For quite some time now, the issue of referring to the killers of innocent people as Islamic terrorists, or just terrorists, has been a running battle between President Obama and his opponents; so much so, it’s leading some to use President Obama’s stand as a question on his very allegiance!

In this blog, I’m not going present whether President Obama’s decision to refrain from adding ‘Islamic’ to ‘terrorists’ sums up to his being “pro-Muslims,” or argue why the claim is outrageously ridiculous, nor get into why the questions raised about “his allegiance” are bizarre, (or valid), (much less get into making any suggestions regarding what might be the best option to deter the criminals); instead, I’ll delve into the social cognitive questioning-thinking to better understand how adding the word Islamic might work in the individual’s mind: propel one to act, or undermine the sense of purpose (or make no difference at all).

Needless to say, it can get challenging to wrap one’s head around issues that are complex and fuzzy to navigate and don’t lend themselves to a single right answer. To this end, I’ll discuss and underscore the value of critical thinking skills with a focus on how these skills are conducive to constructing meaning, especially in the absence of Absolutes.

Expanded identity: seeing oneself as a part of the bigger whole

Telling kids engaged in pottery making that this was an art practiced by people a 1000 years ago enhances their sense of efficacy as it makes them feel connected to the big picture. Similarly, sustained motivation in school requires identification with school and its subdomains (Steele, 1997). Irrespective of who we are or what intentions we harbor, we are social beings who need feedback and validation for what we do and look for a sense of identity that in some way connects us to something bigger than us.

By the same token, will not a criminal (or any group that claims to be Islamic) also gain empowerment and a sense of expanded identity through the very association with the broader community? There is ample amount of evidence suggesting that group efficacy has a beneficial effect on group dynamics and overall group effectiveness. Whether group efficacy also accounts for efficacy in individuals (who imagine some sort of affiliation to the group) is something that needs more research to throw light on. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that despite their one-pointed evil purpose, these individuals also look for an enhanced efficacy through their very association with the larger group. And an enhanced sense of efficacy is likely to support people in what they do- good or evil.

The pertinent question that emerges is- what it requires of our mind/brain to navigate complex issues so we can make better sense of the world we are living in? How to facilitate the mind/brain function so we can figure out whether claims are championed by plausible, cogent arguments, or are a matter of opinions (and biases)? And how do we perceive or gauge our own conclusions about issues that evoke multiple responses?

Scientific thinking in Qualitative Research:

Now it is worth bearing in mind that biases often fog data and color understandings. Interestingly, while conducting Qualitative Research, researchers typically look for discrepant examples that undermine the prevalent theory, or ask themselves, “how can I be wrong?” in a self-regulatory, metacognitive way. Involving an inductive approach that enables individuals to check their stand for possible biases, this self-reflective research method allows inquirers to winnow down ideas/beliefs through constant questioning and inquiring.

Making Sense of Murky Issues

Strong biases hamper thinking and meaning making, bombarding the thinking process with doubts, fear, and conspiracy-inspired tantalizing stories, making individuals susceptible to ‘simplistic explanations.’ The kind of thinking behaviors that support meaning making and help individuals assess whether a statement has crept out of a bias, or is backed by solid reasoning/evidence, need to be nurtured and taught throughout school. Intellectually exploring ideas, i.e., analyzing ideas through the lens of reason and evidence, keeping in mind that certain issues may lend themselves to multiple perspectives and so evoke opposing viewpoints should be part of curriculum. Opposing viewpoints within the frame of reason ought to be considered and respected rather than seen as threats to be shot down. 

For example, while some balked at the idea pitched in by Angela Mercel, others applauded her for opening the borders of Germany to refugees streaming into Europe, and thus ‘expand their identity’ as she explained (was named woman of the year by Time magazine). Frankly, a single right answer to complex issues like this can’t be easily divined. So, though her opponents demurred her response to the historic exodus, they didn’t accuse her of being “pro-Muslim,” nor questioned her allegiance.

Science and Skepticism:

A modern and scientific way of thinking upholds open-mindedness because the very nature of knowledge being dynamic requires individuals to avoid mindsets that limit them from testing statements/theories and challenging assumptions to seek knowledge and reach new understandings. A peep into History will reveal that even scientific theories are subject to change, modification, or even rejection, should there be reasonable evidence that conclusively establishes a theory to be a fallacy.

Skepticism that helms our thinking to reaching clarity through seeking evidence, persisting in the face of ambiguity, and considering multiple perspectives in the absence of absolutes reflects high level thinking that should be nurtured in schools, right from the start. I deem that it is necessary to include activities that nurture this kind of critical thinking in schools. Alas! We care about results without paying heed to how those results are achieved.

Critical thinking skills should be upheld in our society as a value. When we learn to question our observations and/or assumptions (or others’), when our questioning at times steers us to new understandings, when we begin to examine opposing view points with a readiness to change or inform our existing views, and our confidence doesn’t dwindle in the face of view points that challenge our own, our thinking becomes an experiment in its own right. And when public discourse is based on ideas sprouting from reason and evidence rather than emotions which may or mayn’t be rational, then we can better assess claims and dismiss the dramatic and bizarre ones!


​​” Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Benjamin Franklin

About me

I specialize in facilitating learning and cognition through research-based motivational techniques that enhance the learning experience of individuals in formal as well as informal settings like Museums and out of school programs.

Anu Bhatia


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