Intellectual Rigor

Just like there are certain standards that determine if food is safe or a ball has been thrown out of bounds, critical thinking asserts that there are standards when it comes to how we justify our thoughts and claims.  

US Senator Daniel Moynihan once famously stated that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This is a classic statement of critical thinking. We’ll talk more about facts later, but for now let’s just say that a fact is a statement that has “truth value,” meaning it can either be true or false. An opinion is a subjective matter. We may feel strongly about it, but it is not true or false in any sense beyond the opinion holder’s mind or heart. When we assert something as factual, we are inherently making a claim about its truth-value and why we are asserting it is true or false. Confusing fact and opinion is a symptom of muddled thinking, and critical thinking tries to remove that confusion. 

How we arrive at the particular truth-value of a certain statement should conform to standards of clear thinking, evidence, and rationality. Let’s say somebody made the statement “All red-haired people are stupid.” You could take that statement at face value, but that wouldn’t be an example of critical thinking on your part. You could try to interview every single redhead around the world, but even if you could do that, you’d likely soon meet an intelligent redhead that disproved the speaker’s statement.

So, how might that person justify that statement? They might say they have met a lot of redheads and found them to be stupid. Yet again, a lot of redheads are not the same thing as all red-heads. Also, how did this person establish their stupidity? Do they have an intelligence test? Was that test designed by people with valid measures of intelligence? There was likely no such test. Like all statements of prejudice against a group, this statement will eventually have to fall back on a subjective value judgment that has no truth value—for example, an opinion being used to support a false statement. 

The intellectual rigor of critical thinking can often seem harsh or insulting. After all, anytime those standards are asserted, there will be varying levels of different people meeting or falling short of those standards. “How could you vote for that person?” is a well-known inquiry that can expose a lack of critical thinking on the voter’s part and even a sense of smugness from the one asking the question. Voters don’t always vote rationally, according to the facts, or even according to their own self-interest in the long term.

They often rely on first impressions, catchy slogans, and rhetoric, or the opinions of those around them. Critical thinking may not always put the best person in the office, but it will be the best method to make that determination. Awareness of flawed thinking is painful, but it is necessary if we care about critical thought informing important choices. 

Intellectual rigor can seem like the most daunting aspect of critical thinking, but it is also most rewarding. It takes effort, concentration, time, and probably some reading and studying when we’re especially hard-pressed for an explanation. Yet we are also challenging those around us, and ourselves, to rise to a higher standard.  


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