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Critical thinking and argumentation

If there is one thing that people can agree on as a universal good in education, it is that we should seek to increase the critical thinking abilities in people. Actually, that is not quite true. During the days when the debate over intelligent design was raging in Ohio in 2003, one letter to the editor by an ID advocate dismissed as “nonsense” the idea of teaching students how to think and said that instead “students need teachers who are authority figures – role models who impart a firm foundation of basic knowledge and a clear sense of right and wrong.”

But it turns out that while (almost) everyone is willing to genuflect at the altar of critical thinking, people have a hard time breaking down what the phrase precisely means. The question “How will you know it when you see it?” is not easy to answer.

Its meaning not as tenuous as pornography with its celebrated formulation by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s concurring opinion in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio as something that he could not define precisely. He said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [of hard-core pornography], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

Critical thinking is also not as prone to oversimplification as the concept of intelligence, where mental quickness and verbal and numerical fluency are often given too much weight. When it comes to critical thinking, people tend to be able to accurately sense when it is being demonstrated but have a harder time explaining how or why they knew.

Part of the problem is that it can mean many different things depending on the context and one of the best deconstructions that I have seen is by Arnold Arons in his book A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching (John Wiley and Sons, 1990, Chapter 13) that I have found useful in working with educators. I have modified his list slightly to arrive at the following breakdown.

  1. Not be intimidated by authority and conventional wisdom.
  2. Consciously raise “How do we know…? Why do we believe…? What is the evidence for…?” questions when studying anything.
  3. Be able to distinguish between observation and inference, between established facts and subsequent conjectures.
  4. Be able to identify the axioms and/or assumptions in any argument and judge their validity.
  5. Be able to identify the nature of the reasoning being used or required. (e.g., to know whether inductive or deductive reasoning is being used or called for.)
  6. Be able to identify non-sequiturs and other forms of specious reasoning.
  7. Be able to recognize when jargon, appeals to authority, or obfuscation are being used as a cover for lack of good arguments.
  8. Be able to recognize when no firm inferences can be drawn and when an argument has ceased to be fruitful and requires either new evidence or information to advance.
  9. Be able to recognize circular reasoning.
  10. Be clearly and explicitly aware of gaps in available information, and recognize when a conclusion is reached or a decision is made in the absence of complete information, and be able to tolerate the resulting ambiguity and uncertainty.
  11. Be able to carry out hypothetico-deductive (“if…, then…”) reasoning.
  12. Be able to test one’s own line of reasoning and conclusions for internal consistency.

I am not suggesting that this list is exhaustive. Any list of this sort can be immediately criticized, usually for acts of omission. But it does serve as a useful starting point for understanding what critical thinking is. Furthermore, it enables teachers to select those few specific elements that are most suitable for their particular course and emphasize them, rather than vaguely hoping that critical thinking skills will improve more or less spontaneously.

Some of the items, such as #3 distinguishing between observation and inference or facts and conjecture, seem so staggeringly obvious that one might wonder how anyone can fail to do so. But as a teacher I have tried it out, asking students who have done an experiment what they saw, and their answers are often mixtures of what they saw and the inferences drawn from it. Listen closely to a heated discussion on any topic and you will often observe the same thing.

The item on the list that is perhaps most useful in internet discourse is #8: “Be able to recognize when no firm inferences can be drawn and when an argument has ceased to be fruitful and requires either new evidence or information to advance.”

I think all of us have observed or participated in what seems like an endless argument going back and forth with nothing new being proffered but consisting of merely reformulations of the same stuff. The internet seems to be a fertile breeding ground for such things because there is no moderator. In the olden days, when such discussions were carried out in the letters columns of newspapers and magazines, the editor would at some point step in and end the discussion with a curt “This correspondence is now closed.” But internet discussions can go on and on. People substitute the ratcheting up of rhetoric in place of new information until the limit of Godwin’s law is reached

The problem is that we do not know how or when to walk away from a fruitless discussion. It is easier to do so if one realizes three things.

The first is that in discussions where people have entrenched views, you should realize that even if your case is irrefutable, you will never get the other person to acknowledge that you are right, at that moment. We are all strongly attached to our views. It is not that we do not change them but that the change is usually glacially slow, as a result of introspection that may have been triggered by an argument that is rejected at the time but serves as a basis for later reflection. Once you had have had your say, you have planted the seed in the other person’s mind and you should let it grow by itself.

The second point is that when arguing in a public space, it helps to realize that the primary target audience is not the person you are arguing with but those who are observing, and they will usually have formed their opinions fairly early on, so that the later repetitious rounds are wasted and even tedious.

The third point is that you should not conflate winning the argument with having the last word. That way of thinking is a hangover from our childhood playground days. One should become comfortable with letting the other person have the last word.

If one is willing to do all these things, one can save a lot of time and still achieve the same results because it becomes a lot easier to walk away from an unproductive discussion.

Comments

  1. Eclectic says

    There’s an additional side to this that I feel is essential in a democratic society and is only touched on by your point 7:

    Recognize advertising and propaganda techniques, and how to distinguish what is being claimed from what is being implied without evidence.

    As long as we have a “marketplace of ideas”, we let people say a lot, and rely on the good judgement of the listeners to sort through the mess. Skill at judging is essential, and should be taught.

    I think one of the greatest debasements of democracy since its Enlightenment roots is the rise of Madison Avenue and the craft of marketing. There is a huge industry filled with people who spend their entire careers figuring out how to mislead people without quite exactly lying enough to be indicted for fraud.

    It’s considered quite evil to buy someone’s vote in the straightforward way, namely paying them monwt. But the fact that votes can be bought via advertising is quite well understood these days, to the point where it’s considered essential for politicians to suck up to the 1% to get campaign money to market themselves to the 99% to overcome the negative impressiong generated by the aforementioned sucking-up.

    We need a better-trained electorate.

  2. Stacy says

    Critical thinking should be taught as a subject, alongside Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, beginning in elementary school.

    Eclectic, examining the claims and arguments used in advertising is a great way to approach the subject, useful for even the youngest students.

  3. Uri says

    i would add psycho-emotional criteria to the list. e.g. be able to recognize, in yourself and in others, when sticking to positions is motivated by reason and when by emotion.

  4. Henry Gale says

    Maybe some people aren’t smart enough for critical thinking. Research from Dunning seems to point that way:

    http://news.yahoo.com/incompetent-people-too-ignorant-know-175402902.html

    With more than a decade’s worth of research, David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, has demonstrated that humans find it “intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we don’t know.” Whether an individual lacks competence in logical reasoning, emotional intelligence, humor or even chess abilities, the person still tends to rate his or her skills in that area as being above average.

    http://news.yahoo.com/people-arent-smart-enough-democracy-flourish-scientists-185601411.html

    The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.

    As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is.

  5. F says

    A lot of those arguments tend to evolve, once that wall is reached, into one side telling what whacking great chunks of category from Bloom’s Taxonomy the other is missing. Sometimes in the form of insults.

    I’d have to say I don’t think that this is always a bad thing, but it can be, if it becomes devoid of meaning. It can frequently be quite illustrative.

  6. Tony says

    Mano:

    The first is that in discussions where people have entrenched views, you should realize that even if your case is irrefutable, you will never get the other person to acknowledge that you are right, at that moment. We are all strongly attached to our views. It is not that we do not change them but that the change is usually glacially slow, as a result of introspection that may have been triggered by an argument that is rejected at the time but serves as a basis for later reflection. Once you had have had your say, you have planted the seed in the other person’s mind and you should let it grow by itself.

    I had a situation identical to this several days ago. While visiting my family, my father brought a stack of unmarked discs over and suggested my sister and I watch a movie. I immediately realized what he’d done, and I asked him where he got them from. He tried to dodge the question by telling me not to ask, but I’d already guessed.
    let me say right now, I’m against the theft of physical or intellectual property
    I tried to explain to my father (and my sister as well; it turns out that she does the same with music) that it was theft, despite the fact that it wasn’t physically walking into a store and stealing an item.
    Their refutations (which were rather lame) were:
    1- everybody else does it
    2- they {filmmakers, musicians, studio executives, etc} make more than enough money
    3- we’re all human and aren’t perfect
    4- you (speaking directly to me) have done things wrong too.
    I explained to them that ’1′ doesn’t justify doing something illegal; ’2′ isn’t an argument for stealing, merely a justification; ’3′ is a rationalization that doesn’t hold water as it could be used as an excuse to do *anything*; and ’4′ is deflecting my argument
    My father went to sleep (not before I told him I’d like to come back to this argument one day), and my sister and I continued. I attempted to delve into why she thinks her actions are justified. Using her second point, I tried to ask her where the cut off point was for ‘too much money’ and how she arrived at that decision (no answer). Every time I refuted her points, she got angrier and finally accused me of attacking her, when all I was doing was asking questions. At no point did I say she was a bad person and-to the best of my knowledge-I didn’t attempt to make my judgment of her actions seem indicative of how I viewed her as a whole (I made a point a few times of saying this specific action wasn’t legal). Nonetheless, she got angry. After a few minutes of back and forth (this all lasted maybe 10-15 minutes), and realizing that she was getting angrier and realizing that I had nothing else to offer, I opted to bow out and go to bed. Of course *that* angered her more than anything. We haven’t spoken about that argument since it happened and probably won’t anytime soon. I’m a little disappointed in myself, because I’d hoped (wishful thinking really) that my arguments would be able to sway them. I think my arguments weren’t framed correctly, or perhaps weren’t strong enough (now that I think about it, I really only brought up the illegal aspect of their actions, and the fact that this intellectual property they were stealing wasn’t theirs to take). Perhaps though, the seed of doubt was planted in their minds and at some point in the future will take root.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Tony,

    I think you did the right thing by leaving after about 15 minutes. I also wouldn’t worry too much about not having framed your arguments well enough. That is not as compelling as we might think, especially in heated situations. The point is just as you are reflecting on that discussion over and over again, so are they reflecting on the discussion. It is in such internal debates that change of thinking usually occurs, but it will take time.

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