Epistemic Vigilance

Critical thinking and analysis


Looking for evidence of metathinking about critical thinking and analysis (CTA) is heartbreaking. Once you move out of a stream of bureaucratic fetish literature obsessed with definitions and re-definitions that have failed to advance the cause of CTA in schools and universities, there’s a real dearth of serious consideration of how it works, whether it works at all, and whether it can be taught or assessed.

That search is integral to a longer narrative essay I’m working on to look at the failure of CTA in the academy and in the public sphere. So coming across material that seemed to be a sidetrack, but turned out to be the mainline, was a real eye-opener.

There’s a paper on ‘Epistemic Vigilance’ by an improbably diverse range of scholars affiliated with the Central European University, examining the ‘suite of cognitive mechanisms’ involved in exercising vigilance about the veracity of information we receive. This begins with an evaluation of whether the effort of seeking validation of some piece of information is worth the expected value to the subject.

Of particular significance to the topics of teaching and assessing CTA, and its social practice more widely, is a small departure in the paper into the purely philosophical consideration of epistemology, and specifically the consideration whether ‘testimony’ can be accepted as ‘knowledge’ in itself, or whether it requires independent validation by other sources. In this regard we can probably get away with thinking of testimony to include a range of verbal and non-verbal communication, like news reports, articles, and, especially, online discourses.

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