I have a young relative who is severely dyslectic. Now well into his twenties, he is a top designer currently working on a prestige project in London. That may seem an unlikely career for a dyslexic, but I know why because he addressed it in his university dissertation. He explained that dyslexia can produce a difficulty in recognising patterns, and patterns are an important shortcut for most of us in arriving at sound conclusions from initial evidence. But for a creative designer, that may be a problem because the skills involved rely on radical thinking – he or she must not be trapped into easy assumptions based on conventional experience.
I remembered this when I was reading a recent study which examined whether IQ or critical thinking was the more important in making decisions. This was measured by the positive or negative real world outcomes. It showed that, although high IQ was needed for making good decisions, critical thinking was even more important.
Loosely defined, critical thinking uses relatively organised approaches to problem-solving. It employs a variety of methods and attitudes which assist us in analysis and warn us of the tendencies to error built into the human system. Formal IQ tests tend to focus in a somewhat abstract way on the thinking process, while critical thinking is more closely related to the real world.
Let’s imagine a doctor (not yours, of course) who listens to your symptoms. He has been trained to the eyeballs and is assisted by several years of experience. This may prejudice his critical thinking because his mind is full of pre-suppositions and likely answers from his existing patterns. We know, for instance, that doctors are susceptible to reading symptoms in the light of their own specialties, and they may, like all of us, be influenced by recent experiences, irrelevant evidence and even, if the neuroscientists are to be believed, by what they had for breakfast.
Of course, that is likely to be true of all the learned professions whose success depends on the veil of omniscience. And by contrast it shows why critical thinking is not common. That is because the critical thinker must first aim his criticism at himself. He must constantly doubt his own views and solicit ideas from those who disagree with him. His triumph is to spot his own errors – which moves him closer to the truth, and so towards the good outcome he seeks. When I become prime minister I shall have a high-level team, called “The Swines”. Their job will be to find the flaws in all my proposed policies.
Our imaginary doctor stands in for experts in general. And experts are the people we naturally go to in our uncertainties. Our doctor, like the lawyer and the investment adviser, is forecasting the outcomes of symptoms and of potential remedies. Unfortunately, the average expert is not much better at forecasting than the rest of us.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection