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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Thinking critically about critical thinking


Critical Thinking...

For years now I have described myself as a "critical thinker" on my calling card, and so now that we have a better idea what a calling card is let's move on to critical thinking...

I love the Richard Dawkins quote:

Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: 'Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority or revelation?' And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: 'What kind of evidence is there for that?' And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.
Consider this quote an abridged alternative to this entry.  But I encourage you to read on.

Note: I am not going to research everything in this entry, as it is not the point.  The point is to demonstrate that more critical thinking needs to take place and I want to offer examples of when and what questions might be asked.

I think the term "critical thinking" is becoming a bit of a buzz-phrase lately.  Honestly I don't recall how I became familiar with it, maybe it has been buzzing longer than I know.  Critical thinking is something that I find seldom in pedestrian conversation, from those in government and probably most regrettably- in our news.  It is such a basic thing to do and so important.  For me considering how readily people just accept what they hear- thinking critically is really just "thinking" or engaging in some independent analysis and curiosity about what one hears, is told, or reads etc.  Wikipedia has an entry on critical thinking which starts off:
Critical thinking is a type of reasonable, reflective thinking that is aimed at deciding what to believe or what to do. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is always true, sometimes true, partly true, or false. 
This matches well with my own description.  It is important to carefully consider the word "claim" in the Wikipedia definition.  Ironically I think that careful consideration of this word is a form of critical thinking but I am sure that within the vast tomes of academia another term for this type of analysis exists.

The use of the word claim suggests that critical thinking may only apply to those things that are easily recognized as claims and that they would inherently and obviously stand out as requiring further scrutiny, investigation, questioning, or thought (in some cases only by those charged to do so).  Consider the claim: "I did not commit the robbery."  A suspect making such a "claim" is obviously something that (considering the source, a crime suspect) needs to be analyzed further.  This is indeed a good example of a claim that by its nature requires further investigation, and is clearly a "claim" in the most basic sense.  The point is that some statements are easily recognized as "claims" and as ones that warrant further scrutiny.

The big problem is that there are statements etc. that are not so easily recognized as being claims.  Or sometimes claims are presented by sources which we do not thoroughly question such as those from news reports or politicians.  Some things that may be easily recognized as propaganda are rightly dismissed, but other propaganda can be very crafty and will not automatically be recognized.

Consider a statement made in December 2012 by at-the-time Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice-elect Roy Moore, (that legalizing gay marriage would)  "destroy the very foundation on which this country was built."  This statement is a claim maybe not so clearly a claim and to some it may not warrant much scrutiny or further thought when the source (a state supreme court chief justice) is considered.  I hope most people would be inclined to simply ask "how will it destroy the foundation?"  Or better yet- "what 'foundation' is he referring to?"  I offer the hypothesis that after hearing it a good number of people may agree with it, some may take it as fact, and some may even repeat it.

Let's move on though.  I want to quickly point out how some "claims" are hardly scrutinized or are not even claims at all.  That last one is a biggie.  Consider the statement(s):
Americans are asking ``Why do they hate us?''
They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
I bet a good number of people are familiar with this.  Many of us have heard this "they hate us for our freedom thing."  This is because a good number of people agreed with it, some took it as fact, and many repeated it.  They did so because they didn't think critically and probably failed to do so considering the source...

This is what President George W. Bush said in a address to a joint session of Congress and the nation in September 2001.  This is one claim after another "American's are asking 'Why do they hate us?'" That is a claim right there, and probably a somewhat accurate one.  But there are plenty of questions one could ask: "are American's asking this?"  would be a good start.  Were American's asking "why do they hate us?"  I don't remember.  I don't remember asking that.  It works well to set the stage to offer answers that don't make much sense...  Mr. Bush continues to make "claims" but are less easily recognized as claims as they are presented as answers to the question, and as such are more prone to be accepted as facts because of the time they were made and the stature of the source (the president making an address to the nation).

One should ask do they hate our freedoms... our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote... and disagree with each other?  Really do they?  Take it piece by piece.  For example: "our freedom... to disagree with each other."  What does this even mean?  They are killing us because we disagree (among ourselves) on certain things?  Do they all want us to think one way?  If we were a nation that were wholly Roman Catholic would they hate us less?

Now I know some may say that this was building on the idea that they hate our freedom of speech, or maybe because we aren't all Muslims but this is beside the point.  I would suggest that an excellent question to ask now if you haven't before, (as apparently American's already were) is "why do they hate us?"  Go look it up.  See what Bin Laden said, use multiple sources and see if you think Mr. Bush's "claims" are accurate.  He offered answers to the question, see if the evidence agrees.  Find the evidence that they "hate us for our freedom."

Finally claims that aren't claims at all.  I keep focusing on this word "claim" and the final point is that critical thinking applies to more than claims. Just consider words that are used when a source is communicating something.  It is necessary to look this closely (very closely, right down to the lexicon- the words that are used) and deeply at every piece of information you consume.

The following video was prepared as material to make the case against the legalization of gay-marriage.  This is not my topic of highest priority but it sure makes for some interesting material.  Now this video in making its arguments (which are claims) uses some interesting language.  It describes gay-marriage as "same-sex marriage..." but it refers to straight-marriage as "natural marriage."

The video itself is pretty ridiculous in my opinion, but you can easily dismiss it just by picking up on the term "natural marriage" near the beginning and thinking about it critically. I think if you do this you will likely come to the conclusion that watching the rest of the video is a waste of time.  Ask yourself "what is 'natural' marriage?"  What does that even mean?  I can't remember the last time I saw a wedding ceremony in nature...

From YouTube "Marriage = Biology (Not Bigotry)" by the "National Organization for Marriage"


Sources:

The Washington Post Online: Text: President Bush Addresses the Nation

On Top Magazine: Roy Moore: Obama's Gay Marriage Nod Will 'Destroy' America's Foundation

 A Devil's Chaplain  (2003)  p.248

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