A Lack of Critical Thinking Skills is Not our Problem

It’s a fundamentally silly premise, silly like Erich Fromm’s claims about the authoritarian personality type, silly like any other premise that assumes you can fix a political problem by subjecting the polity to collective re-education or psychotherapy. Political problems are never inherently moral or psychological; they are structural and systemic. But alongside this big reason, there is a host of little problems with the thesis, which make it not only wrong-headed on a theoretical level, but also just plain silly.

For one, I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten a clear definition of a critical thinking skill. It’s an empty term, a concept that obscures more than it reveals, like “meaningful,” or “fake news.” Now, I have a vague grasp of the Kantian critique, whereby an apparent contradiction is proven to be not quite a real contradiction. Basically, you find a third way of looking at a problem. It’s cheap but true to point out that this is not what people seem to mean when they say critical thinking. Since, once again, they seem to mean nothing at all.

Does “critical thinking skills” mean some special intuition for smelling bullshit? But then, the ability to smell bullshit doesn’t have so much to do with critical thinking skills as, well, an ability to smell bullshit. And what exactly is “true news”? The entire media landscape is a murky shade of yellow. It’s as if Norm Macdonald’s Weekend Update joke (it’s the fake news!) has sprouted legs and started taking itself way too seriously.

Alongside this claim about our collective need for critical thinking skills, we get the occasional (belletristic) pundit from the Guardian or the like claiming that the issue with our tech people is that they lack “culture.” But the tech community, of any contemporary cohort, are perhaps the most broadly cultured. Zuckerberg quotes Virgil in meetings, Jonah Perretti is a published critical theorist, Peter Thiel a very good amateur theologian and a chess master. Not to mention, they can all talk to machines with logic. They probably all know the connection between database design and set theory, the connection between a data structure and an algorithm, the connection between a statistical sorting method and a human being. Certainly, if critical thinking skills mean anything, the denizens of the tech industry have plenty of them.

So, if our problem isn’t “the uncritical masses,” then what might it be? To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, the stupidity of our machines might just be smarter than the smartness of our smart people [1]. And the solution to this problem is not at all clear.

[1] For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.