“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” – Harry G. Frankfurt

In the U.S., children spend 900 hours in school each year – they spend 1500 hours watching television. By the time they are 12, they will have seen 8,000 murders on TV – by 18, it’s 16,000 (and 200,000 acts of violence). Between the ages of 3 and 18, American youngsters will have seen 500,000 TV commercials, 100,000 of them advertising beer!

Pretty scary, right? I can’t imagine it’s that much different here in the UK.

These statistics are all from an article in the recent education themed issue of The New Philosopher. A major thrust running through the issue is that the biggest ‘educator’ and source of values for children today is television and the broader media.

In another article, Jane Roland Martin (Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts) even suggests that the national curriculum is not taught at school, but that the media is the national curriculum.

Furthermore, and perhaps most interestingly to me, Jane suggests that, as a culture, we need to ask ourselves what we are passing down to the next generation through these mediums – is it our cultural wealth, or our liabilities?

The most crucial thing we have to start thinking about, she says, is how to maximise the transmission of the good stuff (the assets), and how to minimise the passing down of the bad stuff.

I tend to come at this from a slightly different angle.

Clearly the media (and for clarity I mean things like TV, social media, websites, newspapers etc.) has a big influence on what information we are exposed to and therefore might ‘learn’, value and believe.

However, rather than trying to control and censor the messages sent through those mechanisms, do we perhaps need to get better at recognising what the negative and positive stuff is in the first place?

Moreover, would it be better if we were more immune to the potentially negative stuff and, at the same time, more receptive to the potentially positive stuff that is being ‘transmitted’?

I like to think of this in terms of us developing a quality assurance force field or shield that the information we are exposed to has to pass through before it can influence us. That shield is critical thinking.

How strong is yours?

What is it to think critically?

In some ways, it’s being adept at detecting bullshit. Indeed, I often tell our students they need to be a bit more like Bullshit Man:

Jennifer Mulnix puts some more meat on the bones with a more formal outline here.

Tl;dr: There is actually quite widespread disagreement on exactly what critical thinking is, but there are some generally accepted features:

  • It has little to do with what we think, but everything to do with how we think.
  • It is thinking rationally or reasoning well.
  • It is thinking about evidence, rather than merely being influenced by it.
  • It is giving reasons for a belief that actually support the truth of the statement or belief they are claimed to support.
  • It is being aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked (cf. cognitive biases).

I like Daniel T. Willingham’s definition, which offers a pretty straightforward perspective:

“In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.”

Imagine what society, sport and education would be like if we could all do that!

There’s innumerable examples of what it’s like when we can’t. For example, Bob Hoskins, who sadly passed away 2 years ago, died again recently when Twitter got confused.

So, if we need to get better at thinking critically, how might we go about doing it?

Well, according to Tim Van Gelder:

“For students to improve, they must engage in critical thinking itself. It is not enough to learn about critical thinking. These strategies are about as effective as working on your tennis game by watching Wimbledon. Unless the students are actively doing the thinking themselves, they will never improve.”

In my view, a useful vehicle for encouraging critical thinking is philosophy (derived from the love ‘philo’ of wisdom ‘sophia’ in Greek).

For example, philosophical thought experiments like the classic ‘Trolley Problem’ can be a fantastic tool for helping students think critically about the values and beliefs that might underpin their attitudes and behaviours:

You can even use them with children (cf. The Case for Teaching 5-year-olds Philosophy).

However, Daniel Willingham goes on to put a fly in the ointment by highlighting an important caveat to all this – critical thinking requires more than just practice:

“…if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.”

Willingham is essentially saying you don’t know what you don’t know. Put another way, unless you have a foundation or base of core knowledge about a subject, topic or area, how can you possibly think about it or discuss it in a sufficiently critical way?

“In order to learn effectively, individuals must be able to accurately assess their own knowledge. Being able to recognize what one knows—and does not know—is an essential step when deciding what information needs to be learned.” (Carpenter et al., 2013, pp. 1350).

Thought provokers and points for reflection:

  • How might we better develop the foundational knowledge and critical thinking skills we need in order to maximise the informal, easily accessible and socially mediated ‘learning’ we prefer and is increasingly being provided (e.g., in sport, FA Coaching CommunityConnected Coaches and Hockey Hub)?


4 thoughts on “Being more like Bullshit Man

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