Critical Thinking and Bullying

A few weeks ago, a young woman came in to see me to have her first Pap smear. While I was taking a routine sexual history, she admitted she had recently been bullied online. I’m not even sure how the topic came up, but she didn’t seem very upset, so I asked her about it.

“The guy was a real dick,” she said. And when I asked her how she reacted, she merely shrugged. “Everything he said was false and all my friends should know that… So I ignored him.”

“And did he try it again?” I admired her reaction, but I have to admit I was curious.

She liberated a beautiful smile and shrugged mischievously. “Yeah, once… But then I guess he gave up.” She allowed her eyes to roll upwards comically. “My mother always told me to ignore stuff that wasn’t true.”

It got me thinking about why some people are able to withstand that kind of thing, while others succumb. I don’t pretend to know what motivates bullying, but I do suspect my patient was taught an effective remedy from an early age.

Critical thinking is a way of examining a statement or assertion in order to understand the background and motivating factors for its existence. Its credentials, in other words. It is a way of distancing oneself from the message and analysing everything that went into making it before either accepting or rejecting its content. Also, it is a way of avoiding confirmation bias –reading or assessing only those issues with which one already agrees, rather than sampling a variety of views and thinking of them as interesting, but as yet unproven assertions.

In important ways, this is what Science does: everything is open to checking and possible refutation. Nothing is spared re-examination. Carl Popper, the philosopher of science, suggested that an assertion, a theory, must be worded in such a way that it is testable, otherwise it can not be generalized -or as he would put it, it can only be considered scientifically valid if it is falsifiable- ie checkable. Anything else is merely an opinion -as, for example, the statement ‘Red is the most beautiful colour’. It is not testable, and therefore certainly neither provable nor undeniably valid. This is the first simple rule of thumb we can teach: we must help children to parse input.

Young children tend to question everything- it is how they learn. But in the very young –under, say, six or seven years of age- they often use magical thinking: cause and effect are not necessarily demonstrable either by reason, or even observation. Past that age, however, they begin to understand agency. Causal chains. It is a good time to introduce the concept of validity: was something really a result of an action, or was the action merely associated in time or location so as to seem to have influenced it? And although this is a good first start it is nonetheless one that is not necessarily intuitive. For example it would be tempting to assume that a boy running past a crying girl had done something to her -it might fit with a previous experience. But maybe he was running to catch a bus and it was a coincidence that the two were in the same area at the time she was crying… It requires more proof. More examination.

The habit of questioning things before accepting them can be taught. It can be made into a reflex before reacting. But it needs to be developed early, before the temptation to interpret hastily, or even reciprocate mindlessly, has become entrenched.

The basic elements of simple logic can be taught. For example with inductive reasoning, one attempts to generalize from observations. So if all the crows you have ever seen were black, then you might conclude that all crows are black… Until somebody sees a white crow that is… It is falsifiable, in other words. Most taunts are of that variety -and with practice, easily refuted.

Or even with deductive reasoning which works the other way -from the general to the particular: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal -the classical example. But it only works if the premise is valid (ie. that all men are mortal). And it may only be somebody’s opinion that it is valid…Once again, is it like that example of red being the most beautiful colour? We can all be taught to analyse things like this. We can all be taught to be wary of unsubstantiated statements. Rumours. Gossip. Taunts…

And the critical thinking approach can even apply to actions as well as assertions. A simple example: a young girl is hit by a snowball and another child, a boy, is standing nearby in a group of boys and staring at her. Was he to blame? Did he throw it? Maybe, but without further analysis, further investigation, there’s no proof. No reason to jump to a conclusion. Why did she think it was him? Is her reason based on anger, or is it justified..? This is the basis for the idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty… It is an important concept to inculcate in the growing mind. It is a way of distancing oneself from the action, no matter how provocative, and setting it aside until it has been analysed further. We all judge input, we all react to issues we encounter. And some things do require an immediate response. But it’s how we come to the judgement, how we analyse the data –how we react- that is critical.

You can see where this is leading I suspect: bullying. Bullying -whether on the playground or online, whether by deed or word- has the advantage of unfair leverage only if the process is unexamined. Only if the person being assailed is not used to subjecting taunts to the same questioning. Stepping back, if only momentarily, and processing the information. Checking it. Falsifying it. Refuting it -like my patient was able to do.

A difficult thing to do in the moment, for sure. But without any experience in dissecting assertions –deconstructing them, as PhD candidates are fond of saying- there are only reactive emotions. Victimization. Loss of self esteem that could and should withstand the storm. Self esteem, after all, is partly based on one’s ability to see oneself as in control.

As in mathematics and science, critical thinking is a valuable tool for assessing what we experience in the world. It helps us to parse what we read, what we’re told, what we think… It brings perspective to the unexpected, the hostile and the just plain annoying. It can and should be taught from grade school onwards, building on the simpler examples from year to year –class to class. Younger children may not understand the complexities of the Scientific Method, nor what Popper was on about, but with patience and persistence they will.

They deserve the chance…


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