Skeptics or Critics?

Caution:  This is some pretty heavy stuff. If you want the perusal form, just read the first paragraph and the last two.

I read an article from Psychology Today recently, published on June 5, 2012, entitled, The Art of Positive Skepticism. And because I am a keeper of words I dissected the title. Postive. Skepticism. Was that an oxymoron like Jumbo Shrimp?  So I was intrigued enough to dig into the meat of the matter. I was also excited the writer cites work from Everyday Irrationality: How Pseudo-Scientists, Lunatics, and the Rest of Us Systematically Fail To Think Rationally by Robyn Dawes (2001). I love that book, if nothing else ya gotta love the title.

It’s all about critical thinking, my friends.  Critical thinking is a matter of skepticism, which is a process using reason to find validity.  Sometimes people interchange the words cynic and skeptic so I am going to start with the definitions.  A cynic is someone who doesn't trust information they hear, especially if it changes the “way it’s always been” and they know there will be a negative result. (Derived from the Greek to mean dog. Really! Long story short--Diogenes and his band of Krytos scorned everyone else for their posh lifestyle while purposely living a life of poverty, thus virtuous. They then pointed their fingers at everyone else and said, shame, shame, I know your name!) Skepticism (derived from the Greek skeptikos, means, inquire or look around). Ii is the open-mindedness to accept something finding additional meaning or evidence.  Skeptics are someone willing to use an open-mind while challenging the current system.

So what does this have to do with mentoring? 

I believe there are ways to teach positive skepticism to just about anyone.  It’s pretty much a huge part of critical thinking. We have to ask ourselves this question--

Do we want a chance to prove our opinion and what we think is right?

Or, do we want to develop a healthy level of skepticism which questions-- “That study that proves 4 out of 5 dentists approve…”, or “All the cool kids are doing…”

As a mentor, if you model healthy skepticism, and ask skeptical questions you could actually help create a positive environment of critical thinking and good judgment.  Everyone should have the capability of questioning the reliability of what they think, see or hear.

The article states, “How we adults model the art of positive skepticism not only helps us make better informed decisions but also shows our children how they think for themselves. And, if kids learn for themselves, they learn to believe in themselves!”

THEY LEARN TO BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES!  So how can we help our kids?

Here’s the primer.

The statement is “Math is dumb”.

(The following is paraphrased from and sometimes imitative of the Psychology Today article…)

1. Be a deception-detector: Ask the questions... What makes you think this way? What assumptions have you based your claim on? What facts or research support your ideas? What disputes your claim?

2. Doubt: Recognize the limits to anyone’s claims of truth  And, is this a fact or an opinion?

3. Play devil’s advocate: View from the other side.

4. Use logic AND intuition: Most of us rely on one type of thinking. Logic or intuition. “We become better thinkers when we deploy doubting and believing more consciously through the use of logic and intuition rather than by chance.”

5. Be a Bias-Detector: Is the information set forth impartial or are they trying to persuade us?


I know, I know, this is pretty heavy stuff.  If you just felt like skipping down to the last 2 paragraphs-here it is in a nutshell.  Get your mentees into the habit of asking questions about EVERYTHING! Not always, “But why?” or “How do you do that?”  Be a role model by asking skeptical questions to them. “Why do you think we need to know math?”  "What does it mean to be a friend?" For some pretty cool critical thinking and skepticism questions go to CRITICAL THINKING QUESTIONS page.  There are some pretty general examples.  There is also a list of WICKED QUESTIONS that I use in Kinship Connections, our after school-peer to peer mentoring program. This one gets into real life situations.  There usually isn't one answer to the question.

To tie this all back in to your fun, casual times with your mentee, Morgan Freeman said, “Literacy is the ladder out of poverty. We just need to be fit enough to climb it.” Literacy isn't just reading. It's comprehending which brings into play--critical thinking and the ability to analyze something using logic and intuition. Let’s get those kids “fit” enough to overcome the obstacles that could impede them from becoming successful adults. Let’s start asking questions.