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Wall Street Journal

Critical Thinking:
Part Skill, Part Mindset
And Totally Up to You
October 20, 2006; Page B1


In 1854, Sir Roger Tichborne, age 25, was reported lost at sea. His mother, who had raised him in her native France, refused to accept that her son was gone, and 12 years later it appeared that her stubbornness had been justified: a gentleman in Australia got in touch with the bereaved lady, claiming to be Sir Roger. He had made his way to Australia after surviving the shipwreck, he explained, and vowed to make a success of himself without his family's help. Unfortunately, he had suffered numerous business setbacks, and had been too embarrassed to contact them. Seeing an advertisement for his whereabouts, which his mother's solicitors had placed, filled him with remorse. Would she kindly send passage money for himself, his wife and his children?

If you smell a rat even from 150 years away, then clearly your heart is not in this -- your head is. It is a truism that emotions and hopes can trump reason. But with so many contentious issues these days manifesting themselves as clashes in which reason squares off against passion, researchers are becoming keenly interested in the reasons people hold tight to seemingly ludicrous beliefs.

Which Lady Tichborne did. As recounted in the 2006 book The Science of Sherlock Holmes by E.J. Wagner, when the claimant arrived in England, he was grossly obese. Sir Roger had been very thin and with a graceful frame. Sir Roger had tattoos on his arm. The claimant had none, though he did have a birthmark on his torso. Sir Roger did not. While Sir Roger's eyes had been blue, the claimant's were brown. The two men had noses and ears of different shapes, and the claimant was taller by one inch. The claimant did not speak French. Lady Tichborne nevertheless joyfully proclaimed the man her lost son and granted him a stipend of £1,000 per annum. Eventually, after her death, the claimant was found guilty of imposture and sentenced to 14 years of penal servitude.

It is not just grieving mothers who toss reason and empiricism out the window in favor of blind faith. Arthur Conan Doyle, for one, was no slouch in the critical-thinking department -- both in his work at a medical clinic and in solving crimes, which he put to good use in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet he believed that mediums could contact the dead.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who like Charles Darwin discovered natural selection, was second to none in his capacity for rational thinking and respect for empirical data. At least when he so chose. But Wallace believed in ghosts, haunted houses, levitation and clairvoyance.

Critical thinking means being able to evaluate evidence, to tell fact from opinion, to see holes in an argument, to tell whether cause and effect has been established and to spot illogic. "Most research shows you can teach these skills," notes cognitive psychologist D. Alan Bensley of Frostburg State University, Maryland. "But critical-thinking skills are different from critical-thinking dispositions, or a willingness to deploy those skills."

A tendency to employ critical thinking, according to studies going back a decade, goes along with certain personality traits, not necessarily with intelligence. Being curious, open-minded, open to new experiences and conscientious indicates a disposition to employ critical thinking, says Prof. Bensley. So does being less dogmatic and less authoritarian, and having a preference for empirical and rational data over intuition and emotion when weighing information and reaching conclusions. As he puts it, "critical-thinking skills have to do with the cognitive ability of reasoning. Critical-thinking dispositions are more related to traits that determine whether you choose to use those skills."

In other words, critical-thinking skills are necessary for engaging in critical thinking, but they are not sufficient. You also have to want to think critically. If you have good critical-thinking skills but for some reason are not motivated to deploy them, you will reach conclusions and make decisions no more rationally than someone without those skills.

As Lady Tichborne showed, people aren't inclined to deploy critical-thinking skills if those skills lead to a conclusion that clashes with deeply held beliefs or hopes -- in her case, that her son was alive. Sir Arthur had a similar motivation: His son was killed in World War I, and he attended sťances to contact him. Wallace hoped to contact his dead brother.

"Both Conan Doyle and Wallace had a strong predisposition to believe in spiritualism and other woolly things, so they looked for confirming evidence," says Prof. Bensley. "They didn't deploy their critical-thinking skills in questioning whether sleight of hand and other tricks could account for what the mediums did, let alone in questioning the basic premise of contacting the dead."

Examples abound of critical thinking being "context specific," which means it is trotted out in some situations but not others. The same person who rationally analyzes all her portfolio options also believes she was abducted by aliens. The same person who critically parses newspaper editorials for lapses of logic believes in astrology.

Adding other examples is left as an exercise for the reader. [an error occurred while processing this directive]