Are We Getting Worse at Critical Thinking?

Critically thinking about the effects of increasing information.

Posted Mar 02, 2021

I had an interesting email correspondence recently with a reader of this blog, wherein they made the observation that, in their professional field, individuals (and perhaps, even the companies they work for) have been exhibiting a shrinking — maybe even loss — of their knowledge base; seemingly getting less competent over time.

At first, as the reader suggests, it didn’t make sense, but as more information was transferred back and forth among relevant individuals, patterns in their thinking emerged, leading the reader to infer that there may be a loss of critical thinking (CT) in their industry; thus, emphasising the importance of CT in real-world scenarios.

What the reader postulated as a potential cause for all of this was that people are perhaps becoming less and less able to filter out "noisy," peripheral information from the "good" stuff (i.e. relevant, accurate information). For example, the rise of social media begets a rise in people processing novel information in a fast, simple thread-like manner, in which accurate, reliable "critical data" may get filtered out, thus facilitating the making of critical decisions or judgments with only a fraction of the data required for such a task.

I agree with quite a bit of what this reader has observed and inferred. However, there are a number of caveats and exceptions that are important to make; and, at the same time, these would be interesting to discuss in this blog as a post in its own right!

Are we getting worse at CT?

Simply, no. As you might recall from a previous piece on this blog, there is no such thing as good critical thinking or bad critical thinking; rather, a case-by-case basis of asking whether or not CT has been conducted. Just because a person generally thinks critically about an important issue, does not mean that they will use it for all topics. Some people use it more often than not for important issues and some don’t use it at all — not because they lack the capability, but maybe because they don’t know how or are not disposed to apply it. Though CT and having a knowledge base are dependent on one another to some extent, they are distinct concepts (i.e. one is a cognitive process associated with organising and storing knowledge — consider long-term memory — and the other is the application of various cognitive processes, metacognitively speaking [Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014]).

To better understand this distinction, consider the "New Knowledge Economy." In all honesty, there is nothing new about the "New" Knowledge Economy — the exponential increase in the annual output of knowledge has been growing for about 20 years now, given the constant evolution of the internet and how information is transferred.

For example, it’s estimated that about 500,000 times the volume of information contained in the U.S. Library of Congress print collection was created in 2002 alone; and, from the years 1999 to 2002, the amount of new information created equaled the amount of information previously developed throughout the history of the world (Varian & Lyman, 2003). It’s also been suggested that the development of new information is doubling every two years (Jukes & McCain, 2002). However, it has been difficult to assess these almost 20-year-old estimations, possibly as a result of just how much information has actually been developed.

That said, exact figures aren’t important here; rather, what is important to acknowledge is that: A staggeringly higher amount of information is available now than it was 20 years ago; and it can be difficult for many to distinguish accurate, quality information from rubbish. As a result, it is no longer enough to gain domain-specific knowledge in order to achieve a level of expertise — we must also learn to: adapt both to new information and to a variety of novel contexts within which this information can be applied (Dwyer, 2017); and develop a capacity to engage in inquiry and constructively solve problems (Darling-Hammond, 2008). These "musts" are consistent with what we know of as CT.

Are we losing our knowledge base?

Simply, no. If anything, it’s getting better; however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish, as addressed above, "noisy," peripheral information from the "good" stuff — which brings us back to the need for CT. Again, we’re not getting worse at CT either — it may even be the case that we’re encountering more and more opportunities to engage it! Yes, "practice makes perfect," and the more we engage in CT, the better we get at it; however, CT is cognitively demanding. It is tiresome. Remember, just because a person generally thinks critically about important issues, doesn’t mean that they will for all scenarios — maybe not even because of a lack of interest, knowledge, or disposition; but maybe because they’re tired! Moreover, we’re cognitively lazy (e.g. see Kahneman, 2011) — our brains work in a manner that conserves as much energy as possible (in case we need it for something important); so, if it’s easier to draw an inference from a social media headline than reading an entire article from The New York Times, then that will often suffice — or "satisfice" as Herbert Simon (1956) might say.   

Conclusion

Are we getting worse at CT? No. Are we losing our knowledge base? No. On the contrary, more and more opportunities to practice (and improve) CT have been afforded to us by advances in our knowledge base. However, given the rise in the amount of information out there, it is necessary to utilise our knowledge in tandem with CT for successful information processing outcomes. Years ago, knowledge was king; however, in light of the information explosion over the past few decades, it’s no longer possible to be an expert based on knowledge alone; rather, you need the ability to adapt — through CT — in light of all this available information.

Sure, we see many examples on television and on the internet of people seriously lacking in CT — maybe even just common sense, in many cases. But, I don’t think people are getting worse per se. Rather, we might just be more cognisant of CT "failures" given the increase of people’s online footprint. Nevertheless, we live in a time where we need CT more than ever and because of that, people who once were deemed to be "smart" (i.e. vast knowledge) are being caught out because they may not necessarily have the skills, be disposed or even have the energy to analyse and evaluate information to infer reasonable conclusions and solutions to a requisite standard at a particular point in time.  

References

Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). How can we teach for meaningful learning? In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning, 1-10.

Dwyer, C.P. (2017). CT: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

Dwyer, C. P., Hogan, M. J., & Stewart, I. (2014). An integrated CT framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 12, 43–52.

Jukes, I., & McCain, T. (2002). Minds in play: Computer game design as a context of children’s learning. New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. Penguin: Great Britain. Simon (1956)

Simon, H. A. (1957) Models of Man. New York: Wiley.

Varian, H., & Lyman, P. (2003). How much information? Berkeley, CA: School of Information Management & Systems, UC Berkeley.