Critical Thinking, Presentism and Dragons

Hello all,
Today I feel that I have to share an observation i’ve made while reading some material about critical thinking.

I am going to try and avoid turning this into an invective, but I feel that i have to do my bit in my own small way in promoting a correct understanding of the Middle Ages. But first, let me explain what I am banging on about.

When reading this excellent post by Carl from Got Medieval, I realized that I was seeing some serious misuse of the medieval past in the material I was looking at as well.

Let’s start with Here be Dragons: An Introduction to Critical thinking, a documentary by Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoyed this little doco, and think that its message is both sound and salient: question the claims made by purveyors of non-critical beliefs unsupported by any research or science. Yet within this production lies an inherent irony.

The title is telling: Here Be Dragons. In the beginning of the documentary, Dunning claims that medieval mapmakers used to fill in gaps on the map with the rubric ‘Here be Dragons’, because it was more comfortable than an admission of the unknown. Thus, we should seek to expose the ‘dragons’ in the modern intellectual landscape, and the magical thinking behind their imagination. Okay, fine, I think that is a great idea. But wait a minute…a simple wikipedia search would have told you that the early 16th century Lenox globe is the only known example of hic sunt dracones or ‘here be dragons’.

So here’s the rub: the entire argument that no belief should be immune to a critical enquiry is presented to us via an analogy based on an inaccurate or misleading pop culture belief about the Middle Ages. Thus, a documentary about critical thinking fails to critically examine the discursive device by which it frames its argument. Whoops.

Dunning also claims that we should see any claim to ‘Ancient Wisdom’ as an immediate red flag in our critical landscape. After all, says our narrator confidently, why would we want to believe that our ancient ancestors knew something that we don’t, when the dark past consisted of centuries of scientific ignorance and superstition? Erm…well I don’t think that I even need to explain to anyone who has ever picked up a book on the Middle Ages that this is soooooo very wrong.

The point is sound: the kind of ‘Ancient Wisdom’ that he refers to is a form of abstract ‘mystical’ wisdom such as a belief in the ‘hidden secrets’ (secrets unspecified) of the past. Eg, the lost psychic powers of Atlantis. Yet ‘Ancient Knowledge’ such as Alchemy helped to form modern science, and made conclusions that are still of interest to us today. I resent the use of the entire Middle Ages as an intellectual symbol of everything that we shouldn’t value in knowledge. The modern scientific paradigm didn’t spring fully formed from the ground!

Now, I don’t want this post to sound like I am grilling one source alone, because this trend seems to extend further. In an otherwise excellent guide to Critical thinking (aimed largely at a school age readership) entitled Thinking Critically: A Concise Guide by John Chaffee, I found a surprising critical failure. In the section on ‘Thinking Independently’, we see this exercise:

Example: Is the earth flat?

Explanation: I was taught by my parents and in school that the earth was round.


Authorities: My parents and teachers taught me this.

References: I read about this in science textbooks.

Factual evidence: I have seen a sequence of photographs taken from outer space that show the earth as a globe.

Personal experience: When I flew across the country, I could see the horizon line changing.

Okay, that’s a good point. You should always think independently, and examine why you know what you know (or think you know). That’s a key question of all Epistemologies, and i’m glad it’s being taught. But here is where it goes a little wrong:

“Of course, not all reasons and evidence are equally strong or accurate. For example, before the fifteenth century the common belief that the earth was flat was supported by reasons and evidence:

Authorities: Educational and religious authorities taught people the earth was flat.

References: The written opinions of scientific experts supported belief in a flat earth.

Factual evidence: No person has ever circumnavigated the earth.

Personal experience: From a normal vantage point, the earth looks flat.”

How very convenient. The past provides us with a perfect example of a belief built on bad or incorrect evidence. Hooray, now we can know things that are true! Only…this whole example is intellectually dishonest. With the exception of Kosmas Indikopleustes (who was something of a loon), I don’t think I’ve ever seen a medieval source teach the flat earth theory. Once again, this information isn’t exactly hidden or elite knowledge, since one can read about it on wikipedia. So basically, this section is encouraging the reader to independently examine their beliefs, while presenting the argument with the aid of an unexamined belief.

I think a real medieval version of this chart wouldn’t look much different to our modern one. Instead of photographs from space, they would have the diagrams in just about every book on the Nature of Things ever written, and they could see the curvature of the earth by watching a ship disappear over the horizon. So once again, good message, bad example.

And thus, my message to you is this: apply your critical thinking skills to the examples used to explain how critical thinking works. Obviously the attention of these Critical thinkers was on the structure of their argument, and they overlooked the popular imaginings that they played upon to present them. All it takes is a Google search (as an absolute bare minimum) to get some more information people.

Best wishes to all of you,


Authorities: Educational and religious authorities taught people the earth was flat.

References: The written opinions of scientific experts supported belief in a flat earth.

Factual evidence: No person has ever circumnavigated the earth.

Personal experience: From a normal vantage point, the earth looks flat.”


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