By Dayna Mason
Most of our everyday thinking is uncritical and happens automatically. But, when we let our automatic mental processes govern important decisions, we make it easy to be manipulated and make potentially detrimental decisions. Decisions that lead to everything from purchasing products that aren’t healthy for us to supporting ideas that are harmful to our world and the beautiful people who inhabit it.
Critical thinking is the analysis of facts to form a judgment.
According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking “Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.”
Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined, independent thinking, which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way. And it’s not only necessary but crucial for making our best decisions.
Bias isn’t a bad word
Our biases are thinking shortcuts. We rely on our unconscious processing to handle the majority of the information our brains process. Bias is what makes it possible for us to hit the brakes when another car cuts in front of us.
Our experiences, preferences, education, and upbringing all contribute to the way we see the world—our bias. Bias only becomes problematic if it results in treating people poorly or results in bad decision making.
In the book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell says, “Although snap judgments are often more accurate than our thought-out ones, they can also be a result of a subconscious racial, socioeconomic, or appearance-based bias. As important as it is to trust our intuition, it’s also important to question it. The task of figuring out how to combine the best of conscious deliberation and instinctive judgment is one of the great challenges of our time.”
By employing logic—the evaluation of arguments—we can reduce undesirable bias and faulty reasoning.
Analyzing arguments to identify faulty reasoning
An argument is made up of a single conclusion based upon one or more premises.
Conclusion: What the argument is trying to prove. There can only be one conclusion.
Premise: A reason in support of the conclusion; the evidence. There can be one or more premises in an argument.
Step 1. Identify the components of the argument; the conclusion, the premise(s), and any assumptions.
Ask yourself what the author of the argument is trying to get you to believe. This is the conclusion. Next, identify the premise(s) and any assumptions.
Argument: Everyone wants to get married someday. Confidence is important in attracting a husband or wife. Therefore, everyone should develop confidence.
Conclusion: Everyone should develop confidence.
Premise 1: Everyone wants to get married someday.
Premise 2: Confidence is important in attracting a husband or wife.
Ask these 3 questions:
- Are all the premises true? No, not everyone wants to get married someday.
- Does the argument make any assumptions? Yes, that everyone wants to get married someday.
- Do the premises truly lead to the conclusion? No, because even if the conclusion drawn is valid (confidence could be important in attracting a mate), the argument it is built on (everyone wants to get married) is not.
This is faulty reasoning.
Here are some other questions we can ask when analyzing an argument:
Is the argument fair and balanced, or is it overly emotional and filled with loaded language? Is it one-sided? Are there other points of view?
Are the premises reliable and relevant? Are they thoroughly explained? What is the tone of the argument? Is it too serious, too sarcastic or dismissive?
And, does the argument contain logical fallacies?
Spotting Logical Fallacies in arguments
Logical Fallacies are reasoning errors that are logically false but appear to be true and lead to an invalid conclusion. Fallacies can be committed unintentionally or used deliberately to influence someone’s thinking, opinion, and actions. They are common in politics, advertising, and media and there are over a hundred of them.
Here are 5 of the most common Logical Fallacies to look for in arguments:
Ad Populum (Appeal to Common Belief, Appeal to Majority, Bandwagon)
If others believe it to be true, it must be true.
- 9 out of 10 dentists say that Crest is the best toothpaste.
- Most of my constituents oppose the bill, therefore it’s a bad idea.
Ad Metum (Appeal to Fear, Appeal to Force, Consequences, Scare Tactics)
An attempt to create support for an idea by playing on deep-seated fears and prejudice; asserting that something terrible will happen unless you agree with a given position.
- Buy my product or die lonely and alone.
- “The highest aim of human existence is not the maintenance of a State of Government, but the conservation of the race. If the race is in danger of being oppressed or even exterminated the question of legality is only of secondary importance.” -Hitler
Ad Hominem (Attack the Person, Character Assassination)
Distracting the opponent and undermining their argument by attacking them instead of addressing the argument. Also referred to as “name-calling.”
- Don’t listen to Joe’s arguments on education. He’s a loser. He didn’t even finish high school.
- Lance Armstrong is not a great athlete; he’s a fraud, a cheat and a liar.
Ignoratio Elenchi (Red Herring) (Smoke Screen, Wild Goose Chase)
A red herring is a remark inserted into a discussion, which sidetracks the discussion, causing the participants to forget what they were initially talking about. The red herring is typically irrelevant and is often emotionally charged.
- The mother of a young child tells him to go to bed, and he begins to ask questions, say that he is hungry, or say that he needs to go to the bathroom—all to distract mom and avoid bed.
- Interviewer: “It’s been two years and your policies haven’t reduced unemployment rates.”
Politician response: “I’ve been working hard ever since I came into office, and I’m happy to say that many business leaders throughout the country say that my hard work is paying off.”
Absurd Extrapolation (Slippery Slope)
An assertion is made that a chain reaction ending in dire consequences will take place, when there’s no evidence for that assumption.
- We need to stop allowing colleges to increase tuition every year. The next thing we know, it’s going to cost more to attend college for one semester than it is to buy a new home.
- If Texas adopts a personal income tax, I’m moving away. An income tax at the state level is just a first step to communism.
Thinking more critically
When we think critically, we deliberately employ intellectual tools to reach more accurate conclusions than our brain would automatically.
Here’s an exercise to practice thinking critically:
Think of something that someone has recently told you. Then ask yourself the following questions:
Who said it? Someone you know? Someone in a position of authority or power? Does it matter who told you this?
What did they say? Did they give facts or opinions? Did they provide all the facts? Did they leave anything out?
Where did they say it? Was it in public or in private? Did other people have a chance to respond and provide an alternative account?
When did they say it? Was it before, during or after an important event? Is timing important?
Why did they say it? Did they explain the reasoning behind their opinion? Were they trying to make someone look good or bad?
How did they say it? Were they happy or sad, angry or indifferent? Did they write it or say it? Could you understand what was said?
When faced with important judgments that affect our beliefs, behavior and actions, it’s imperative that we slow down and take the time to ask questions, identify and validate our assumptions, and reach accurate conclusions in order to make the best decisions for ourselves and our world.
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