Is Critical Thinking Inscrutable?

PUBLISHED: Dec 3, 2019

In This Episode.

In this seminal podcast of the series, Steve & Dave delve into why popular definitions of critical thinking fail to represent the depth and complexity of the act.  The John Carpenter classic, They Live, gets established as the cornerstone metaphor for the entire Smarterer series.

Episode Archive

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: They’re here to do two things. Chew bubble gum and make you smarter, and they’re all out of bubble gum smarter with Dave and Steve.

Dave Carillo: Our podcast is here to do two things. Watch movie clips,

Steve Pearlman: And when we’re all out of movie clips, we’re going to talk about critical thinking. It’s based on a lot of research which you’ll hear very little of, and we’re going to spend a lot more time conveying to you the outcomes and the value of how you can use these nuggets to go into your life and actually think better.

Dave Carillo: We’re coming to you from a caring place. We want to help you. However we can to become a stronger, critical thinker and we want to play you movie clips, which we realize is a challenge because we’re only able to play you the audio. You can’t see the movie clip.

Steve Pearlman: It’s like that Saturday Night Live sketch of the synchronized swimming. Who was it? Was Christopher Guest and Martin Short? Sure. And Martin Short can’t swim.

Dave Carillo: And Christopher is a terrible

Steve Pearlman: Swimmer, and Christopher Guest is saying, I don’t think the fact that my brother can’t swim is an impediment to our ability to be synchronized swimmers. And we’re saying we don’t think the fact that we don’t have video for our video clips is an impediment to our ability to use video clips.

Dave Carillo: We’re going to go ahead and assume, which is probably a bad choice on our part, that not having the video for these particular clips is going to in any way impede our ability to talk about them.

Steve Pearlman: But what we’re going to do is use those clips in terms of each podcast critical thinking message for you that you’re going to be able to go out and play into your life. Now, the irony in this first podcast is a little irony in that, which is that we’re we’re not really going to teach you anything about critical thinking. We’re going to ask you to think about critical thinking for yourself. So other than this first episode, all the episodes will actually offer something new. This one is going to ask you to reflect, and we’re going to explain why that’s so important, though in a few minutes. But we first have to introduce the first audio video clip when we said we’re out here to do two things to play movie clips and talk about critical thinking. That was actually an allusion to our first movie clip from one of the greatest, worst movies ever made, which is They live by John Carpenter.

Dave Carillo: Why are you saying worst? This is just the greatest. It’s one of the greatest.

Steve Pearlman: It’s a great

Dave Carillo: Movie. We love. They live.

Steve Pearlman: We contemplated doing the entire podcast series based off of the movie.

Dave Carillo: We will still do that when we have more free time. The back story in the movie is this Rowdy Roddy Piper plays this cool laid back drifter who makes his way into Los Angeles. He’s out of work and spends a lot of time around a shanty town which is adjacent to this church. He notices all these weird goings on in this church, singing at night and so on and so forth, which he decides to investigate. And it turns out there’s no singing at night. There’s a recording because this church is a whole front for a very small but dedicated group of people who have this secret knowledge. And the secret knowledge is essentially that aliens have taken over planet Earth and keep us under control and subservient and submissive through the use of subliminal messages in all our popular media and advertising and use, the

Steve Pearlman: Old aliens have secretly taken over Earth

Dave Carillo: Plotline. You find out that aliens have taken over the world because this group of people have figured out a way to manufacture sunglasses that allow you to see through the haze of popular media and advertising. And when you put these sunglasses on, you see that the billboards are actually saying things like consume and reproduce and don’t think and billboards

Steve Pearlman: That otherwise would have been typical advertisements for it for a shirt, any number of speakers or whatever.

Dave Carillo: Exactly. And also other than the subliminal messaging, when you put on those glasses, you see that the aliens have really ugly sort of skeletons like bulging eye faces, but they look like humans if you’re not wearing the glasses, and that’s what Rowdy Roddy Piper discovers. And once he does discover this, once he sees through the veil and appears behind the curtain, he takes all sorts of actions to try to stop this alien race from keeping us in chains.

Steve Pearlman: And we won’t tell you how the movie ends, but where we’re picking up this clip is where he has had his sunglasses for a while and he walks into a bank. Basically, you’re going to hear him start shooting up the bank, and we’re not well in the case that aliens actually are taking over the planet. And if I can pass judgment on whether or not to go ahead and shoot them up, but on a regular basis

Dave Carillo: Of empirical evidence, the aliens have taken only empirical evidence, then maybe we can start to. If you just

Steve Pearlman: Happen to feel as though some people are kind of alien and you want to go start shooting them up, please do not use this. What we do have as license to go

Dave Carillo: Do what we do advocate, though, is the frequent use of one liners and catchy phrases for taking charge of things such as Rowdy Roddy Piper does here. So let’s roll it one. I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum. Oh oh.

Steve Pearlman: Possibly one of my favorite scenes in movie history. Hands down.

Dave Carillo: I love it for a lot of reasons. One of the things that I really want to talk about is that he’s just been handed the most historically groundbreaking, mind blowing knowledge any human has ever been handed on the face of the Earth. And he’s still talking about just kicking ass. That’s his first impulse is to just start kicking butts all up and down the Los Angeles.

Steve Pearlman: Well, no, that he has the presence of mind to explain first the component of the bubblegum. He has the presence of mind. Having been blown away by this new knowledge that he has, he has the presence to show up and take his time to explain that he’s actually has two purposes in arriving there, one of them being related to bubblegum, the other being related to kick ass and then explain the relationship between the bubble gum and the kicking of the ass, which is that he is out of the bubble gum, right?

Dave Carillo: And you mentioned earlier when we were talking about like, how you love the timing, how common he is when he delivers a line, and it makes me think that either he’s never used it before, but has practiced it all his life up to this point. Or he uses it for literally every situation, like picking up his dry cleaning. I’m here to pick up dry cleaning and chew bubble gum and bubble gum.

Steve Pearlman: I’m here to chew bubble gum and order a sandwich, right?

Dave Carillo: I and I am all out of bubblegum, right? I am here to move some money around in my 401k and chew bubble gum, and I am all out of bubble gum.

Steve Pearlman: Or as he just walked into the bank, did this just suddenly occur to him that he has this great metaphor to set up what he’s about to do like? Here’s would be a funny way to talk about how I’m going to shoot the bank up. It also has one of the most famous fight scenes in movie history, right? Parodied in full by South Park, which is when Piper tries to get another person to wear the glasses and they fight for a good 10 minutes.

Dave Carillo: It’s really famous, too, but his name escapes me now. They just like they battle it out in an alley for 15 minutes or something like that every time we think the fight is going to end. It’s really just them catching their breath and going back at it. And it’s all about him trying to get his friend to, to see the world, to see the world for what it is to wear these, to put these sunglasses on. So the goal of the podcast is much like Rowdy Roddy Piper’s goal to get his friend to wear these sunglasses. We want to give you every opportunity to see the world in a smarter way to understand more about how our brains work and sometimes don’t work, and

Steve Pearlman: To integrate thinking moves into your life that are based on neuroscience and cognitive psychology and education and so forth, so that whatever your goals are in your life, you’re able to go and achieve them more effectively or more easily because of the knowledge, hopefully that we’re giving you in this podcast,

Dave Carillo: We want you to be able to chew as much bubble gum as you want. And then when you run out of bubble gum,

Steve Pearlman: Do whatever you want,

Dave Carillo: Employ

Steve Pearlman: The post bubble gum move that you want to make right now. The background on this is that Dave and I professionally research critical thinking we have spent most of our time in academia, some of our time in business. We’ve long had another podcast called the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, which is only for people in education or people who are really at least very interested in education. And so if you are an educator or, you know, an educator, please recommend the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast and we present at conferences on the critical thinking outcomes we’ve achieved with students. We work a lot teaching other educators how to teach critical thinking and so on. But what we haven’t done, we realized, was bring a lot of the knowledge that we’ve gained through the research we’ve done for a solid 10 years now out into the public and we want to empower you with it. And one of the things that motivates this is that as we look at a lot of the popular publications on critical thinking, we turn into snarky sons of bitches because we know what a lot of the research is and what would be really valuable tips for people in terms of critical thinking. And what we often see out there is advice on critical thinking that it’s not bad and it’s well-meaning, but it’s often so simplistic that it just doesn’t really offer anything toothy, anything that’s substantive in terms of research, in terms of what to actually go and do. So these podcast episodes are going to be relatively short. We’re going to keep them to about 15 minutes each, but each one is going to give you a real, authentic nugget of practical, critical thinking based on actual research that’s out there. We’re going to try to save you from as much of the research as we can because it can get tedious if you don’t geek out on it like we do, but we’re going to give you a little bit of that. So you understand the foundation for what we’re saying.

Dave Carillo: And this episode, we want to talk to you about critical thinking and how we see it play itself out in the real world. And what we generally see are two basic ideas, one that critical thinking is absolutely inscrutable. Either you have it or you don’t, either you see it or you don’t either. You have that skill or you just can’t do it.

Steve Pearlman: It’s not something that could be taught because it’s so hard to define, right? Not something that we can have everybody do. And we can’t even really study it because we can’t even really define it or.

Dave Carillo: Someone attempts to give you magic sunglasses and say that there’s no strings attached by giving you like a list of three easy things to do to be a stronger critical thinker or three things to get your team to think more critically. And we see that in all sorts of different types of business magazines and publications. So it’s critical thinking absolutely inscrutable. Or is it so easy to do that? You just need to follow this quick bulleted list? Well, to be honest, both of those are fairly ridiculous.

Steve Pearlman: I’ll give an example of something that appears in an actual list, and I’m not going to give you the source of where this list comes from, but it’s somewhere in the interwebs and it’s a list of 10 things. I’ll just name a couple to give you a sense of to what degree this is just trying to distill what might be the most complicated thing that humans can do into simple, little M&Ms. One is take time.

Dave Carillo: Who are the first tip? Really? Take time, take time. How much time? It doesn’t say doesn’t says a time.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah, it takes time and there is a little paragraph there, but it’s not something that really explains an amount of time.

Dave Carillo: No one minute number one would be

Steve Pearlman: A year on millennium. We don’t

Dave Carillo: Know. Ok, so number one is time. Let me guess. Number two is space. Number two space?

Steve Pearlman: No. It does say explore another point of view, which is kind of spatial.

Dave Carillo: Just one more point of view.

Steve Pearlman: Ok? Be willing to experiment, which sounds fantastic, which is better than, I guess, not being at all. Willing to experiment? Sure, except risk embrace difficulty. And I think the point is, I think every listener is getting this that while those things aren’t necessarily patently absurd, if one wants to think more critically in life, just saying to somebody, Hey, be willing to accept some risk.

Dave Carillo: Scuse me, sir, take time.

Steve Pearlman: And now you’re thinking better. It’s a well-meaning list, and it’s not a bad idea to try to take time when you can to think through problems. It’s just that these kinds of lists and there are so many of them. These kinds of quick snippets often frustrate us because there’s much more right.

Dave Carillo: It means well, but at very best, it’s either too broad or pretty ambiguous.

Steve Pearlman: But there’s a flip side to those kinds of easily synopses lists. Lay it on us, and those are sometimes very long, convoluted flowcharts of critical thinking that are sometimes actually very effective in the sense that they do capture many aspects of the Critical Thinking Act or extensive definitions of critical thinking that are rich in terms of their academies and their scientific methodology, but that really are not going to improve anyone’s application of critical thinking in their daily lives because we cannot memorize a 40 part flowchart and try to execute that whenever we need to make a decision about something.

Dave Carillo: Probably not. I mean, we haven’t tried.

Steve Pearlman: No, I’ve tried do.

Dave Carillo: I was going to say, I do have tried. I do not want to try.

Steve Pearlman: Most I can exercise 17 parts of the 40 part flowchart.

Dave Carillo: I wholeheartedly support your effort to get to 18.

Steve Pearlman: I think 20 is in my future, but it’s going to take time.

Dave Carillo: It does up. Well, we saw that we solved the problem.

Steve Pearlman: Even educators, though PhDs, struggled to be able to understand what critical thinking is now. We should let you know that in education circles, there’s very, very high agreement about the importance of critical thinking. Depending upon the study, about 90 percent of educators think critical thinking is absolutely critical to everyone’s education, and we’re glad that that’s the case. I know what the other 10 percent is so obsessed about. If it’s not thinking and if they’re thinking that thinking isn’t important, they should ask themselves what’s making them think that in the first place,

Dave Carillo: Unless that 10 percent is just concerned about kicking ass, in which case I wholeheartedly support them?

Steve Pearlman: Academics are so known for just kicking ass. That’s typically the

Dave Carillo: Role. Look, I’m just I’m just.

Steve Pearlman: So let me give you an example for even among educators who value critical thinking and supposedly are teaching it. We have a study called Teacher Perceptions of Critical Thinking among Students and its influence on higher education. In that study, they found that not one out of 30 educators could quote give a clear idea of critical thinking, and that article referenced critical thinking is something called Quote a dog’s breakfast unquote. And I think the dog’s breakfast idea is funny because what it’s basically saying is a dog can basically eat anything for breakfast. Pretty much right. Just so many. Whatever scraps are leftovers there are from the night before or what you have lying around could be a dog’s breakfast. I’m not advocating that you feed your dog great skills. It’s just the metaphor they’re using in the article, right? And another article called Teaching the Dog’s Breakfast goes on to talk about some of the things that educators might lump into the general, broad, vague, nebulous notion of critical thinking, which is quote some mix of reasoning, argument analysis, introductory formal logic, informal logic, inductive reasoning, critical thinking, problem solving and or decision making. So even educators who we hope are bringing these skills into their classrooms and fostering them and students struggle to actually really be able to pin down what the Critical Thinking Act is, which is not to say that educators should insist. Necessarily be better at specifically being able to define that than people going about their daily lives who equally need to exercise it, but it is to say that even people who supposedly have to be teaching it and cultivating it struggle to get their heads around what it is.

Steve Pearlman: But this is what this first episode is about and what we want you to do as a result of this first episode. Critical thinking can be difficult to define, and most people don’t have a very clear definition of what it is. Even you, our listeners we’re betting don’t really know exactly what critical thinking is or might have your own conception of it. Can you even really articulate it? We work with a lot of people on this, and when we ask them, we say, Well, how do you conceptualize critical thinking? We get a lot of the same kinds of responses, and one of the typical ones is think outside the box. Well, what does that mean? And is any kind of outside of the box solution necessarily thinking, here’s an outside the box solution. I believe the global climate crisis is actually caused by trees, so that’s outside the box. It’s not smart in any way, but it’s outside the box. So how do we even define what the box is? And then being outside the box doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re thinking at all. It might mean that we’re thinking, but it might not.

Dave Carillo: We’re going to try to do to bookend each episode is to give you a short list of things that you might want to try to do in order to see how whatever it is you we discussed plays out in the world, plays out in your life, plays out in the lives of those people around you. In this case, we just want you to go out and find a list of your own or a definition of your own, or the five steps to critical thinking of your own that you could get on the interwebs or in any sort of magazine or any sort of blog. And just take a look at what they’re telling you to do and how they’re telling you to do this and just see how vague it might be. See how cliché it might be. See how well-meaning, but totally ambiguous the five steps. The 10 tips might be to start to get a sense of just how difficult it is to talk about critical thinking and to talk about how to do it better.

Steve Pearlman: We want you to ask your friends how they would define critical thinking, what do they think it is? And see what kind of answers you get. And as a heads up, we’ll tell you that in the next episode, we will provide a more authoritative definition of critical thinking that’s based out of research and that you can analyze for your life. But this first step that we want you to take is really very important because thinking about what critical thinking is, is it an important step towards being able to think critically itself? And we want you to think about how you define critical thinking for yourself. What definitions do you see out there? How substantive do you really feel like they are? What do your friends really know about it? When you hear people saying no one can think these days or kids these days can’t think, can they really explain what that really even means?

Dave Carillo: Right? But don’t do any of this until you’re absolutely 100 percent out of bubblegum.


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