No, Critical Thinking Is Not Childish

Is critical thinking childish?

Lars Anders Johansson describes himself as a “poet”, “musician”, and “journalist”. He is “responsible for cultural issues” at the free market think-tank Timbro. He has recently taken issue with schools teaching critical thinking skills by sending in a opinion piece to a local Swedish Newspaper called Nya Wermlands-Tidningen (NWT). He does not like this, because the targets of critical thinking are already designated and thus a form of government indoctrination and it somehow forbids critical thinking about the United Nations. He further thinks that critical thinking leads to people using the genetic fallacy and taunts, as well as making people more likely to be attracted to structuralist power analysis.

In reality, critical thinking is difficult for a lot of people and it is not just a matter of objecting to things, like Johansson seems to think. Furthermore, no one prevents you from making critical objections to the United Nations and it has nothing to do with taunts or any particular form of power analysis. In the end, Johansson takes the teaching of critical thinking skills hostage in the fight for his own political ideology.

Thinking critically is hardly easy for most people

Johansson starts of by deploying the following mind-bogglingly ignorant statement (my translation):

To think critically is not hard. Every child knows how easily it is to be obstinate and think the opposite. To criticize something is the easiest thing in the world, especially if there are no requirements that the criticisms should be substantiated with a coherent argument or a requirement to present their own alternative to the things that they want to refute.

Thinking critically is not hard? Really? Then how come 42% of the U. S. population think that a divine creator made humans in their present form? Why do 61% of the same population believe in conspiracy theories about the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Why do one third of Swedes believe in paranormal phenomena? Had genuine critical thinking been easy, no one would believe those claims. But they do. Thus, critical thinking is very hard for most people.

Besides being completely wrong on the difficulty of critical thinking, Johansson also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding he has about the concept. Critical thinking is not arbitrary rejection of any statement or position presented to you. To put it simply: critical thinking the way it is used in scientific skepticism is not cynicism.

Critical thinking is not a form of government indoctrination

Johansson goes further and considers critical thinking a form of UN indoctrination carried out by the government (my translation):

In school, we were taught to think critically at an early stage. In order for it to be done correctly, the teachers and teaching material helped us to point out what and who should be criticized. This was most apparent in history class. The church should be criticized. And the royal power. And the West at large. Corporations should be criticized, and “the rich”. All good and well, but here were also things that should not be criticized. UN, for instance. Yearly, the stunt on the UN day where this organization should be hailed by us small fry. It was only as an adult that I came to the insight that the UN was not at all uncontroversial or objection organization that all people rally behind.

Does Johansson have any scientific evidence whatsoever, above and beyond his personal anecdotes, that criticism of the UN is banned in schools? Did anything prevent Johansson from applying the critical thinking skills he supposedly learned while criticizing religion, royalty and the rich to the UN? If so, perhaps he did not learn the material sufficiently well, since there is nothing that prevents you from applying the same tools to more than one thing, such as both religion, royalty and the UN. To be sure, the UN is not perfect, but it is the best we currently have. Speaking of failure to “requirement to present their own alternative”, where is the alternative to the UN that Johansson ought to have?

Critical thinking is not just about objecting to stuff

Johansson continues (my translation):

The role of the school should not be to teach children to think critically. Children are already critical to most things.

Again, critical thinking skills is not just about objecting to any and all ideas. It is about the critical examination of questionable claims. So if the school system should not teach critical thinking skills, what is the alternative? You would not believe what he thinks this “alternative” is (my translation):

What the school should focus on is to teach children to think analytically. Instead of regurgitating pre-chewed criticism of organizations and people who were powerful and influential in the past, the rising generation ought to learn how to analyze why these became powerful, what the alternatives were then and there, and what lessons we can draw from it to our own times?

Learning critical thinking skills require pedagogical examples at the start. If you are not allowed to show how skeptical tools should be applied, at least on initial examples, it would be like giving a child a sharp kitchen knife and let him or her do whatever he or she wants with it. Furthermore, there is no contradiction between critical thinking skills and analytical thinking. Quite the opposite, the former requires the latter and the two are largely mutually supportive and reinforcing.

Critical thinking is neither genetic fallacy nor taunts

It gets even more absurd when Johansson asserts that critical thinking is the same as throwing taunts around (my translation):

The hailing of critical thinking at the cost of analytical thinking has also created a situation where the one who is most against something is the one who gets the upper hand in the debate. This is the reason we, again and again, get meta-debates where the one who presents some kind of suggestion is dismissed trough suspicious insinuations and taunts from those who consider themselves critical thinkers.

What? Critical thinking skills is precisely the opposite of this! It is understanding that genetic fallacy, where something is dismissed because of its origin, is truly a fallacy and that taunts are not valid arguments.

Johansson reveals his hand

After much confusion, Johansson finally admits that his entire piece is just a smokescreen for a poorly thought-out objection to “structuralist explanatory models” (my translation):

The one who thinks critically without the ability to think analytically also has a tendency to be drawn towards structuralist explanatory models. According to these, power relations are fixed in at the outset statistic structures, where the one who is considered superior is always a given target for criticism.

Presumably, he is objecting to common leftist conceptualizations about feminism or racism, but there is really nothing to discuss as he never bothers to present an argument. Instead, Johansson takes critical thinking skills and their place in public education hostage and misrepresents their nature and goals in a maelstrom of ignorance.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

11 thoughts on “No, Critical Thinking Is Not Childish

  • An Internet commentator on social media suggested that the obsession with the whole “the UN cannot be criticized”. comes from the rejection of mainstream climate science. Great suggestion, should have realized it.

    • Emil Karlsson,

      Speaking of climate science, I’m thinking of writing a blog post over at LGF on it, and I’m thinking about including this video by youtuber “CoolHardLogic.” Thought you might want to see it. Its very revealing, and rather disturbing how much things have changed becouse of our meddling, yet people still refuse to accept the fact that carbon dioxide is warming the planet.

      The Disappearing Sea of Ice

    • Emil Karlsson,

      Thanks, I’m certain “CoolHardLogic” would appreciate it. He clearly spent a lot of time on the video, including doing his research.

    • Yeah, I wish the Internet would be more rewarding towards careful and detailed arguments and research over, say, clickbaits about celebrities deleting their social media apps on their phones (but not deleting their accounts). Yes, this was actually a serious news story.

  • Emil Karlsson,

    Critical thinking also is not childish because it often leads to conclusions that are the exact opposite of what we want to be true. People who fail to think critically often believe things that are comforting, but not only have no evidence to back them up, but often have boat loads of evidence against them being true. Its childish on the other hand to reject evidence and pretend that reality conforms to your desires just because you don’t like it.

    • Indeed!

      Looks like the blog software now puts comments automatically into trash (!) and not spam, so apologizes for it taken even longer to get published.

    • Apology accepted. Thanks. I was getting a little worried that you hadn’t seen them somehow.

    • A WordPress update seems to have included a new spam filter setting called “strict” (and set this to default) where it puts some comments that previously got stuck in the spam filter directly into the trash queue silently without telling me. I have changed this and a few other settings, so hopefully there will be some improvements.

  • TL;DR (sorry). However, in the US in 2012, before it was discovered and rightly ridiculed by others, the Republican Party of Texas actually stated right in their platform documents that they opposed teaching children critical thinking skills, among other important logic concepts. As soon as this became public knowledge, they changed it – which is the Republican way. Reference linky follows:

    Some people – those who gain from misinformation and ignorance in the general public – are sensibly opposed to anything that may undermine their desire to perpetuate objectively false ideas. So, they oppose higher education and critical thinking in general. It’s pretty common, but is rarely stated out loud and up front like the subject of this article and Repubs in the US.

    • Interesting! I remember hearing about it, but never truly appreciated the breadth of its absurdity.

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