This is the fifth in a series of commentaries focusing on the question of culture change and how to bring about change for the better.

An entire “critical thinking” industry has grown up in recent years and one has to wonder why?  Could the reason be as simple as critical thinking is no longer taught in schools?

Certainly, the growth of the critical thinking industry is due in no small part to the existence of a market for it.  We are hard wired to think critically, some more so than others, obviously, but nonetheless, it is a human trait to be inquisitive and question the nature of things.  It is that inquisitiveness that makes possible knowledge of the world around, and beyond, us.  Critical thinking is the foundation of free thought, which in turn makes discoveries possible.  Critical thinking also lies at the core of free speech, as it allows us to form our own thoughts and opinions independent of government or other institutions of social control.

The opposite of critical thinking is Groupthink. Unfortunately, groupthink is all too prevalent these days, and the absence of critical thinking is responsible for more social ills than perhaps any other failing.  The term “groupthink” owes its origins to George Orwell’s masterful novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the concepts of “doublespeak” and “newspeak” are part the process of indoctrination which uses peer pressure (“Ah, come on, everyone is doing it”), our social need to “fit in,” (“Don’t rock the boat” or “go along to get along”), and the desire to gain status with authority (“It never hurts to suck up to the boss.”).

Groupthink is also the hallmark of the bureaucratic mindset, whether found in government or business.  The bureaucratic mind set has all the characteristics of groupthink, including: overestimation of its own importance; closed-mindedness and hostility to outside ideas and opinions; and demands of uniformity, consensus and loyalty.

As such, groupthink has been responsible for some of the greatest disasters of decision-making, or non-decision making, in history, e.g., Pearl Harbour, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the collapse of Kodak, Swissair and British Airways, space shuttle Challenger catastrophe, COVID lockdowns and the current continuing “crisis” of Canada’s healthcare system.

What is Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is not complicated, or something reserved to those who are able to master a secret knowledge.  Critical thinking starts by asking “why”?  Why is something so?  We all know of a child’s quest for answers by constantly asking “Why?” which often results in parents saying, with a sense of exasperation, ”Because, I said so!”  Sometimes, given a child’s limited faculty of understanding, “Because I said so!” is the appropriate default answer.  With adults, however, when we question government policies or news stories, the answer “Because I said so!” is no answer at all.

Critical thinking, by its very nature, questions the motive(s) of those making the arguments, the data on which the arguments rest and the justification for the conclusions being advanced.  In doing so, critical thinking allows us to identify what those arguments and conclusions are based upon.  Moreover, critical thinking allows us to “read between the lines” and look beyond the surface of the argument to uncover the assumptions, whether true or false, of the argument being advanced, and what the real agenda is for such argument.

Why is Critical Thinking Important

In an earlier Commentary in this series, we focused on Moral Relativism and argued for the importance of being able to discern right from wrong, good from evil.  Part of that discernment process involves critical thinking.  Indeed, without critical thinking, our abilities to know right from wrong and make ethical choices in difficult situations would be greatly impaired.

Critical thinking is also important because it allows for the potential of “thinking outside the box.”  Such thinking is crucial if we are to find solutions to the problems created by in-the-box (groupthink) thinking.  Much in-the-box thinking is, alas, akin to hitting your head against the wall repeatedly, expecting a different result.  Critical thinking allows us to escape a bad paradigm or the consequences of a bad decision by facilitating constructive criticism.  That is precisely why critical thinking is at odds with the bureaucratic mindset, because that mindset refuses to acknowledge that it is capable of making mistakes.  Bureaucracies are not known for their abilities to acknowledge mistakes let alone take positive action to correct bad habits arising from faulty processes and procedures.

Finally, critical thinking is essential to a free and democratic society.  Not only does critical thinking lie at the heart of such fundamental freedoms as freedom of conscience, thought, belief, opinion and expression, it is also what gives “freedom of the press” its value and importance.  When the press fails to do its job, then democracy suffers, and we are less free.

As such, critical thinking should encourage the asking of questions and certainly one of the most relevant political questions that needs to be asked far more frequently is: Cui bonoto whom is it a benefit?  In other words, follow the money.  More times than not the money trail leads to those who are pulling the strings and who stand to benefit the most from a particular policy or piece of legislation.  It is not enough to merely assume that the legislation is “in the public interest.”  The fact is, most legislation and government policy which underlies it, are seldom, “in the public interest” but rather serve a particular lobby group or sector of society which depends upon government for its funding.

No Substitute for Critical Thinking

General George Paton once quipped, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”  Seldom have truer words been spoken.  There are far too many sycophants and “yes men/women” inhabiting institutions these days whether in government, the professions or board rooms.  Their presence inhibits and discourages healthy debate, critical self-assessment of strategies and the creation of different options to the status quo.  In other words, when everyone is thinking alike, don’t expect solutions to problems.

To think critically is not without risk.  At one level, you are going against the herd mentality and daring to be different.  You are often going against vested interests of power and money who are quite content with the status quo and will not welcome change that critical thinking invariably makes possible.

To think critically, however, is not only to exercise your brain, it is also to exercise your fundamental rights and to say to those in power: “You’re wrong, this is bad policy. Change it!”  That is why those in power hate critical thinkers, they can’t abide, like the emperor, the prospect of being told that they have no clothes.