Critical Thinking: Now More Than Ever!

As various political movers and shakers at various levels in government work to dismantle both public and higher education, it is clear to me that the skill of critical thinking has never been more important. And the topic for this blog post came to mind when I was reading about the use of ChatGPT, the AI writing tool.

I found it funny that someone in a New York Times article stated that it’s very important, when looking at the written output of ChatGPT, to examine the results very critically. The author basically said, “Don’t believe everything you read, take it all with a grain of salt, and evaluate everything ChatGPT provides you with.” I’m paraphrasing, partly in cliches.

And I find this funny because I used to say that about scholars in general and myself in particular. When discussing the Greek tragic playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, I had on my PowerPoint screen the birth and death dates of each, in brackets. The brackets were there partially to remind students that I would never test on specific dates (for an Intro course, knowing which periods came in which order was more important to me), and partially to remind me to explain how we “know” those dates.

You see, there are no extant birth and death certificates for the ancient Greek authors. It’s amazing that any of the Greek plays survived. So how did scholars come up with those dates? They might know the death date, and then invented the birth date by discovering when a playwright won his first contest. They figured that he must have been 30 at the time—because no one under 30 would have the knowledge to write an award-winning play. (Then think about the 1960s—“Don’t trust anyone over 30,” the slogan went. See the 1968 film Wild in The Streets.) So, I warned them, sometimes scholars make things up, and the students should approach information critically. “Don’t believe everything I tell you either,” I’d say. They’d smile; I assume they were humoring me, knowing full well they would put down whatever I said as Gospel for the exams.

Now along comes ChatGPT, and it collects ideas and texts from all the interwebs and smushes them together for mostly fact-filled reporting. But I hear it sometimes makes stuff up, and we have to be aware of when that might be.

Because now we hear rumblings that AI apps could be used to create even more mis- and dis-information than we have now. And how will we know? Critical thinking and evaluation! We need to train more for that. We won’t have to worry about Skynet sending the terminator robots when we fall prey to ideas and arguments we should be able to see through.

Published by stephenschrum

Associate Professor of Theatre Arts; interested in virtual worlds, playwrighting, and filmmaking. Now creating a podcast called "Audio Chimera."

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