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Introduction to Rational Inquiry

Part 1: Basic Concepts and Tools

K P Mohanan and Tara Mohanan

February 2014

Unit 11: Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking?
Suppose your friend Yanni has an acute stomach ache. He goes to the hospital, where a doctor
admits him. They run some expensive tests, and a few hours later, the doctor tells Yanni that he
needs immediate surgery which is very expensive. He is told that without the surgery, he will die
He asks you what he should do. What advice would you give? To somehow find the money and
undergo the surgery? Or would you dismiss the doctors advice as a ploy to extract money from
Yanni? Would you talk to the doctor, find out what the problem is that requires immediate
surgery, and ask to see the results of the lab tests? Would you insist on a second opinion,
preferrably from a different hospital, and from a doctor who is not a friend of Yannis doctor?
Do you agree that it would be best not to trust the doctor completely and follow his instructions,
nor to dismiss his recommendation as baseless? Minimally, Yanni should go for a second opinion,
to check if an independent medical expert reaches the same conclusion. If the two experts give
logically contradictory recommendations, you need to think further.
The mental processes that we go through to arrive at a decision is an example of critical thinking.
Critical thinking is the process of assessing the merit of something, whether it is an object (e.g., a
painting), a person (e.g., an applicant for a job), a system (e.g., current systems of higher
education), a proposal (e.g., a proposal to make abortion illegal), or the claim that a given
proposition is true (i.e., homeopathic medicines heal many illnesses). In this unit, we will
discuss the critical thinking needed for evaluating knowledge claims in academic subjects. The
strategies you learn here, you can then extend to other domains, in professional, public and
personal contexts.

Blind Faith and Close-Mindedness vs. Critical Thinking

Greece in the 4th century faced a situation where rational inquiry had to struggle with the
prevalent cultural and political context. The movie Agora is about Hepatia, the Alexandrine Greek
scientist-mathematician-philosopher, and her struggle. Two of her students grow to positions of
power: one becomes a Roman administrator and the other a Christian bishop. The climax of the
movie lies in a conversation between Hepatia and these two ex-students. They tell her that they
are essentially the same as her. She disagrees: No, my friends. You will not, you cannot, doubt
what you believe. I must. The value of doubting our own beliefs, and a sense of fallibility, lies at
the very root of rational inquiry.
Rational skepticism is an extension of such self-doubt: doubting
and questioning not only ourselves, but also our peers and
authorities be it parents, teachers, textbooks, experts, or the
establishment. Naturally, this prompts us to reject blind faith in
authority, as well as the herd instinct that makes us
unquestioningly adopt what our peers believe and what they do.
Rational skepticism should not be misunderstood to imply
close-mindedness resulting in thoughtless dismissal. It demands
doubting and questioning combined with open-mindedness, and
the willingness to change our beliefs when evidence and
reasoning require us to do so.

Not all systems of knowledge

share this commitment. In
commonsense knowledge and
folk knowledge, for instance,
we often go by the herd
instinct, accepting what the
others in our community
accept. In many forms of
religious knowledge, (blind)
faith and obedience are virtues,
and doubting is a sin.

Scientific inquiry as a form of rational inquiry is founded on rational skepticism. Despite this
commitment, science education is largely based on blind faith in the authority of textbooks,
teachers, and experts; its practice counters what is of highest value in scientific inquiry.
Here are a few examples of how science classrooms can be infused with rational skepticism, such
that it triggers critical thinking.

Our perceptual experience tells us that the earth is flat. A teacher (or textbook) tells us that
the earth is round. This contradicts the obvious conclusion based on experience. It is
important at that point to ask for the justification for the round-earth hypothesis, and to
critically evaluate the justification. And if the justification is sound, we must accept the
conclusion. (To get a sense of what it would have taken to think critically about the roundearth hypothesis at a time when going around the earth by air was not possible, watch the
video, Adventures of Teen Rebels, at

Our body experience tells us that the earth is stationary. Our eyes tell us that celestial
objects (sun, moon, planets, stars) move across the sky. The textbook statement that the
earth spins, and revolves around the sun, contradicts the voice of our experience. What is
the evidence to support the theory that the earth spins on a tilted axis and revolves around
the sun? (Take a look at Does the Earth Go Around the Sun? at

Textbooks tell us that all the existing and extinct species on the earth evolved from a single
ancestor species. What evidence and arguments support this claim?

Textbooks tell us that acquired traits cannot be inherited. What is an acquired trait? What
is an inherited trait? What kind of evidence would challenge the position that acquired
traits cannot be inherited? Should we accept the textbook position?

Should we accept the textbook concepts of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and
genus as legitimate concepts in biology?

Is it true that there are five kingdoms in biology, and that they are monera, protista, fungi,
plantae, and animalia? Why not two kingdoms? Why not six kingdoms?

Textbooks tell us that the area of a rectangle is the product of its length and breadth. This
sounds like commonsense, but can we treat it as a conjecture and ask for proof?

Ingredients of Critical Thinking

As stated earlier, we view critical thinking as the process of assessing the merit of something, be
it an object, a person, a system, a proposal, or a knowledge claim. Restricting our attention to
knowledge claims, we need to assess the merit of both our own knowledge claims, as well as
those of others. And since other peoples knowledge claims can come to us either through speech
or writing, critical thinking has two strands: critical listening (for the ideas in a talk or a lecture);
and critical reading (for the ideas in an article or book).
For concreteness, we will focus on critical reading and listening; and what we learn from this can
be extended to other domains of critical thinking. Critical reading and critical listening involve the
following ingredients:
A. Identifying and articulating the author/speakers claim(s)
Often, claims are not clearly articulated, so we need to figure them out as best as we can,
with the awareness that what we come up with may not be what the author/speaker intends
to claim. If the author/speaker is available for consultation, it is possible to check if our
interpretation matches their intention.

B. Identifying and articulating the author/speakers justification for the claim(s)

Background assumptions, grounds, and steps of justification may be unclear, or left
implicit. As with A, we need to unearth and explicitize the justification. If possible, it is
good to check with the author/speaker if our version matches their intention.
C. Identifying and formulating other considerations that support or refute the claim
The author/speaker may not have brought these up.
D. Critically evaluating the background assumptions, grounds, and reasoning in B and C, and
arriving at a judgment on the soundness of the overall justification for the claim
E. On the basis of the above, deciding whether we should accept the claim, reject it, or
reserve it for future assessment
Given below is the promotional material for the product Posture Pleaser from Body Rite:
THE POSTURE PLEASER YEPA: Your Ergonometric Posture Aid
Reduces neck and back pain. One size fits all.
Scientifically tested and proven. Recommended and prescribed by doctors.
The Posture Pleaser reduces muscle spasms: upper back by 75%; mid back by 72%; lower back by 38%.
Useful for all: painters, quilters, tailors, truck drivers, pilots, nurses, bank tellers, artists, hair stylists,
dentists, musicians, welders, cashiers, data processers, teachers, chefs, factory workers, sales clerks.

Would you buy the Posture Pleaser or recommend it to someone? On what basis?
Suppose this research finding appears in a newspaper: There is a positive correlation between students
weight and their mathematical ability. After careful scrutiny, you discover that there is indeed a positive
correlation between weight and math ability.
Should a Mathematics department start selecting students based on their weight? State your reasons.
This is an entry on the negro from the eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britanica (1911), written by
Walter Francis Wilcox, chief statistician, United States Census Bureau, and professor of social science
and statistics at Cornell University.
The Negro.
Mentally the negro is inferior to the white. The remark of F. Manetta, made
after a long study of the negro in America, may be taken as generally true of the whole race: the
negro children were sharp, intelligent and full of vivacity, but on approaching the adult period a
gradual change set in. The intellect seemed to become clouded, animation giving place to a sort of
lethargy, briskness yielding to indolence. We must necessarily suppose that the development of the
negro and white proceeds on different lines. While with the latter the volume of the brain grows with
the expansion of the brainpan, in the former the growth of the brain is on the contrary arrested by the
premature closing of the cranial stutures and lateral pressure of the frontal bone. This explanation is
reasonable and even probable as a contributing cause; but evidence is lacking on the subject and the
arrest or even deterioration in mental development is no doubt very largely due to the fact that after
puberty sexual matters take the first place in the negros life and thoughts. At the same time his
environment has not been such as would tend to produce in him the restless energy which has led to
the progress of the white race; and the easy conditions of tropical life and the fertility of the soil have
reduced the struggle for existence to a minimum.
Critically evaluate the passage, adopting the 5-ingredient framework (A-E) above for critical reading.

A Case Study: The Textbook Distinction between Solid and Liquid

Solid, Liquid and Gas: Textbook Account
Many science textbooks distinguish between solids, liquids, and gases along the following lines:
A solid has a definite shape and volume.
A liquid has a definite volume but takes the shape of a container.
A gas fills the entire volume of its container.
To see how we can engage critically with these definitions, consider the following conversation
between a doubting student (S) and her teacher (T):

Could you explain the distinction between solid and liquid again, please?


Gladly. Solid substances have their own shape. Liquids take the shape of the container they
are in. A candle has its own shape, no matter where it is placed. It is made of a solid
substance. But when we melt the candle, it takes the shape of its container. Melted candle is
a liquid. A cube of ice has its own shape and therefore is solid, but when it melts, the water
takes the shape of its container, so it is a liquid.


A wheat grain is solid, because its shape doesnt change with the shape of its container,


Yes, of course.


Wheat dough is solid because it has its own shape. But wheat batter is liquid because it takes
the shape of the container.




But if we add more and more water to wheat dough, it gradually becomes batter, which is a
liquid. At what point does it become liquid?


Interesting question. Let me think...


Can I check another example with you? If we follow the definition, a cupful of wheat grains
is liquid, right?


Oh, no, a cupful of wheat grains is not liquid.


But you said, anything that takes the shape of the container is liquid. A cupful of wheat
grains takes the shape of the container. So doesnt it logically follow that it is liquid?


Hmm. youre right. Given the definition, and the fact that a cupful of wheat grains takes the
shape of the container, that conclusion does force itself on us.
But you know, we do have another option. Instead of saying that a cupful of wheat
grains is liquid, what if I acknowledge that the definition I gave you is flawed. I should have
said: A solid has its own shape; and something that becomes flat when placed on a flat
surface is a liquid. If you pour a cupful of water on the floor, it spreads until its surface is
flat. But if you pour a cupful of wheat grains on the floor, it forms a heap, of a conical


So a flat piece of paper laid on the floor is a liquid?


Paper is not liquid. To be judged as liquid, it has to change its shape when you change the
container. Okay, let me try to be precise.
A body of matter is solid if and only if it does not take the shape of its container; and
when placed on a flat surface, its surface is not flat;
and it is liquid if and only if it takes the shape of its container; and
when placed on a flat surface, its surface is flat.


Okay, thats clearer. So a wheat grain is solid because it doesnt change its shape depending
on the container, and its surface is not flat when placed on a flat surface. But wheat flour
batter is liquid because it takes the shape of the container and lies flat on a flat surface.
T: Thats right.
S: But a cupful of wheat takes the shape of its container, so it is not solid, but since its surface
is not flat on a flat surface, it is not liquid either. So it is neither liquid nor solid. That means
we need another category, something that is not solid, nor liquid. And not gas either.
T: Hm! That is indeed a problem.
S: A cupful of small metal balls, like the ball bearings of a bicycle chain, takes the shape of the
container as an aggregate body. And it is flat when poured on a flat surface. So unlike a
cupful of wheat grains, it is liquid.
T: No, no, these are both examples of solid substances. Well, look, a cupful of grains is
composed of individual wheat grains, right? And so is a cupful of ball bearings.
S: Yes.
T: A substance composed of solid parts is solid, no matter how it behaves as the aggregate. So
the definition of solid should be: A body of matter is solid if and only if it either does not
take the shape of its container, or is composed of solid parts.
S: That doesnt quite make sense. So, given that a soap bubble is spherical regardless of the
container, a soap bubble is solid by the first part of the definition, but given that it is made of
tiny droplets of water the soap bubble is liquid. So it is simultaneously solid and not solid.
That would be a logical contradiction.
T: Hm, looks like there are problems in every definition I come up with.
S: Is a ten-meter long sewing thread solid or liquid? If it is wound together into a ball, it has its
own shape, so it should be a solid. But if it is dropped into a cup loosely, it takes the shape
of the container. When it is on the floor, it lies flat. So by all your definitions, loose sewing
thread should be liquid.
T: I see where you are going.
S: Another example. The sun has a spherical shape, so it should be judged as solid.
T: I dont know how to answer your questions.
If we accept the textbook distinction between solid and liquid, we are forced to treat clouds, soap
bubbles, and the sun as solid bodies; and a cupful of wheat or a bucketful of sand as liquid. These
conclusions are not acceptable to us. The kind of doubting and questioning that the student in the
dialogue above engages in results in a rejection of the textbook distinction. Our educational
culture doesnt have a place for encouraging this habit of working through the definitions to
figure out their logical consequences, or of looking for obvious counterexamples to check if the
definitions work.
Science vs. Superstition and Mythology
Explorations of this kind loosen up our intellectual rigidity by looking at counterexamples and
alternatives. Reflecting on the problems of the textbook definitions and categories helps us realize
that in science education, the uncritical acceptance of textbook assertions is as unhealthy as the
uncritical acceptance of mythologies and superstitions. Uncritically accepting the textbook
definitions of solid, liquid, and gas, is no different from subscribing to superstitions and
mythologies. The same applies to the belief that the earth revolves around the sun, that all existing
species of life on the earth evolved from a single ancestor, that matter is made up of molecules
which in turn are made up of atoms, and so on, without being aware of the evidence and
arguments for and against these statements.

Chemistry textbooks often contain the following laws of chemical reaction:
The law of conservation of mass
In every chemical change, an equal quantity of matter exists before and after the reaction.
The law of definite proportions
In a given chemical compound, the proportion by mass of the elements that compose it are fixed,
independent of the origin of the compound or its mode of preparation.
The law of multiple proportions
When two elements form a series of compounds, the masses of one that combine with a fixed
mass of the other are in the ratio of (small) integers to each other.
At a later stage, students are also told that energy can be created from mass (e.g., atomic bombs). Does
this violate the law of conservation of mass? One might think of saying that the transformation of matter
into energy is not a chemical change, but if we make this move, we need to ask for a definition: What is
chemical change?
Likewise, it is clear that when water and sugar are combined in sugar water, the law of definite
proportions is not observed. Does this pose a counterexample to the law? One might say that sugar water
is a mixture, not a compound, and hence the law is not violated. But if we make this move, we need to
define compounds, such that we can check the law. This problem applies to the law of multiple
proportions as well.
Think critically about the problems raised above, and see if you can come up with a solution.
In frameworks of economics that follow Adam Smiths classic The Wealth of Nations (see, a nations wealth is measured in terms of its GDP
(the monetary flow into business for products and services offered). Do a google search to find out what
GDP is, and ask yourself whether it is a legitimate measure of a nations wealth. In doing so, you would
need to distinguish the concept of nation from the concept of government, and from business
community. It is equally important to distinguish betweek wealth and money. (e.g., Does the
increase of profit at the cost of polluting drinking water constitute increase in wealth?)
Related to the above issue is the concept of capital, typically associated with financial capital.
However, there has also been a growing recognition that money is only one ingredient of the tangible
capital. We also need physical capital, such as natural resources; and going beyond the tangible, we
need the intangible human capital, which includes such things as social capital, and knowledge capital.
Think through these issues and try to come up with a set of ideas on what a theory of economics should
tell us, and what the concepts of wealth and capital in economics ought to be.
Many biology textbooks tell us that acquired characteristics cannot be inherited. To evaluate the truth of
this proposition, we need to define the concept of inheritance and the concept of acquired traits. For
instance, is HIV inheritable? If it is, is it an acquired trait or a non-acquired trait?
Read the article, Fearful Memories Passed Down to Mouse Descendants, at, and think through the
claim that acquired traits cannot be inherited.