Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Critical Thinking

I recently came across something in a community college textbook that I found interesting. About three whole pages of this textbook was devoted to giving guidelines for intelligently reading articles of academic interest. I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised, since this is a very important skill to have for those of us in academic fields. However, I don't think there was anything included that any intelligent person shouldn't be able to figure out for himself. Here's roughly what it said:

When analyzing the claims that anyone is making, keep the following in mind:

1. Is the writer/speaker an expert in the subject on which he/she is talking about? If not, is there any reason you should trust what this person is saying? (I may be pretty picky, but when it comes to academic matters, an "expert" is someone with an advanced degree in the particular field- at least.)

2. Do the claims disagree with accepted knowledge or are outrageous for other reasons? Such claims are not necessarily false, but there has to be a reason that years of academic pursuit suggest otherwise. (This, usually along with #1, is a primary reason that you can immediately ignore crackpot theorists who make claims like "Quantum Mechanics is obviously wrong" without explaining why quantum mechanics predicts the result of every low-energy experiment ever performed.)

3. Does the writer/speaker provide evidence to support his/her claims? Does the evidence supplied hold up to the same scrutiny? (In academic papers, evidence is shown through the results of individual research, or through citing papers written by other researchers. Seriously- this should be the biggest no-brainer in this list.)

4. Could the writer/speaker have ulterior motives? There are many reasons that a person could make a certain claim, and the pursuit of truth is only one of them. The others include money, social status, political capital, embarrassment, and countless others. Don't be naive.

5. Does the argument contain logical fallacies? Here's a sample of a few:
  • Circular logic
  • Correlation implies causation
  • Sweeping generalizations
  • Bandwagon
  • Arguing from ignorance
  • Appeals to authority
  • Slippery slope
6. Does the claim seem too simple, given the complexity of the subject matter? If someone offers a one-sentence solution to an age-old problem, that usually means that the person ignored a few factors that contributed to the problem in the first place.
To be honest, I still don't see why this needs to be outlined in a textbook. After all, in the sciences, these are rules that researchers live or die by. These are things you pick up out of necessity. You either learn to apply them or are subject to ridicule by your peers.

But when it comes to our roles in mainstream society, there's no reason not to apply these skills to the best of our ability. Take politics, for example:

Do you think Sarah Palin is an expert in health care? What qualifications does she have to decide on issues that affect Americans, besides that time that she ruined McCain's chances of getting elected? How about Glenn Beck? What kind of pedigree is required to make up stuff on TV these days? Unless Glenn Beck is really Dr. Glenn Beck, Phd., it sounds like these two fail the critical thinking check number 1.

Saying that Obama wants to put your grandma to death is a pretty outlandish claim. So are claims that compare proposed health care reform to nazi eugenics. That's check number 2. Upon two failed checks, any sane person should be looking for number 3. Give me a quote from one of the bills (with a page number), and maybe I'll listen. Otherwise, I'd rather spend my time reading up on time cube or flat earth theory. At least those sets of meaningless blabber are moderately entertaining and don't influence the well-being of 47 million people.

Before I get down from my soapbox, I'd like to mention that I really wish I could find better examples from across the aisle. As much as I hate to say it, this isn't a problem with the Republican party, but more just politics in general.

Our political system is one in which "facts" are routinely carefully selected, spun, misinterpreted, or completely fabricated just to back up one's point of view. There isn't a politician alive who doesn't have ulterior motives. They will say whatever they can, just to improve the status of their party, or get a boost in their next campaign. That sounds an awful lot like check number four.

Here's something you can do- read up on the most common logical fallacies, and try to spot them next time you're watching cable news or a debate. Some are so prevalent, that they are named after political phrases that are used when they are committed (like "slippery slope"). Maybe a harder task is to spot an argument that doesn't contain a logical fallacy.

As for check number six, I think you'll agree with me that overgeneralization is not only common in politics, but is an accepted political strategy. For example, taking a thousand-page bill and calling it a "government take-over of health care" is certainly an overgeneralization.

None of these behaviors would be tolerated in any academic field. You wouldn't even tolerate it among your coworkers. Heck, you'd probably scold your kids for some of the same behaviors that are commonplace over on capital hill. And these are the people who are running the country. Go figure.

What's the most frustrating is the fact that this isn't just a big accident. These sorts of deceitful behaviors are nothing but politics-by-design.

Eh. Fuck it.

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