This is part two of a two-part interview of Kevin deLaplante, a professor of philosophy and founder of The Critical Thinker Academy. Check out part one here.
What is your favorite book on critical thinking?
I often get requests for book recommendations. It’s hard because critical thinking requires so many different kinds of skill development, and no single book is going to cover everything. Also, people are usually interested in specific issues or topics, and once I know what those are it’s easier to recommend sources.
My “starter kit” recommendation is to pick a good introductory book on basic argumentation and fallacies written from a logic/philosophy perspective, plus a good introductory book on the psychology of reasoning and decision making (something in the “biases and heuristics” tradition), and then a book that might be more specifically focused on your area of interest.
For basic logic, argumentation and fallacies, I like Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments. A more comprehensive text that I like is Richard Feldman’s Reason & Argument. On cognitive biases I’m a fan of Scott Plous’s The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. If you think of yourself as a skeptic of pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal or supernatural, Schick and Vaughn’s How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age is a good read. These are all available on Amazon. I would recommend getting used copies for the more expensive texts.
There’s no way to satisfy everyone, though. I have people tell me that the very things they love about a particular text are things that other people hate or strongly disagree with. My recommendation is to develop a bookshelf with some good basic texts, and keep adding to it as your interests grow and change over time.
Where do you see The Critical Thinker Academy in five years?
In five years I’d like to see ten times the amount of material on the site that there is right now, covering a wider range of topics. I’d like to see an active learning community that engages with the material and with each other. And I’d like to be doing it full time.
How will identifying and understanding cognitive biases help us become better thinkers? What are a few of the most prevalent types of cognitive biases?
Cognitive biases describe various ways that human reasoning systematically deviates from the predictions of our normative theories of good reasoning. I think that some familiarity with the basic notions and the most influential types of biases is essential for critical thinking literacy, for a number of reasons.
One reason is that cognitive biases play an important role in the “influence” industry, it’s part of the theoretical framework that informs advertising and political campaigns.
Cognitive biases can also help us understand what science is and why scientific methods work the way they do. Richard Feynman is quoted as saying that “science is what we do keep from lying to ourselves,” and I think there’s a lot of truth to this. Cognitive biases underlie our natural disposition to see meaning in spurious patterns, and our inability to properly weigh competing evidence as it bears on a hypothesis. The whole protocol of double-blind, randomized controlled studies can be viewed as a method for systematically neutralizing the distorting effects of cognitive biases (confirmation bias, observer effects, experimenter effects, the placebo effect, etc.)
Another reason is that a good understanding of cognitive biases can help us think critically about our own cognitive behavior. We’re all prone to confirmation bias, where we tend to ignore information that runs counter to our beliefs and expectations and focus more on information that reinforces our expectations. We’re also prone to overconfidence in various ways that can influence our reasoning and our judgment of other people’s views. I think a good background in cognitive biases can help foster a healthy sense of humility about our own cognitive habits and limitations, and in so-doing help to improve our reasoning (the first step to recovery is accepting that you have a problem, so to speak).
What do you feel are the most important messages that can be taken from Kahneman’s and Tversky’s research into heuristics and biases?
I’ve listed some above. Kahneman and Tversky were seminal in drawing attention to the issue, and their work has revolutionized psychology and behavioral economics. Without their work you wouldn’t have more recent work by psychologists like Thomas Gilovich (How We Know What Isn’t So), Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality), or Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us). This whole body of research is of central importance for critical thinking.
Do you have any current projects you would like to mention?
This summer I’ll be finishing up work on tutorial courses on reasoning with probabilities and uncertainty, and by popular demand I’ll be developing a course sequence on moral reasoning. I’m excited about that. And I’ll be continuing work on the podcast. Your readers can follow me on Twitter (kevindelaplante) and YouTube (philosophyfreak).
Also, this summer I’ll be starting a philosophy-themed webcomic. This is partly just a fun creative outlet (I’m a frustrated cartoonist) and it’s not going to be a very serious affair, but I’m hoping it will open up some of these ideas to a new audience.
Critical thinking entails more than understanding formal logic, it is a multifarious concept. A big thanks to Kevin for providing a comprehensive look at this often discussed, but often misunderstood topic.
Photo by Jason D’ Great, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.