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How to think effectively: Six stages of critical thinking
A critical thinking framework developed by psychologists can help teach mental skills necessary for our times.
- Researchers propose six levels of critical thinkers: Unreflective thinkers, Challenged thinkers, Beginning thinkers, Practicing thinkers, Advanced thinkers, and Master thinkers.
- The framework comes from educational psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul.
- Teaching critical thinking skills is a crucial challenge in our times.
The coronavirus has not only decimated our populations, its spread has also attacked the very nature of truth and stoked inherent tensions between many different groups of people, both at local and international levels. Spawning widespread conspiracy theories and obfuscation by governments, the virus has also been a vivid demonstration of the need for teaching critical thinking skills necessary to survive in the 21st century. The stage theory of critical thinking development, devised by psychologists Linda Elder and Richard Paul, can help us gauge the sophistication of our current mental approaches and provides a roadmap to the thinking of others.
The researchers identified six predictable levels of critical thinkers, from ones lower in depth and effort to the advanced mind-masters, who are always steps ahead.
As the scientists write, moving up on this pyramid of thinking "is dependent upon a necessary level of commitment on the part of an individual to develop as a critical thinker." Using your mind more effectively is not automatic and "is unlikely to take place "subconsciously." In other words – you have to put in the work and keep doing it, or you'll lose the faculty.
Here's how the stages of intellectual development break down:
Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker
These are people who don't reflect about thinking and the effect it has on their lives. As such, they form opinions and make decisions based on prejudices and misconceptions while their thinking doesn't improve.
Unreflective thinkers lack crucial skills that would allow them to parse their thought processes. They also do not apply standards like accuracy, relevance, precision, and logic in a consistent fashion.
How many such people are out there? You probably can guess based on social media comments. As Elder and Paul write, "it is perfectly possible for students to graduate from high school, or even college, and still be largely unreflective thinkers."
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker
This next level up thinker has awareness of the importance of thinking on their existence and knows that deficiencies in thinking can bring about major issues. As the psychologists explain, to solve a problem, you must first admit you have one.
People at this intellectual stage begin to understand that "high quality thinking requires deliberate reflective thinking about thinking", and can acknowledge that their own mental processes might have many flaws. They might not be able to identify all the flaws, however.
A challenged thinker may have a sense that solid thinking involves navigating assumptions, inferences, and points of view, but only on an initial level. They may also be able to spot some instances of their own self-deception. The true difficulty for thinkers of this category is in not "believing that their thinking is better than it actually is, making it more difficult to recognize the problems inherent in poor thinking," explain the researchers.
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker
Thinkers at this level can go beyond the nascent intellectual humility and actively look to take control of their thinking across areas of their lives. They know that their own thinking can have blind spots and other problems and take steps to address those, but in a limited capacity.
Beginning thinkers place more value in reason, becoming self-aware in their thoughts. They may also be able to start looking at the concepts and biases underlying their ideas. Additionally, such thinkers develop higher internal standards of clarity, accuracy and logic, realizing that their ego plays a key role in their decisions.
Another big aspect that differentiates this stronger thinker – some ability to take criticism of their mental approach, even though they still have work to do and might lack clear enough solutions to the issues they spot.
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker
This more experienced kind of thinker not only appreciates their own deficiencies, but has skills to deal with them. A thinker of this level will practice better thinking habits and will analyze their mental processes with regularity.
While they might be able to express their mind's strengths and weaknesses, as a negative, practicing thinkers might still not have a systematic way of gaining insight into their thoughts and can fall prey to egocentric and self-deceptive reasoning.
How do you get to this stage? An important trait to gain, say the psychologists, is "intellectual perseverance." This quality can provide "the impetus for developing a realistic plan for systematic practice (with a view to taking greater command of one's thinking)."
"We must teach in such a way that students come to understand the power in knowing that whenever humans reason, they have no choice but to use certain predictable structures of thought: that thinking is inevitably driven by the questions, that we seek answers to questions for some purpose, that to answer questions, we need information, that to use information we must interpret it (i.e., by making inferences), and that our inferences, in turn, are based on assumptions, and have implications, all of which involves ideas or concepts within some point of view," explain Elder and Paul.
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker
One doesn't typically get to this stage until college and beyond, estimate the scientists. This higher-level thinker would have strong habits that would allow them to analyze their thinking with insight about different areas of life. They would be fair-minded and able to spot the prejudicial aspects in the points of view of others and their own understanding.
While they'd have a good handle on the role of their ego in the idea flow, such thinkers might still not be able to grasp all the influences that affect their mentality.
The advanced thinker is at ease with self-critique and does so systematically, looking to improve. Among key traits required for this level are "intellectual insight" to develop new thought habits, "intellectual integrity" to "recognize areas of inconsistency and contradiction in one's life," intellectual empathy" to put oneself in the place of others in order to genuinely understand them, and the "intellectual courage" to confront ideas and beliefs they don't necessarily believe in and have negative emotions towards.
Stage Six: The Master Thinker
This is the super-thinker, the one who is totally in control of how they process information and make decisions. Such people constantly seek to improve their thought skills, and through experience "regularly raise their thinking to the level of conscious realization."
A master thinker achieves great insights into deep mental levels, strongly committed to being fair and gaining control over their own egocentrism.
Such a high-level thinker also exhibits superior practical knowledge and insight, always re-examining their assumptions for weaknesses, logic, and biases.
And, of course, a master thinker wouldn't get upset with being intellectually confronted and spends a considerable amount of time analyzing their own responses.
"Why is this so important? Precisely because the human mind, left to its own, pursues that which is immediately easy, that which is comfortable, and that which serves its selfish interests. At the same time, it naturally resists that which is difficult to understand, that which involves complexity, that which requires entering the thinking and predicaments of others," write the researchers.
So how do you become a master thinker? The psychologists think most students will never get there. But a lifetime of practicing the best intellectual traits can get you to that point when "people of good sense seek out master thinkers, for they recognize and value the ability of master thinkers to think through complex issues with judgment and insight."
The significance of critical thinking in our daily lives, especially in these confusing times, so rife with quick and often-misleading information, cannot be overstated. The decisions we make today can truly be life and death.
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Polls never reveal who we really are. Google does.
- In Everybody Lies, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz discusses how Pornhub and Google data provide a window into human sexuality.
- Large, anonymized data sets are more reliable indicators than polling or other traditional methods.
- More people report having sex than actually having sex, Stephens-Davidowitz reports.
Polls are not the best indicator of reality, as was shown in the 2016 presidential race. There are many reasons. People might not want to admit the truth. They might purposefully fib in order to skew data. They simply lie. Everybody lies, as data scientist and economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz claims in his 2017 book.
What polls will not reveal can be discovered with another data source: Google searches. Or, as Stephens-Davidowitz spends a fair portion of his book covering, Pornhub searches. The internet delivers a treasure trove of data impossible to secure with other means (such as polling). Acquiring data sets in the thousands can be prohibitively expensive; with Google, Pornhub, and others, you can secure data sets in the billions, often at no expense beyond time.
Of course, such large data sets come with their own problems. A big one, which Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier address in their 2013 book, Big Data, is that we have to leave behind our fascination with causation—a biologically hard-wired feature—and settle for correlation.
"In a big-data world...we won't have to be fixated on causality; instead we can discover patterns and correlations in the data that offer us novel and invaluable insights."
Everybody lies; Google searches are the truth. In the comfort of our own home angels and demons appear, naked and honest. Search giants anonymize the data, yet these sets pull back the curtain enough to allow us to reckon with the animals that we truly are. As Stephens-Davidowitz puts it,
"Sometimes we need internet data to correct our instinct to pat ourselves on the back."
You have doppelgängers. They’re quietly influencing your life. | Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
While he reports frightening data on white nationalism and racism—"n word" queries and Trump voters match up nearly perfectly across the nation—it is our—yes, male and female, though mostly male—fascination with pornography that offers clues to the nature of human sexuality.
Before continuing, let me state that I take no issue with people's sexual preferences. The point isn't shame; it's curiosity regarding the distance between what we present ourselves to be and who we really are. That said, the increasing numbers of child pornography available online—over 45 million reported cases last year alone—is a serious issue that involves every one of us. Living in a world where this flourishes does not bode well for the future of sexuality and, therefore, the entire race.
The other reason this is important is to further the cultivation of honesty in relationships. Too many people cheat and lie to their partners; others cannot properly express their desires and therefore feel intimately and sexually unfulfilled, a topic beautifully explored in Daniel Bergner's book, The Other Side of Desire. Opening up about desires can be therapeutic and should not be condemned, but condoned. Ambitious, certainly, though possible.
Until then we have a massive influx of pornography, which has long been a technological driver. It pushed forward the development of the camera. It is one of the reasons that VHS crushed Betamax, as well as an influence behind the mass adoption of the internet. Even still, many won't fess up. Stephens-Davidowitz writes that more people search for "porn" than they do "weather" even though only one-quarter of men and 8 percent of women admit to it.
Old school ideology from Alfred Kinsey states that 10 percent of American men are gay. Surveys believe the number is between 2-3 percent. Using a wealth of Facebook data, including location information spread across more tolerant and less tolerant states, Stephens-Davidowitz states that the number is closer to 5 percent, not including closeted homosexuals.
Women are 10 percent more likely to search on Google for "Is my husband gay?" than "Is my husband cheating?" Women wonder if their husband is gay eight times more than if he's an alcoholic and ten times more than if he suffers from depression. The states where this question is most asked are South Carolina and Louisiana.
Speaking of female sexuality, 20 percent of all videos watched by women on Pornhub show lesbian scenes.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz pauses to have his portrait taken while he works on his elections predictions at his apartment.
Photo by Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe via Getty Images
On the animated show, "Big Mouth," Missy loves humping stuffed animals. There is precedent: while it's not a particularly popular search on Pornhub, women do look for such videos.
Twenty-five percent of female searches involving heterosexual porn on Pornhub involve pain and/or humiliation. Five percent search for nonconsensual sex. Women are twice as likely to search for these topics as men. As Stephens-Davidowitz points out, we should differentiate between fantasy and reality when considering such searches. Still, data don't lie.
Using Google data, it turns out that searching why a partner doesn't want sex is sixteen times more popular than a partner unwilling to talk. With unmarried partners, not wanting sex is five-and-a-half times more popular than not texting back. Women are twice as likely to search for boyfriends not wanting sex than the reverse.
Men Google about penis size more than all other body parts combined. Women rarely look it up. In fact, for every one woman that searches, 170 men enter it into the search field. Even then, 40 percent of women complain that it's too big. Yet only 1 percent of men seek information on how to make it smaller.
Men disproportionally ask how to make sex longer. Women search for making their partner climax quicker as much as they want to stretch out the experience.
For women, breast size is a much more common search: seven million breast implant queries a year. When it comes to their behind, until 2014 the searches always dealt with making it smaller. In 2014, that switched: in every state, women searched for a bigger behind more often.
The number one search for women and men when dealing with female genitalia concerns smell.
Finally, what turned out to be one of Stephen-Davidowitz's favorite pieces of data, and one that does not fly in the face of convention but rather confirms it:
"Men make as many searches looking for ways to perform oral sex on themselves as they do how to give a woman an orgasm."
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.