Richard Paul and Linda Elder are affiliated with the Center for Critical Thinking, which I discovered several years ago when it was operating under the auspices of Sonoma State University. I first encountered Dr. Paul's writing through several fine pieces on the CCT web site, and they established my expectations for this book.
I should mention my misgivings about the phrase 'critical thinking.' It has critical mass as a buzz-phrase, and is susceptible to all of the risks that go with that--chiefly the risk that an assortment of people advocating widely different intellectual practices all find it advantageous to paste that popular name on their disparate wares. Even worse, I have encountered people to whom 'critical thinking' turns on the sense of 'critical' that means captious or disputatious, and who think of it as something nice people don't do; another entire camp seems to maintain that 'critical thinking' is achieved by nothing more than disparagement of reason and an inclination to question and deconstruct everything in sight. Taken far enough, these divergent uses of any 'in' buzzword can threaten to strip it completely of meaning; one cannot be grateful enough that the Center for Critical Thinking is still around and pushing the real deal: rigorous intellectual standards, commitment to clarity and reason and fairmindedness, with all that commitment demands.
But this book makes a disappointing vehicle. Contributing not least to the disappointment are lapses of editing and proofreading that should never be seen in a finished book. Perhaps embarrassments of grammar, spelling, and punctuation do not count directly against the book's intellectual content--but they could lead many readers to underestimate what the book has to offer. That's too bad.
A more serious weakness is the want of exercises that genuinely test the reader's thinking. If learning to think critically is replacing comfortable modes of thought with modes that can be evaluated to standards, an important motivator may be to bump against those standards regularly. But many of the exercises are of the "write down something you think about X" variety notable for not having wrong answers. The questions are often good ones and the exercises are not all busy work, but neither are they as demanding as they could be, and some readers may find them condescending.
An extreme example is found in Chapter 7--The Standards for Thinking--with respect to the standard of 'logicalness,' which gets a treatment of barely one page. A space not much larger could present some rudiments of logic, but this treatment offers only a vague, intuitive appeal and an exercise to identify decisions "based on illogical thinking--thinking that didn't make sense to you." A reader's familiar, and possibly unexamined, judgments about what is "logical" will not necessarily be refined by this approach.
The whole of Chapter 14--The Power and Limits of Professional Knowledge--is likewise disappointing. It seems to promise a disciplined approach to the decision of how much deference is due the pronouncements of professionals on different occasions and topics but, beyond outlining general reasons for skepticism, it doesn't deliver. It offers little insight into how that skepticism should be sensibly qualified, and is a little incautious with some of its own claims: I was surprised to read (p. 260) in a 2002 book that "the medical field is highly resistant" to the role of viruses and bacteria in heart disease and cancer.
I am especially troubled by the Chapter 14 discussion of mathematics (and ought to reveal here that it was my undergraduate major). Here the authors seem to lose sight of their objective and, instead of addressing how mathematical 'expert opinion' should be received, treat instead the value of math education. They suggest that because (a) many are traumatized by doing poorly in math and (b) many who do well still do not cultivate the habit of applying mathematical insight in everyday life, perhaps curricula beyond basic arithmetic should not be mandatory. This despite the number of pressing issues that demand critical thought and require a mathematical understanding. In this one section the authors seem to verge on one of the debased senses of 'critical thinking.' I would go to the mat with them on this one, but there are more comments to make.
A near-disastrous feature of the book is the use made of charged, controversial issues. This is tricky business: of course the very point of critical thinking is to apply it to important issues, and without them the teaching would not be engaging or effective. The authors do well when they present a hot issue as the explicit focus of an exercise, asking the reader to think fairmindedly through all sides; "Thinking Broadly" on p. 105 is a good example. The "Reading Backwards" list is conscientiously selected and balanced. But controversial positions also appear in passing as examples of good or poor thinking, where the focus is elsewhere and a point of view is implicit. My point is not that I disagree with these positions: the authors' politics and mine might be largely compatible. But by failing to decide whether they are writing a book on critical thinking or a book of issue advocacy, the authors undermine their credibility and furnish a ready excuse for half the people who should read this book to dismiss it out of hand.
I would have loved to see Edward Tufte's books on clear and appropriate visual presentation included in the reading list. Regrettably, this book demonstrates many of the pitfalls Tufte identifies in "business graphics": elaborate, busy designs that exaggerate the depth of what is presented. This may be a house style of the publisher, Financial Times.
There is a genuine core of critical thinking instruction contained (sometimes concealed) in this book--perhaps enough to reward the effort of digging it out. Better books of this sort are urgently needed, and Paul and Elder should be able to write them. I hope they will.