It is evident today that the sheer vastness of information available about practically any topic is barely comprehensible. This is due to both an exponential increase in both the quantity of material produced and it's availability to ordinary people anywhere in the world. Most of the credit of course goes to the development and spread of the Internet, but also to the downstream effects it has caused. The availability of a nearly costless distribution platform has incentivised a growing industry of content creators (think of bloggers, wikipedia contributers, et al) that would otherwise have been dissuaded by the gated community of the legacy publishing industry.
The result of this rapid unorganised growth is a body of information that is largely unfiltered, uncategorised, and unconnected. Search engines solve one crisis by being like a universal index (and in certain cases, a glossary), but they are only effective for locating information when you know exactly what you are looking for, unable to constructively assist when you require an idea, information to form your own opinion or an overview of the landscape.
Let's think of the experience of walking around in a dense rainforest. If you were looking for a particular flower, an army of manual labourers (search engines) could undoubtedly scour the land looking for it and find it faster than you alone. But if you wanted to ascertain whether your the breeding of an insect was affecting the spread of a plant species, that same group of inert labourers who can only follow simple instructions wouldn't be able to assist you with that kind of task. The most that they could do was follow simple instructions to quickly bring you certain types of plants of your choosing and leave you an abundance of information to make your decision.
This is what search engines do in a simplified reality, even excepting for things like the results being biased by the buying power of the result hosts (akin to labourers getting you large numbers of false flowers because a biased party wanted to influence your decision in a particular direction).
The critical skill necessary here now is not the ability to gather or retain information, but the ability to parse through large quantities of it (of somewhat questionable quality) and draw useful conclusions. This is what is commonly called and I will continue to refer to as 'critical thinking'.
If we look at an education as the process of equipping ourselves with the toolkits using which we generate value in the world for which we receive compensation, then the efficacy of parts of the current system of eduction is serious doubt. By equipping students with a skillset (data memorisation and regurgitation) that has almost no value anymore, it cripples the student's ability to be valuable and leaves them hanging dry in the department of preparation for an actual career.
The skill of critical thinking is not only relevant in the workplace, but increasingly critical in the general populace with the spread of fake news and blatant exaggeration and misinformation from what used to be sacred sources like the mainstream news media and elected officials. The ability to be constructively skeptical grants a degree of immunity from being hoodwinked by misleading claims or statistics. The ability to at least ask the question of "why is/isn't this arguement credible" and remember to apply it not only to the big questions but also the little ones we come across every day. It could be an unbelievable advertisement in the newspaper or a claim about a shocking new medication forwarded to you by a friend.
Having the skill of critical thinking allows one to perform these cursory analyses routinely and almost subconsciously, which is necessary for their effective deployment. Because the beauty of the technique that it doesn't have to yield all the answers to be useful, but simply act as a sixth sense humming away in the background. And in a world where most people simply believe what they see, having it is a veritable superpower.
- "For in the country of the blind, the one eyed man is king."
In theory, the process of science is really one of skeptical thought and subsequent experimental verification, applied to claims about nature. And the emphasis on process. Not the body of knowledge, but the process. And the first part of that process is exactly this kind of critical thought that asks the kind of basic