Critical thinking: embedded in Judaism, desperately needed in society

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We are living in the midst of a crisis of information that threatens to undermine our civic life and our democracy. The evidence has been all over the news — disinformation about vaccine effectiveness, blatantly false claims about election fraud and revisionist accounts of what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Meanwhile, in our daily lives, we are bombarded by innumerable social security scams, opportunities to claim imaginary multi-million-dollar checks and ads for bogus medical treatments of every kind.

I don’t presume to know the solution to the complex social and cultural problems underlying this crisis. But my decades of teaching as a Jewish studies professor convince me that a central piece of the answer lies in revitalizing our critical thinking skills — in our educational institutions, to be sure, but also in every arena of public discourse.

There are many books on the components of critical thinking, but I suggest that the sources of these basic modes of thinking are also deeply ingrained in classical Jewish literature.

Talmudic study, which traditionally constituted the core of rabbinic education — and, in varying degrees, does to this day — is designed to cultivate a critical, discerning mindset. On virtually every page of the Talmud the rabbis raise critical questions of one another and of their received texts. Examples of such questions include:

What is the context of this sage’s view? What circumstances surrounded his ruling in this case?

How does one rabbi’s view differ from another’s? Why did subsequent generations of rabbis favor one over the other?

What evidence can we adduce to support this rabbi’s interpretation of the law?

What are the implications of a particular rabbi’s position on this matter for his views on other questions?

These and similar questions pervade rabbinic thought, especially in the context of halachic debate.

But we can extrapolate from these examples some principles of careful, critical reasoning for our time. Critical thinking requires, at a minimum, these four basic components:

1. Exploring context. We can’t understand or evaluate the information we encounter without attending to the context — historical, intellectual and/or cultural — that produced it. Sometimes this involves asking what questions an author was trying to answer; other times it requires seeking out other information we need to properly contextualize the ideas or data we’re presented with.

2. Comparing alternatives. Any view presented to us is only one among many possible views. We need to compare them to determine whether this view (or theory or interpretation) is preferable to the alternatives. Only by looking at things comparatively can we assess whether a particular position is distinctive or significant.

3. Weighing evidence. A position (or solution or argument) is persuasive only to the extent that it is backed by evidence. What counts as evidence and how much of it is needed to establish the truth of a claim are legitimate questions for academic debate. But carefully weighing the strength and applicability of evidence is perhaps the hallmark of critical thinking.

4. Considering implications and new applications. We always need to ask where any conclusion leads in order to determine its ultimate significance. If we know this, then what else would we expect to be true, and why does this matter? Following an idea to its logical conclusion, seeing its practical implications and exploring the ways in which it might apply in other settings enable us to assess its value.

If we developed these skills and applied them to the information we find on the internet or in our Twitter feeds, we would constantly be asking questions like:

What was the context for that seemingly prejudiced remark? What other explanations are there for the surge in border crossings beyond the one that this organization has put forward? How else might we interpret this meme apart from the way it has been reported in the media?

What evidence do we have that this treatment for Alzheimer’s really works as claimed? What is the source of that evidence and was it gathered by someone with a vested interest in selling us something?

What are the implications of believing this explanation for the origins of the Covid pandemic? How can we measure the effects of adopting (or rejecting) this tax policy or educational program?

When we ask these sorts of questions — rigorously and consistently — we are far less likely to succumb to our preconceived ideas of what is right without regard to the evidence. We are also more likely to investigate — fairly and without bias — the views of those who disagree with us, or whose statements might initially offend our sensibilities or values.

We can each play a role in reviving the critical thinking we need for a functional, rational and fair-minded society. And we can start by reclaiming some of the basic modes of questioning that our ancient rabbis taught and practiced.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Louis E. Newman
Louis E. Newman

Louis E. Newman is the former dean of academic advising and associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford University. He is also the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies, emeritus, at Carleton College in Minnesota and the author of the book “Thinking Critically in College: The Essential Handbook for Student Success.”