. Great use of examples, very much enjoyed this article. :wow::wow:
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  #4  
By theblackbook on 08-22-2009, 02:08 AM
Default Re: Critical Thinking as Knowledge of Biases

It's very refreshing to know that some small amount of human intelligence survives in the world. Very interesting article.
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