Critical Thinking and the Splinter Moron

Licking Ice

Bad Decision

Listening to a call-in show on my increasingly eclectic podcast list, a man who suffers from schizophrenia shared his experience of having two personalities: one a devout Christian, the other a hard line atheist. As a result, he had the unusual experience of deeply believing something he knew wasn’t true. When the show host remarked that at least he wasn’t a scientologist, the caller replied that while he may be schizophrenic, he wasn’t that crazy.

What a rare insight, to rustle up an entirely new perspective from within. What is it to build that capacity, and can we do it for others?

I’ve been reading Maria Konnikova’s piece on why people persist in believing things that just aren’t true, and it gives me an odd solace to know someone who’s gone to extreme lengths to alter people’s beliefs has so tragically failed. There’s a part of us that resists good information and rigorous process. We need to get underneath that. Talking with Benjamin Riley about how people make decisions got me thinking, and prompted this post.

I’m concerned that teaching critical thinking may be largely a waste of time, and I wish it wasn’t so. There are exceptions, largely I think due to powerful self-driven learning in particular areas such as science and medicine, but the nature of the way people adopt crazy ideas and poor thinking suggests that critical thinking in one area doesn’t necessarily transfer to another.

There’s no guarantee that a sudden calling to deep focus such as a cancer scare or a call to civil action will always yield better thinking. Conspiracy theories, quackery and lavishly adorned obliquities in self-published, unicorn embellished paperbacks await those who haven’t found solace or simplicity in the cool marble halls of evidence based logic. It can go either way.

This unconscious fracturing of mindful critical process isn’t reserved for high stakes events, it’s a part of our day to day lives: a phenomenon I call the ‘Splinter Moron’. Lodged deep in the minds of each one of us, is a thin shard of crystalline craziness. A wedge of logic-resistant agar that selectively plays host to infections of irrationality and spurious conjecture.

We’ve all had that moment with a friend or colleague. The sudden, unexpected suspension of logic that doesn’t map to the well-rounded whole we think we’ve come to know.

  • The lawyer who inexplicably falls prey to a Nigerian money scam.
  • The savvy entrepreneur who can read markets, analyse data and refuses to vaccinate their child.
  • The esteemed educator… and wife… and child… who all buy power-balance bracelets. (A true story that pains me still…)
  • The student who, having studied a tree graph of dice-roll probability, is convinced that the next roll will bring a 6 because the last ten didn’t.
  • The friendly, family oriented, community minded racist.

A university education doesn’t offer much protection from the Splinter. The profile for cult inductees is a pretty fair cross section of education and means. So how do we teach-out the Splinter from the thinking of ourselves and our students, how can we lead critical thinking well? My thoughts so far:

It should be personal and confronting. The experiences offered students in the average class setting usually don’t attend to people’s specific blind spots. If you want to really challenge your own moronic Splinter you need to make sure you’re hitting the mark. When we learn a new method of critique, we’re more likely to apply them to reinforce our existing non-crazy beliefs than we are to dive into self-induced cognitive dissonance.

It should be social. We can’t do this alone. If we did we couldn’t really know we were heading in the right direction.

To the degree that the process must be personal, confronting and social….

It should be safe. Having your mind’s soft midsection revealed to the world needs a less dramatic process than a Gok Wan shopping mall reveal. After all, the opening statement won’t be ‘you look gorgeous!’ it’s more likely to be ‘you’re an irrational, part time fruit-loop who shouldn’t be trusted with heavy machinery.’ (Just like the rest of us.) So to make it safe….

It should be relational. Somewhere in that confronting mess, we need a connection we value, and that feeds our value back to us. Our inconsistencies in thinking are made more stark when they map back onto rational processes we hold dear, and that’s scary time for anyone. Anyone engaging in that process deserves to feel known and deserves to feel valued.

It should be constructive. We need to be held accountable in a way that supports our movement out of the mire.

So far, most of these conditions can be met by any group, with any belief. It’s easy to find social, safe, relational environments with the illusion of personal confrontation. It’s good to feel you’re working at something, even better if that thing is just a hair’s breadth away from the work you really need to do. So….

It should map to a framework with a peer mediated research base. I don’t know how that can be implemented consistently. Seems a bit unwieldy already doesn’t it? But if you’re mapping reality onto people’s weak spots then you really need to have your foundations set before you lead yourself or someone else on the journey towards the truth.

The truth is unconcerned with you. When you find it, expect its stony indifference. To make the experience a little nicer, make sure you get there with a friend.


As I publish this, the only word underlined in spellcheck-red is ’scientologist’. It’s the little things.

3 Responses to Critical Thinking and the Splinter Moron

  1. podgorani June 3, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

    It’s so 2007 to leave a comment on a blog post but this “crap fest” couldn’t go unchallenged.
    So basically you have said a social, safe relational environment wound in with some research will suffice. No shit sherlock!
    You do get some marks for wordsmanship no not swordsmanship (auto correct apple crap).
    Marks also for mildly amusing analogies.
    References to books you have read the front page of don’t count as something you can quote. Please note neither does filling a book with paper tags (barb) it doesn’t impress us.

  2. Pete Hall June 4, 2014 at 4:17 am #

    Luke, if this post is nothing new for you, then surely you’re concerned by the fact that no such critical thinking program exists, yet so many school do invest in teaching critical thinking. They do so with money, with time and with professional, collaborative effort that changes practice for years to come.

    So, when evidence arises that hugely funded, clearly focussed, well staffed initiatives with prearranged measurable outcomes have done exactly the opposite of what they set out to do, there’s a good case for completely re-evaluating our critical thinking programmes and redesigning them from the ground up.
    Wasting time and energy on things of no value should be a concern for all of us. Given that, I’m surprised you left that comment.
    If you wanted banter, you lost most of me at ‘crap fest’, and the rest of me at your insistence on challenging the content, followed by your abject failure to do so.

  3. Blair June 5, 2014 at 3:46 am #

    Abject. I love that word.

    *clears throat*


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