Taking Shortcuts in the Red Queen’s Science Race

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Written by Simon Wahl, Gerd Folkers and Claude Garcia

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” -Lewis Carroll (1871)

It seems the rules of the Red Queen hold true also for the academic community. As students, we try to collect credits as efficiently as possible and cram our CVs with extracurricular experiences. As researchers, always worried about our impact factor, we must publish and review faster than our colleagues publish and review. In short, it takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place. We seem to be willing to pay the price of running as fast as we can, to hyper-compete—a state that presents a strong incentive for circumventing procedures—to achieve faster results. The unfortunate side effect is insidious. Even in good faith, running can prompt academics to take cognitive shortcuts, gravitating toward the most obvious explanations and leaving the limits of their understanding unquestioned. Thinking critically requires time and energy – a step that could be abandoned under increased pressure. In executing proper science, shortcuts can be dangerous.

ETH Zurich—The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich—launched a Critical Thinking Initiative with the goals of encouraging “interdisciplinary exchange, critical thinking, and autonomous activity,” as well as promoting “the ability […] to discern between different positions, points of view, policies and prospects, to critically (and self-critically) examine these, and to determine appropriate courses of action”.

What happened to prompt the executive board of a world leading university to launch an initiative that emphasizes these points that are so fundamental to conducting scientific research? Are not students and professors critical thinkers by definition? After all, that is how enlightenment started. The very existence of a Critical Thinking Initiative suggests that society faces fundamental challenges in the modern academic world.

Academia under Pressure

Is critical thinking more crucial now than ever before? The digital world in which we live mandates that we wade through more and more information. Today’s world generates torrents of data from which we might benefit only with interpretation. As we enter the Digital Revolution, automatization and artificial intelligence compete against traditional jobs in the workplace—critical thinking may be one of the few things that still distinguishes us from computers. It is a fundamental attribute for every scientist facing the future.

At the same time, our capacity to exhibit critical thinking seems to be under pressure. Lecturers report observing that students become increasingly indifferent and passive as they proceed with their studies. Scientists are tempted to rephrase their hypotheses to increase the statistical significance of their results and publish in journals with a higher impact factor—a procedure known as “p-hacking.” The danger of taking cognitive shortcuts exists for everyone under pressure. Increased demand for critical thinking and a depleting capacity to exercise it—two complimentary trends—leads to a gap significant enough that the ETH Zurich Executive Board felt compelled to take action.

Critical Thinking and the Red Queen’s Race

What exactly is “critical thinking?” It is a blurry concept. Its definition differs among academic disciplines from life sciences to engineering and in social sciences; and it is not the same for PhD students and professors. It points to several domains of thinking, cognition, and understanding, but also to structures and institutions as well as academia and higher education in general. Various abilities have been attributed to the term “critical thinking.” For example, it can mean the ability to think self-reliantly and independently; to acknowledge and define limitations; to find gaps in understanding or to break through the known. It can also be perceived as an ability to contextualize and assess consequences; to do interdisciplinary work; or to question and reflect the origin of knowledge. Critical thinking can also be attributed to the ability to discern the credibility of sources, narratives and results, assumptions, methods, means, and even authorities.

No matter what definition of “critical thinking” we adopt, we still need to devote attention to exhibiting the abilities connected with it. Again, these efforts require time, energy, focus, freedom, confidence, and trust. It requires courage to insist upon these recourses, especially under existing conditions in which increased pressure can lead academics into the Red Queen’s race.

The economization of science and higher education increasingly shapes the frame conditions of the academic world—a “massification” of the scientific enterprise. Managing the cost of higher education and research can lead to a utilitarian attitude based on simplified paradigms. It has consequences on human behavior. The more obvious symptoms are systems of measuring and rewarding the success of both students and researchers.  We might not want to admit or not even notice it, but often, in subtle ways, such a system robs us of time, energy, focus, freedom, or confidence—to a point in which we may no longer be able to think critically.

Our understanding of how the human brain works means that no scientist is free from the illusions of understanding. The simple fact of labeling someone as an expert increases the propensity for cognitive bias. Entitlement potentially leads to close-mindedness. In addition, attention is a limited cognitive resource. Digitalization forces us to split our attention between more channels and topics. As a result, we overstimulate the brain and suffer from information-overload. Critical thinking is not a default mode. It needs attention and energy. It needs to be cultivated.

Don’t Bow Down to the Red Queen

We propose it is possible to get somewhere, if we allow ourselves to stop running for a while. The first step would be for you, the reader, to pause and take stock of your situation. Devote attention to the question: What does it mean to think critically? Do you exercise it? What hinders you from exercising it? Let us become aware of the shortcuts that we all take in the Red Queen’s race. Racing might be a driver of progress, but it should be the result of a conscious decision, and not an accidental occurrence. We should not let the Red Queen rule.

The issue of critical thinking touches something fundamental in academia; however, its exploration also reveals structural problems. Rather than paralyze us, this realization should encourage transformation—a change not only in methodology, but also in attitude. We need concerted action, as no single institution can achieve that. Academia should be the place that fosters the exploration of nature and allows for critical introspection. If our capacity for critical thinking is threatened, even in this hall, where else can we exercise it then?

About the authors: Simon Wahl, MSc Environmental Systems and Policy, is with the Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH. Gerd Folkers is with the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, Chair of Science Studies, ETH Zurich. Claude Garcia is with the Department of Environmental System Sciences, Forest Management and Development Group (ForDev), ETH Zurich; Centre International de Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), Research Unit Forest and Society, Montpellier, France.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the print edition of the 2018 G7 Summit magazine.