Beliefs such as “Tiny specks of matter don’t weigh anything”, “Most people only use 10% of their brains”, “People with severe mental illness are prone to violence” or “Autism has become an epidemic” are usually defined as misconceptions, i.e., as beliefs that are considered to be false in the light of current accepted scientific knowledge.
Most studies on misconceptions aim to identify and create lists of the most common misconceptions across scientific fields such as physics, psychology, medicine, etc. In our article “Ignorance, misconceptions and critical thinking” we instead investigate the reasons that such misconceptions are endorsed in the first place.
It turns out that many of our misconceptions are not isolated errors that occur against the background of a correct explanatory framework. Instead, they constitute an integral part of and are the products of pseudo-explanations.
It is widely acknowledged that misconceptions are dangerous and detrimental. In everyday reasoning and decision-making, we rely on our beliefs. If these beliefs contradict current scientific knowledge, they are most probably erroneous and misleading; they will lead us to conclusions and actions that are not aligned with a scientific understanding of the world.
According to a widely accepted view, (one of) the most effective ways to eradicate misconceptions is to intervene directly: identify the specific misconceptions, inform people that these positions are wrong, and provide them with the correct facts.
However, if our misconceptions are deeply rooted in our belief system and closely tied to pseudo-explanations for phenomena, this approach is ineffective: it does not alter the pseudo-explanations these misconceptions rely on and result from. The only truly incisive way to address such misconceptions is to tackle the explanation that supports them and adjust the system of inferences that gives rise to them. By doing so, we can act on all the interconnected false beliefs people hold on the topic, offer good reasons to embrace new beliefs, and provide means to make further well-grounded and congruent inferences on related phenomena – i.e., to develop new insights into this content.
In order for such changes in belief systems to occur, we not only need to acquire new disciplinary knowledge but also to develop adequate reasoning skills. The discipline that appears most promising to develop these skills is critical thinking. At its very basis, critical thinking aims to improve people’s analytic and evaluative attitudes toward knowledge; it consists in training individuals to reason in a disciplined manner, adhering to clear intellectual standards.
The definition of critical thinking goes back to John Dewey. In Dewey’s view, critical thinking consists in an active form of knowledge acquisition in which immediate intuitions are weakened and put under scrutiny and in which the acquisition of new information is accompanied by an adequate comprehension of how this knowledge should be organized and how its various components relate to form a system. Critical thinking appears to be key to developing integrated and coherent belief systems that are continuously examined from the point of view of the evidence they rely on and that are continuously re-evalutated to ensure all components remain mutually consistent and plausible.