PHL101: Critical Thinking, Closing


Two Important Oversights
We have not discussed two important things that can ensure better critical thinking: the unasked question, and background knowledge.
  1. Unasked Questions
    • One of the most important factors in critical thinking is not what is said, but also what is left unsaid. We have focussed upon the claims that one encounters, and how to evaluate those claims. But people can also be misled by being told less -- that is, by being fed a carefully limited number of claims.
    • Here's an example. Last week the Executive released a document entitled National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. This document includes many examples of the phenomenon which I mean. Consider the following claim: there are significant economic improvements in Iraq, indicated in part by the increase in oil production from 1.6 million barrels per day in 2003 up to 2.1 million barrels per day in this year (there is disagreement about the latter number: some industry analysts say the current output is 1.9 million barrels per day). That's an impressive 32% increase in production. (Sources: USA Today, Centre for Global Energy Studies, OPEC, National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.)
    • This makes for an impressive graph:

    • There are several unmentioned facts. First, in 2003 there was a war and invasion in Iraq, and so oil production stopped for months. Second, before 2003, Iraq produced, according to OPEC, 2.6 million barrels a day. Thus, from 2000 or so to today, there is a 20% to 27% decline in production. A less impressive graph:

    • One should try always to acquire the habit of asking the question that is not being answered. This is often crucial.
  2. Background Knowledge
    • Many of the most important questions we need to answer -- questions about politics, international policy, domestic policy -- are questions that experts usually do no better at answering than does a person with a relevant good, well-rounded knowledge.
    • This means that a good, well rounded knowledge of history and current affairs is sufficient to put each of us on a level playing field with others in determining a best course of action. This is one of the reasons why democracy is such a good idea.
    • However, this is also a responsbility: citizens have a responsibility to develop a good, well rounded knowledge about history, current affairs, and the sciences. This is often not the case, unfortunately.
    • We are often asked as citizens to make votes that are in part addressing domestic and international policy issues. Polling shows that most people are often very unaware of the relevant facts. A few examples can be found here.
    • Developing a good, well-rounded knowledge of history and current affairs and science requires some effort. This is what a liberal education is supposed to provide. One should be aware that although information is more freely available than ever before, so is disinformation. Some students have demostrated this with some light-hearted examples of the kind of thing anyone might put up on the www:

A Suggestion for a Motto
Speaking in Canadaguia in 1857, Frederick Douglas said:
If there is no struggle there is no progress.... This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.
I believe that we can extend Douglas's hard-earned insights in the following way: Find out just what any people will quietly and unquestioningly believe, and you have found out the exact measure of the lies which will be imposed upon them. Let us take that as our guiding hypothesis and a closing motto for critical thinking.

A Terribly Simplified Summary
Here's the course in seven easy steps (with some substeps):
  1. When confronted with bullshit, recognize it for what it is and then ignore it, or punish it.
  2. When confronted with implicit associations that can influence our beliefs, make the implicit claims explicit.
  3. When you would like to know whether you should believe a claim that is either an observation, conclusion to an argument, or product of a scientific theory, use the appropriate assessment criteria:
    Claim source Primary Issue Primary Assessment Criteria
    Particular Occurent Observation Is the observation accurate? Control for expectation bias through blinding of observation, or at least be aware of how expectation bias can affect observation.
    Generalizations based on Observations Is the sample used for the generalization representative of the population? Determine if the sample is randomly chosen and is large enough, and determine the margin of error
    Conclusions to arguments Is the argument valid? If the argument is invalid, the conclusion need not be true even if the premises are true. If the argument is valid, then if one believes the premises one should believe the conclusion. Similarly, if the argument is valid, one can assess the conclusion by assessing the premises.
    Products of Scientific Theory Is the theory genuinely a scientific theory, and is it the best known theory of its kind? To be scientific, a theory must use be a product of the deductive nomological method. If several scientific theories are to be compared, the one with the most predictive power is to be prefered; if more than one theory has the same predictive power, then the one most consistent with established theory is to be preferred; if several theories are equally consistent with established theory, then the simplest is to be preferred.

  4. When a claim is a report, and no other evidence is available (for example, we have no access to the observation conditions, or the argument, or the theory that produced the claim), then we must assess the source for any potential biases it may be susceptible to and use this knowledge to temper our inclination to believe the claim.
  5. Analyze ethical questions into basic ethical claims and factual claims. The factual claims you can asess using the criteria above (in 3).
  6. Ask the relevant questions that are not being asked.
  7. Recognize that the more general, well-rounded knowledge you have about history, current affairs, and science, the better off you will be at making important relevant decisions.
Additional support to this seven-step method includes knowing enough formal logic to have a rigorous understanding of validity; knowing the fallacies (they compose invalid arguments); knowing what the deductive nomological method with falsifiability is; knowing what Duhem's Thesis is; being aware of theories of media bias like Herman and Chomsky's model; and being aware of the magnitude of many misperceptions about history, current affairs, and science.