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20 January 2020

Skeptical activism and critical thinking

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

In everyday life, normally we do not explicitly declare ourselves “skeptics” even though we may have some disbeliefs, and we certainly need to be sure about any information we are going to use in a formal manner. We can talk about skepticism in terms of the afterlife, or the possible reversal of climate change; but in our daily routines, we especially try to verify the information we possess to prevent reflections that lead us to erroneous positions or solutions. 

Around three decades ago, in order to properly deal with the increasing amount of information of varying quality we receive, the information literacy movement gained significant momentum; in sync with the more popular critical thinking movement. The goal was for everyone – starting in school – to think more and better (well-documented, with an open and flexible mind, aware of our prejudices, more objectively), and not to be given ideas that have already thought out for us. 

The “critical thinking” construct (to which philosophers, psychologists, educators, etc. have contributed) described a cognition that was autonomous, meticulous, insightful, disciplined, self-demanding – each of us with our own unique intellect. This is how we should be educated in order to incorporate and apply knowledge more effectively, and certainly, to be less susceptible to deception, manipulation and post-truths. Without critical thinking, there is no room for personal growth or development. 

The skeptical movement 

At the time, 30 years ago, another movement gained momentum, one that is currently very well-known: the skeptical movement, whose activists are commitment to a specific dialectical activism. This cause is embraced above all to serve as a warning, as a sort of whistleblowing regarding the so-called pseudosciences and paranormal phenomena, all of which are generally considered deceptive.  There are numerous expressions of this global trend, which is also fairly active in Spain (ARP,  Círculo Escéptico  and other platforms). Online we immediately come across skeptics with a variety of different attitudes, some with fervor. 

This cause/trend is presented to us soundly aligned with science and the scientific method, but also – the reason for these paragraphs – with critical thinking. Yes, with this desirable way of thinking that has been understood in different ways, even outside of the critical thinking movement. For example, Círculo Escéptico even considers skepticism and critical thinking synonyms, which suggests an ad hoc interpretation of the latter. 

Skeptic messages question the credibility of numerous topics (homeopathy, osteopathy, acupuncture, psychoanalysis, hypnosis, pilates, reiki, yoga, kinesiology, astrology, aliens, tarot, spiritualism, clairvoyance, telepathy, ouija, haunted houses, etc.). While considering that believers surely have their legitimate reasons to believe and will continue to do so, voices emerge that question the intentions or utility of the movement. It does not seem to address the cardinal topic of faith: religion is not one of the priorities.

BBVA-OpenMind-Jose Enebral-Activismo escéptico y pensamiento crítico
Believers have their legitimate reasons to believe and will continue to do so. Image:  Unsplash

Critical thinking to educate us 

It is worth asking what the critical thinking we are discussing has in common with this skeptical-scientific thinking with a set focus. It’s possible that the overlap is small. Indeed, the connection is stressed, and observers may end up merging, or confusing critical thinking with skepticism, the scientific method or reproving criticism.

In this respect, by taking a look at the critical thinking movement, and being aware of its desire to improve our cognitive education, it may be helpful to point out the following in the profile of a critical thinker: 

  • Their predisposition is not aimed at reporting deception or errors, but at properly documenting and obtaining responses that seem convincing and sound. 
  • They attempt to verify and confirm information before using it, but this attitude does not come from skeptical criticism, rather from the desire to get the task right. 
  • They think for themselves. They believe what they decide to believe and respect this attitude in others. It’s not about imposing their positions, even if they support them assertively.  
  • They are inquisitive (but not questioning) in their inquiries, and are therefore sometimes creative and innovative. 
  • Of their intellectual virtues, humility and caution stand out, and they certainly avoid assuming they are right or possess the truth, even though they strive for both.  
  • They are aware of their prejudices, concerns, feelings, intentions and interests, and reflect on their own thoughts. They are not impulsive or intemperate thinkers. 
  • They try to see things from different perspectives, with sufficient empathy, aware that the reality shown to us is at times complex and relative.

The above does not at all attempt to describe the profile of a critical thinker. It simply explains what separates a critical thinker from an activist skeptical thinker (whose legitimacy and contribution we are not questioning).

In order to cite greater overlap between both profiles, we would have to make the critical thinkers’ minds more rigid, give greater dominance to their left hemisphere, attribute in them the desire to guide others’ beliefs, and place emphasis on the purpose of reflection instead of on the way of thinking. And that would take us very far from the “critical thinking” construct.

José Enebral Fernández

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