Critical Thinking Made Easy
This section will consist of an in depth exploration of the specific blocking mechanisms (also called fallacies) that make for poor thinking ability, some of which are: wishful thinking, confusion of cause and effect, appeals to tradition, convention and authority, labeling, overgeneralisation and false (unwarranted) belief.
Nothing Blocks *My* Thinking!
Ya think so do ya? Well, we all share some deep biases and prejudices that trip up our ability to think clearly about certain issues. But far more insidious than the obviously controversial issues are those everyday ones which cripple us because they are so well hidden by our biases and prejudices that we aren't even aware we have them. On these we find our toughest enemies. Like a comfortable pair of old jeans, we slip into old thinking patterns and beliefs without a thought. To give you an idea of some of the sources of shakey belief, I've provided some definitions and examples of the worst "mindblockers:" that turn the best of us into blockheads on occasion.
- Ever wanted something to be the case so badly that you convinced yourself it was indeed the case? No? Hmm, ok, how about the last time you asked yourself why you pay taxes? Or own a car? I bet most of you said you pay taxes because the government says you must, and beyond that, you pay taxes for??? You drive a car because you have to get to work, and you need a car to get to work because??? You think children should be in school until they are at least sixteen because??? You're against drug legalisation because??? Depending on one's answers and degree of thinking ability, all of these scenarios involve deception of oneself, or wishful thinking. Wishful thinking means one denies the implications of a position or belief based on a deep-seated desire that it be otherwise than it is. For example, if you think that prisons are the answer to the crime wave, then you might be guilty of wishful thinking.
Appeal to Tradition:
- Appealing to tradition is what we are guilty of when we say things like: "My family has always done it this way," "This country has never allowed gays in the armed forces," "The best family is the nuclear family consisting of mother, father and 2.5 children," and so on. Suffice it to say that what has been the case doesn't alone substantiate or support what ought to be the case.
Appeal to Authority:
- We make this error when we cite the name of some expert, law, institution or other entity as justification for our belief when the belief may have nothing to do with the expertise or realm of influence of those entites themselves. For example: Suppose I claimed that Stephen Hawking is a great scientist and he is quoted as saying that the human genome research project is a waste of research monies. Now that isn't true, but can you identify the problem here? It's not the fact that the claim is untrue that's the problem, because it could be true. The error lies in assuming that because Hawking is a great scientist he is also an expert in areas of science outside his own area of work as a theoretical physicist. Appeals to authority are common coin in sloppy thinking and are particularly troublesome when the authority being appealed to is a family member, the church or a respected peer.
- If you are bipolar, then you already are a victim of "labeling." To be bipolar is to be officially categorised as mentally ill with all the stigma associated with that tag. Labeling results from a natural human desire to make simple that which is often incredibly complicated and difficult to sort out. But seriously damaging consequences follow from this tendency to think of things in mutually exclusive terms (if something is hot, it can't be cold). Here's a typical example, "Welfare mothers have many children just so they can collect more money from the government; because they are lazy; because they are junkies, because they are stupid." And another: "A child is anyone under eighteen years of age or the age of consent." In this example , you need to ask yourself what it means to define someone as a child. Is a seventeen year old boy raising his sisters by himself a child? Is a 14 year old girl practicing prostitution a child? Is a sixteen year old girl who has a genius IQ, a college degree, and is pursuing a doctorate in physics a child? It's never easy to slap a label on that fits all particular cases that fall under that label. Understand this if nothing else: When it comes to being a careful, critical thinker there is no such thing as "A SIMPLE ANSWER."
Hasty Moral Judgment:
- Better known to most of you as "jumping to conclusions," this fallacy of thinking is incredibly destructive when unwarranted. Have you ever found yourself thinking that a scruffily dressed, homeless person is someone to avoid because a) they might rob you, b) you wouldn't want people to think you were just like them, c) they are junkies d) they are lazy, welfare cheats, OR..OR...OR, e) mygawd they're crazy! They could be mentally ill! Hmmmm...yes, well..you can see how troublesome and damaging jumping to conclusions (hasty judgments) can be...especially to we members of the Bipolar Nation :).
- This fallacy is akin to "appeals to tradition and authority" already discussed, but further explanation is in order. First off, there is no such thing as conventional wisdom in a pure, unadulterated sense, instead, it is simply a shortcut way to talk about moral teachings and "social rules" that our particular group has come to accept as true. However, the reasons why we once were justified in accepting them may no longer hold. For example: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again;" "If you work hard you'll get ahead;" and "Everyone is entitled to a college education" all presuppose conventional truths that may no longer be viable under certain circumstances.
Can you think your way to some reasons for discarding these bits of wisdom? There are some excellent reasons for why convential thinking can lead you to making some miserably bad choices in life if you don't take the opportunity to learn how to avoid them. The best way to think of these conventional tidbits is to realise that though they may serve as general principles to guide you, they can never be applied to every single situation one must think about. The specific case requires one to go well beyond these simplistic guidelines, and that's where good thinking skills give you a leg-up over those whose thinking abilities are jumbled and sloppy.
Frame of Reference:
- The best way to understand how your "frame of reference" functions, is to think of it as a type of information filter, and unfortunately, just as frequently as a kind of cognitive blinder that often interferes with one's thinking processes. Suppose you are a psychiatric nurse with four years of college and ten years of practice behind you. Suppose also that a psychiatric patient comes to you with a complaint that one of your staff members has been sexually harassing him/her for several weeks. Given your background, your first inclination may be to ignore the complaint as just another manifestation of aberrant behavior on the patient's part, but you'd be guilty of allowing your frame of reference as an experienced nurse to cognitively blind you, thus preventing you from objectively looking at the situation on its own merits. Again, a frame of reference is useful as a form of shortcutting when there's little time for careful thought, in fact, it's essential in some emergency situations, but it's deadly when the issue requires something more than a cursory treatment. In fact, the consequences of failing to get beyond those cognitive blinders may mean you lose your job, someone is seriously injured or dies, lawsuits ensue, and your credibility as a professional is destroyed, all because your frame of reference led you to think in a lazy, sloppy manner.
Fallacies of Cause and Effect:
- We always look for a cause to attach to some effect we've observed, but then Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out that we never actually get to observe a cause, we just notice the conjunction of events, some more, some less obvious and correct. Silly cases of causal confusion involve things like believing a rabbit's foot, a horseshoe, or a four-leaf clover causes good luck, thinking a certain ball cap or other piece of apparel will help win the big game, hoping a rainbow and other such omens portend prosperity. Such silly superstitions harm no one, but some causal confusions just aren't that benign.
You've probably heard someone claim that "The current rock music like that produced by late Nirvana band leader Curt Cobain is responsible for the high rates of youth suicide in industrialized countries." Nice try, but there's no evidence that rock music causes teenagers to suicide; the problem is much more complicated than such an easy causal explanation indicates. Maybe you've heard the ubiquitous cry of the right and their call for a reinsitutionalisation of strong family values, as though there ever was such a thing. Family values are as different as each family who claims to have such values, so there can be no one set of family values per se, let alone can it be that the lack of such values could cause all of the current social ills or that their presence could cause a cure for the same.
One additional kind of causal fallacy is heard everywhere and is particularly damaging to thinking ability if one isn't aware of it; it's called the slippery slope fallacy. Here's a current example: Someone says, "I'm against making euthanasia legal. I mean, where do you draw the line between mercy killing of the terminally ill and that of the old and feeble? What's next? We make it ok to kill the disabled, the poor, the homeless??? Nope, it's just too dangerous." The overriding assumption here is that no line can be drawn between voluntary euthansia and involuntary euthanasia, yet clearly such distinctions can be made because we just made them i.e., voluntary versus involuntary. If you understand the meaning of those terms, why then wouldn't one be able to decide whether or not a case at hand is one whereby the patient is giving their consent to be voluntarily euthanised or not? Obviously, the distinction can be made, and so the hypothetical argument posed above falls apart.
Politicians love this strategy because at first blush it just sounds right, yet it's obviously flawed. It was just such an argument that got the United States into both the Viet Nam and the Gulf wars without good reasons.
Well, that wraps this part up, now....Wait a minute there hotshot! You get your buns back here right now!!!--You aren't done yet, and school's not out till I say, so tap your poor fellow student down below on the back and follow him to the page with your homework assignment on it <evil schoolmarm grin>. Oh come on now; it's for your own good ya know :)