To think critically, you have to be both analytical and motivated
You need more than just critical analysis skills—you need to value using them.
In a world where accusations of "fake news" are thrown around essentially at random, critical thinking would seem to be a must. But this is also a world where the Moon landings are viewed as a conspiracy and people voice serious doubts about the Earth's roundness. Critical thinking appears to be in short supply at a time we desperately need it.
One of the proposed solutions to this issue is to incorporate more critical thinking into our education system. But critical thinking is more than just a skill set; you have to recognize when to apply it, do so effectively, and then know how to respond to the results. Understanding what makes a person effective at analyzing fake news and conspiracy theories has to take all of this into account. A small step toward that understanding comes from a recently released paper, which looks at how analytical thinking and motivated skepticism interact to make someone an effective critical thinker.
The work comes courtesy of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Tomas Ståhl and Jan-Willem van Prooijen at VU Amsterdam. This isn't the first time we've heard from Ståhl; last year, he published a paper on what he termed "moralizing epistemic rationality." In it, he looked at people's thoughts on the place critical thinking should occupy in their lives. The research identified two classes of individuals: those who valued their own engagement with critical thinking, and those who viewed it as a moral imperative that everyone engage in this sort of analysis.
In this new paper, Ståhl and van Prooijen look into how well this sort of critical thinking protects people from bizarre beliefs. They focused on a mixture of actual conspiracy theories—the Moon landing was a hoax, the US knew the 9-11 attacks were coming—to more general conspiratorial thinking, like “there are secret organizations that greatly influence political decisions.” They also added a series of questions about paranormal beliefs, like astrology and ESP.
In the first survey, more than 300 people answered these questions and took a test to determine whether they tended to approach problems critically, termed an "analytic cognitive style." They also were evaluated based on Ståhl's earlier work to determine if they personally valued critical thinking or viewed doing so as a moral requirement for everyone.
Overall, a tendency for analytical thinking did provide consistent protection against conspiratorial thinking and other irrational beliefs, but only if it was accompanied by a belief in the value of critical thinking. The moralizing version of this belief, where you think everyone should be approaching things critically, didn't seem to have any influence on holding irrational ideas.
Willing but not able?
The authors, however, acknowledge a limitation in their test for analytical thinking: it only tells whether a person approaches problems analytically—it says nothing about whether they're any good about doing so. You can think of this question as addressing the issue of whether better education on critical thinking would help. So they set up a similar experiment but focused on actual analytical ability through tests of numerical and verbal ability. This showed that analytical ability was associated with lower levels of belief in conspiracies and the paranormal.
Overall, the authors conclude that their studies "provided support for the notion that skepticism toward paranormal and conspiracy beliefs requires sufficient analytic skills, as well as motivation to form beliefs based on logic and evidence." While it may seem obvious—people need to be both motivated and capable to do something—it gets at the issue of whether greater education in critical thinking would help. It suggests that we need to accompany any education efforts with parallel efforts to make critical thinking seem valuable or fun, or it won't end up being the default approach.
The worst-case scenario is that we add critical thinking education in a way that leaves people thinking it's boring and, therefore, less likely to engage in it. We've certainly managed to do similar things in the past.
That said, this work shouldn't be viewed as the final word on this topic. There were some differences between the two survey populations (one from Mechanical Turk, the other from Crowdflower) that the researchers haven't explored. And it doesn't handle all the issues we mentioned above, like the ability to recognize when critical analysis is appropriate. But if it holds up, the finding could go a long way toward explaining why conspiracy theories persist in a world where most measures of cognitive ability have gone up over time.