Skepticism: Why critical thinking makes you smarter

Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.

  • It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
  • Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
  • As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
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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.

Credit: Elder / Paul
  • 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.
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  • Psychological illusionist Derren Brown presents magic as an analogy for how we process the world around us. In the same way we believe in a trick by forming a narrative around it, we can tell ourselves stories in life.
  • It's important to maintain a sense of skepticism. But it's equally as important to recognize the edges of usefulness in being skeptical.
  • For example, an atheist can be skeptical of religion while still admitting that the narratives around religion might be valuable and psychologically useful.
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Why Mythologies Like Adam and Eve Are Such Good Thinking Tools

Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.

The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.

Why Science Must Embrace Imagination, Intuition, and Evidence

All science begins with a leap of intuition, says Richard Dawkins, but we can only ever find objective truths by knowing when to let evidence take over from emotion.

You can be committed to science, but as soon as you're committed to a hypothesis, you've walked off the trail of objective truth, says Richard Dawkins. For him, that is the mission of science and the purpose of the scientific method: these truths exist—they are the foundations of innovations like vaccinations, antibiotics, and space travel, because they are built on something solid: evidence. Einstein is known for highly valuing the role of imagination in science, and Dawkins agrees: imagination and intuition are the springboards scientific progress depends on—but when evidence refutes a hypothesis or a feeling, that's the end of the line. Dogged persistence doesn't get you any closer to the truth, says Dawkins, only critical thinking can do that. Richard Dawkins' latest book is Science In The Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.

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