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The neglected survival skill

Critical thinking

Patrick Guntensperger


Recently I was asked to give a seminar for senior high school students; the idea was that I was to introduce them to what they would confront when they first started attending university. This wasn’t a big stretch, as I have frequently given a “Welcome to University, You’re Not in High School Any More” address to freshmen at universities where I lectured. It was largely just a matter of changing many of my observations from the present progressive tense to the future progressive.

The content by now is relatively familiar to me: choosing an institution; course selection criteria; techniques for note-taking and studying; time management strategies; pointing out the need for self-reliance and the fact that there won’t be anybody to nag them about completing assignments or attending classes; balancing social and academic activities; the value of identifying the best campus pub prior to the first day of class. (At my alma mater, York University, that is clearly the Absinthe Pub in Winters College.) So, since I had heard all of this before, for me the most interesting part was the interactive part of the seminar which started with a Q & A. I always like that bit because I get to know the students personally and my confidence in the survival of the human race is constantly renewed by the intelligence and enthusiasm of a few of the students. (Of course my natural cynicism is also frequently affirmed by others, but on a good day I choose to wallow in denial on that score.)

What was really driven home to me at the last seminar was the desperate need in high schools, and preferably from 1st grade onward, for some education in critical thinking.

It always surprises and dismays me when I consider that school curricula are written under the assumption that thinking skills are esoteric and suitable only for higher education and then only for those specialising in such rarified fields as philosophy. It’s hard to understand how our educators can believe that students can be presented with a virtual infinity of information, sort through it, master the subject to which it pertains, pass an exam on it, and compete on a world level with other students…all without having been taught first of all how to think clearly and to discriminate between genuine information and crap. Given the Pagun Principle (90% of everything is crap), that skill, the ability to discriminate, is becoming more and more crucial.

I think it’s important that the fundamentals of critical thinking be taught even in the earliest years of formal education so that all students, not just those who are university bound, are exposed to its principles. Critical thinking is a life skill. Having just watched the United States presidential election and campaigns, I was struck by how lacking in critical thinking the general public seems to be; certainly at least one of the parties running was convinced that the general public lacked that skill entirely. A knowledge of some basic logical fallacies, one component of critical thinking, would have encouraged more people to query some of the claims made, reject many of the arguments put forward, and spot the manipulation attempted in much of the advertising.

Logical fallacies are identified and catalogued errors in reasoning; they can be used inadvertently when we think instinctively rather than in a critical fashion, and they can also be used deliberately to manipulate the views and opinions of others. It is perhaps worth looking at one or two logical fallacies at this point to illustrate how important a familiarity with critical thinking can be.

One of the most common fallacies employed in everyday life is known as “The Straw Man”. That is a rhetorical device in which one participant in a debate attacks a position that is not actually held by the opposition. Debater A articulates an exaggerated, distorted, or non-existent claim or argument of debater B and then proceeds to demolish it. If done well, this can leave debater B trying and failing to defend a position he doesn’t hold. Every high school student is familiar with that fallacious argument; who hasn’t been involved in something like this?

Mom: Are you really going to wear that (shirt, skirt, sweater)?

Teen: Yes. It’s really comfortable.

Mom: Why do you always want to dress like a (bum, slut, slob)?

Mom has achieved her aim; the teen is now defending a position that involves whether he/she always wants to look like a bum, slut, or slob; in fact, the position put forward by the teen was that the item in question was comfortable. Trivial? Certainly. Mom, however, probably committed the Straw Man fallacy unknowingly and the teen didn’t spot it, so the scene is likely to escalate. A little critical thinking could have avoided the confrontational aspects of a simple wardrobe discussion.

The Straw Man is important in the larger scheme of things, though, because it is a favourite of politicians. In the recent United States presidential election, for example, Republican candidate Mitt Romney committed this fallacy; in his case he did it deliberately and to great effect.

A lie supporting a Straw`Man

Specifically, the Romney campaign put out a series of television ads which condemned Obama for having eliminated the work requirement for welfare recipients, then went on to build a case for cutting benefits generally with the justification that the United States was becoming a country of takers and freeloaders at the encouragement of the president. The problem was that Obama had not eliminated the work requirement; he had – at the request of several Republican state governors – allowed the welfare regulations to be administered by the states themselves so that the work requirements could be increased if the states so desired. A quintessential Straw Man, supported by the oldest fallacy of all: barefaced lying. Someone with critical thinking skills would have identified the manipulation and questioned the entire edifice that was based upon the original Straw Man.

Another very common logical fallacy carries the somewhat forbidding sobriquet “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”).  Simply put, post hoc is the error of assuming that because one event follows another it was caused by the first. We do it all the time instinctively; it is part of the way we learned to understand the world. We turn the stove on, the element heats up; we treat our toys harshly, they get broken; we eat too much candy, we get a stomach ache. The problem is that we often extend the principle to situations in which there is no causal connection between two events. Examples abound.

I wore these socks and I played a great game; I’m going to wear them every time I play.”

“A virgin fell into the volcano and it didn’t erupt. We ought to toss one in every year.”

“I prayed that my son would come home safe and he did. Now I’m going to pray that I win the lottery”

While the foregoing are obvious examples of a misplaced causal connection, one need only take another look at the US presidential election to find a glaringly evident use of post hoc ergo propter hoc to deceive and mislead.

Misidentifying the ACTUAL cause of the economic crisis

The Romney campaign was largely based on the Republican argument that the American economy is in terrible shape; much worse shape than it was on the day Obama was elected four years ago. In a nutshell: 1) Obama is elected, 2) The economy tanks. From that sequence, the inference is supposed to be drawn that Obama’s presidency is responsible for the economic crisis. Of course, that is quite simply wrong; the economic crisis was the result of the irresponsible fiscal policies of the previous administration as well as commitments – including two wars – made by the previous administration that required the Obama administration to spend excessively in order to honour them.

There are some forty logical fallacies that most logicians agree on. There are about ten that are as common as the dirt thrown in an election campaign; it is a tragedy that students are not taught to identify them. A systematic understanding of the rhetorical devices, logical manipulations, and duplicitous methods employed by the marketers of products and political candidates, one would think, is a necessary survival skill. It becomes ever more important as information becomes easier to access.

One of the problems with the abundance of information available and the ease with which we can access it is that utter bullshit comes up on a search engine’s results just as easily as does accurate, reliable data. The fundamental thing that that critical thinking does for us is to provide a framework for deciding what to believe and what to reject; given the Pagun Principle, there is a great deal to reject and only a relatively small amount to believe. And that large percentage that ought to be rejected increases exponentially during election years.

An education system that places an emphasis on critical thinking will be doing its job far better than one that emphasizes rote learning and unquestioning acceptance of that which is placed in front of the students. Surely with lying and deceit as the new paradigms in politics and marketing, it is time we realized that what our students really need is not to be taught what to think, but how to think.



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