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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Critical Thinker

Posted by Maximum Fun on 3rd October 2010

Vital stats:
Format: Philosophy 3, in fun chunks
Duration: ~5m-20m
Frequency: thrice a month, on average
Archive available on iTunes: all

In this show’s iTunes reviews, this cranky (in both senses of the word) one-star assessment appears:

Interesting that DeLaplante assumes a biological creature which has ‘evolved’ for the purpose of survival can know truth. Certainly our adapted faculties will help us to survive better than those of our predecessors, but is in no way our evolved brain a guarantor of known truth. In fact, since we are ‘evolved,’ we should not think that we actually can know anything.

Welcome to the world of internet rationality geekage. It’s got its own customs. One of its customs is to always try to appear more rational than the other fellow, even if the other fellow does a podcast about critical thinking. Even if you have to resort to scorched-earth type lines about how human brains can’t get truth.

Fortunately for the rest of us, Kevin DeLaplante sets The Critical Thinker [RSS] [iTunes] pretty far from all the more-rational-than-thou battles currently raging irrelevantly on. It’s essentially a philosophy course in critical thinking like you’d take in college — it was Philosophy 3 at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara — but served up in very brief audio chunks.

This is a sensible way to do it, seeing as DeLaplante is a professor at Iowa State University. He’s also the proprietor of, which is a bit like all those those language-learning sites out there, except that it teaches you critical thinking. This podcast is a branch of that site’s curriculum, and it operates on a model that a savvier trend writer would call something like “Edu-2.0” but I call “adult ed freemium.” Like, say, Coffee Break Spanish, The Critical Thinker offers its “lectures” for free but charges for the other course materials, which aren’t absolutely necessary but presumably enrich the overall experience. (I’ll never know, because I spend my time that could be used earning disposable income writing podcast reviews.)

The need to know “critical thinking” may seem quite a bit less pressing than the need to speak Spanish, but I think it’s actually more so. (Slightly.) Given the directions academia has moved in the past twenty years, the very idea of critical thinking has been co-opted to “mean” various sort-of-defined things about the subaltern (dis)loc[a/u]ting their hegemony and whatnot — identity stuff — but it’s really about making and evaluating logical arguments. Or illogical arguments, as the case may be. The idea is that, without thinking critically you won’t know which are logical and which are illogical.

DeLaplante spends a few episodes giving his own reasons for pursuing critical thinking, including “self-defense” [MP3], “empowerment” [MP3], “civic duty” [MP3], and “wisdom” [MP3]. These are noble ends, certainly, and he maintains quite a dignified manner in pursuing them. He makes it clear indeed that he’s not running a show about how to shout people down, or even about what’s actually wrong and right; it’s all to do with the form of the argument. He emphasizes it with his choice of example arguments to take apart, managing in the first few episodes alone to cover creationism, abortion, and gay marriage while stripping them of all sensationalism. This is not the place for someone with a lot of fixed ideas about where arguments ought to arrive. And that’s a good thing. Now if you’ll excuse me, my brain insists I go forage for sweet, sweet berries and then reproduce.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]