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Introduction to Critical Thinking

Robert Harris
Version Date: January 1, 2001


What is Critical Thinking?

You've been thinking all of your life, of course, for thinking is simply the interaction of ideas. However, thinking is somewhat similar to other skills, like writing, drawing, or fixing cars. Practice and education can improve it. So even though you "know how to think" already, you can improve your thinking by learning about the tools and mental habits that produce the best thinking.

Analysis. Critical thinking might be defined as an approach to ideas from the standpoint of deliberate consideration. You hold an idea at arm's length and examine it before accepting it into your mental framework. Another way of defining critical thinking might be as a habit of cautious evaluation, an analytic mindset aimed at discovering the component parts of ideas and philosophies, eager to weigh the merits of arguments and reasons in order to become a good judge of them. Analysis is the ability to break arguments or claims down into parts and to discover the relationship between the parts. The arguments can then be evaluated.

It follows that sometimes the evaluation and judgment will be positive. Whether you are evaluating record albums, people, cars, political parties, recipes, controversial issues, books, vacation spots, whatever, there is a range of arguments stretching from good to bad about each thing, and sometimes the net result of the evaluation will be that the thing is good and worthy, right and true. Critical thinking, then, is not a cynical, negative force designed to improve your fault finding. In fact, if this class merely strengthens your ability to depreciate the arguments of your opponents, I will not have succeeded in teaching you how to think critically.

Critical thinking should be a constructive force and attitude, for examining all ideas and arguments, including your own dearly held ones, and for separating the ideas from their vehicles, to divide true from false, accurate from distorted, complete from incomplete, and so on. In fact, far from being an expert at fault finding, a critical thinker will be even more open to opposing arguments and ideas, carefully considering the merit and weight of each one, recognizing that he or she, the critical thinker, can always learn something from others, and might even be wrong in a current position.

Good thinkers develop the habit of analysis and take the time to think about claims and issues instead of just reacting to them. Thinkers take claims apart and see what is going on.

A scriptural mandate here is from first Thessalonians 5:21: "But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good."

Ask questions about claims: How is it known? What does it mean? What are the reasons given? What is implied? Is this a fair and balanced presentation? Is something left out?

Some facts are unknowable: "Your dog will think it's steak." This claim cannot be known at all. "Seventy percent of all married men in the U.S. are adulterers." This claim is questionable because it's based on a sample—how representative is the sample and how truthful are the answers?

Some claims are quite a bit more ambiguous than they appear. "Now buy any computer product for just 8% over wholesale." What does that mean? Doesn't that imply that there is such a thing as a wholesale price? But there are many wholesale prices, and the question becomes, "8% over which wholesale? For example, if a dealer buys 10 items, the wholesale price may be 20% off retail list, while buying 500 items may yield a discount of 40%.

What about: "The question of how the Earth came into existence is one that has long intrigued mankind. It was not until comparatively recently that plausible theories were advanced" (Random House Encyclopedia). What is implied here? The implication is that the Biblical account is implausible (because the Biblical account is not a comparatively recent one). The implication is subtle, but it is clearly there. Another question to be asked here is, Plausible to whom?

Or consider an L. A. Times poll question: "Do you think most poor people are lazy or hard-working?" What is the problem with that question? It is a combination sweeping generalization and false dilemma (there may be many people who are neither lazy nor hard-working). Also, how significant is it that 25% said lazy, 50% said hard working, and 25% didn't know? What is the value of a poll like that? It is a sampling of mere opinion, not based on evidence other than anecdote or an occasional observation.

Another goal of analysis is to recognize the existence of non-argumentative persuasion, that is, the attempt to persuade you to adopt or reject a position not by arguments or reasons, but through various kinds of manipulation, emotional, intellectual, or whatever. As we will be seeing soon, one of the golden principles of critical thinking is to realize that almost all discourse is directive, that it all has a goal, a conclusion behind it. This is as true of news reporting as of any other kind of discourse.

Let's say a reporter doesn't like Senator Jones or his new plan to build a park in California. Question: "Senator Jones, isn't your plan to build a park just a cynical attempt to hide your previous anti-environment position?" Senator Jones: "Not at all. I've always been interested in the environment and in parks." Six O'Clock News: "Senator Jones denied today that his plan to build a park is just a cynical attempt to hide his previous anti-environment position." Is that news? Yes, but it's also an editorial only in non-argumentative form.

Reporters also present their own ideas as news in the form of statements beginning with, "The question has been raised," or "One observer has suggested," or "X has been criticized for" and so on.

Note also that newspapers give differing degrees of credibility to different people. For example, a newspaper ran the following cutline under a photo: "Paul Apodaca, curator of American Indian pipe exhibit in Santa Ana, holds a pipe that belonged to the famed Sitting Bull." This might not seem remarkable until we compare it with another cutline from the same newspaper: "Former Elvis back-up singer Kathy Westmoreland with the car she says Presley gave her." Note that in the first instance, the paper grants credence to the speakers claim by treating it as fact, while in the second instance, the paper distances itself from the claim by using the phrase "she says" to qualify it.

Attention. The second requirement for good thinking is attention. In a word, pay attention to the claims around you. Many are the deceptions created by a lack of attention, a lazy attitude toward incoming information.

For example, Old Chicago Style frozen pizza is Old Chicago Style frozen pizza, not Old Chicago frozen pizza. It's really made in Petaluma, California. Its sausage flavor variety is sausage flavor variety, not sausage variety. The "sausage" is really textured vegetable protein. No real sausage has been within twenty miles of the pizza.

There's an enormous difference between a claim that Doggie Yum is made with real meat and the claim that Doggie Yum is made from real meat. Only the preposition is different. And the claims, "great taste of chocolate" and "great chocolatey taste" are radically different, too, though unless you are paying attention, they might seem to be the same.

A recent news report began with the thesis that auto deaths were up since the 55 limit had been increased to 65 on certain roads. As evidence it cited a fatal accident where one driver had gotten drunk and driven 90 miles an hour the wrong way into a head-on collision. The visual carnage might have seemed impressive, but just a little attention clearly reveals that a 90-mile-an-hour wrong way drunk has no connection with a 55 or 65 speed limit law. Is the reporter really arguing that the man got drunk and drove 90 miles an hour the wrong way because the speed limit had been raised from 55 to 65?

This particular story, by the way, shows the danger of the audio-visual media we have surrounding us. It is quite possible to say one thing and show something entirely different, all the time claiming that one supports the other. Pictures need interpretation, and we often thoughtlessly allow someone else to make claims that a picture is evidence for something that it really doesn't support at all.

John 7:24 tells us to "stop judging by mere appearances and make a right judgment." There has always been a tension between external appearance and the actual thing, and we must train ourselves to concentrate on the inner essence, not on the external form. That is, pay attention to the reality of the thing, not to its appearance—as in the pizza example.

This is an important truth to struggle with, for we are all slaves to external appearance to one degree or another. Manufacturers and advertisers know this so well that for a typical bottle of $60 perfume, they will spend $3.00 on the bottle and only $1.50 on the ingredients, because we judge the perfume by the bottle and the packaging. Gregory Thomas, former president of Chanel, says, "The mystique of perfume has little to do with cost. . . . Women don't want it unless it's expensive." And of course part of the mystique or aura surrounding the perfume (or any product) comes from advertising. Calvin Klein spent $17 million to launch Obsession and sold $30 million worth the first year. That's 56% of sales spent on advertising to create an image, an external appearance.

So, pay attention. Stop skimming over claims and arguments. Many words and phrases are being carefully selected to create a particular impression that may be deceptive. What about "Of all the great tasting gums, Trident is sugar free?" Did you hear the word that isn't there? Did I just say, "only Trident is sugar free" or just "Trident is sugar free"?

Awareness. A third attribute of the critical thinker is that of circumspection or awareness, a wideness of view, the ability to look around and encompass the universe of thought rather than remain fixed within the narrow confines of one's own perspective. Circumspection means the awareness of multiple approaches to meaning, arguments, problems. It's like working a cross word puzzle. When you see the clue "pitch," you have to consider the depth of ambiguity in the clue. Does pitch mean a musical tone, a baseball throw, a boat rising and falling on the waves, or the gummy tar used to fill cracks in the last century. Is the word a noun or a verb? (Notice that creativity and a good imagination—a willingness to play with data and sort it in many ways—is an important part of critical thinking.)

In other words, critical thinking is a recognition of the complexity of intellectual life and ideas. A significant number of the fallacies we will study arise from an oversimplified mindset—the two valued orientation represented by the either/or fallacy, the single cause fixation represented by causal reduction, and the other fallacies like oversimplification, straw man, dicto simpliciter, and so on. The critical thinker is able to view opposing viewpoints with interest, sympathy, and understanding, for he knows that until he fully understands why other intelligent and reasonable people hold a position different from his, he cannot very well either understand the whole issue or rebut his opponents. The critical thinker will listen patiently and thoughtfully to the reasons of his opponents and will consider those reasons carefully.

As you are probably aware, almost no one is convinced by what we call an argument today, simply because what most people do when they argue is wait for the other person to finish talking so that they can say something, often in distorted or exaggerated form. Arguers seldom listen to each other and they almost never seek to find common ground, and so most arguments lead nowhere. This is true in marriage as well as in political debate, by the way, so if you take this class seriously, you may avoid a divorce down the road.

Awareness also requires knowledge. This includes knowledge about what is going on in the information-driven society we inhabit, knowledge about the various forms of verbal and visual manipulations, and knowledge about the possibilities of, say, presentation. That is, one fact can be presented quite truthfully in several different ways, each way creating a different impression or meaning.

Let me give you some examples of the benefits of this awareness or knowledge. There is a company called Advertising in Movies, which "secures product placements in feature films." You may remember that ET the Extraterrestrial ate Reese's Pieces instead of M&M's. That's because M&M's wouldn't sign an advertising contract. AT&T has signed up and placed its personal computer in the movies Power, Remote Control, and Enemy Territory. James Bond used a couple of products from "The Sharper Image," a mail-order catalog, in one film. The idea is that when the viewers see a particular product used by the hero, or even sitting around in the background, they will want to buy that product to have a part of the adventure of the film. Knowing that the product showed up in the film not as part of the plot or because the writer or producer thought it fitting with the hero or story, but because they were paid by an advertiser to put it there, may make you pause before plunking down your dollars.

A fact about Yves Saint Laurent cigarettes (which might be interesting if you smoked) is that Yves participated in the package design but does not smoke his own brand. He prefers a French brand, and according to the L. A. Times, "didn't get involved with the choice of tobacco" for his own brand. Also fascinating is that the cigarette maker originally test marketed YSL cigarettes at two different prices, to see which price would sell best. There is not necessarily a connection between price and quality, only between price and perceived quality. If people prefer to pay more for the cigarette (or any other product) because they think that the price must make it better, then the manufacturers will oblige them.

When I was in real estate years ago, a developer built some condominiums next to a lake and priced them at $18,000 each. After several months, only a couple had been sold. A little inquiry revealed that people thought the condos were "too cheap" and "not good enough" because the price was so low. So the developer raised the price to $36,000 each and sold all of them within two weeks.

It's also fascinating to note that so-called wild rice is neither wild nor rice. It's a cultivated grain—the seed of an aquatic grass more closely resembling oats than rice. So before paying multi-dollars per pound for "wild rice," you might get out of your head the vision of explorers hunting for a few wild plants and harvesting them by hand so that you can eat this delicacy. The U.S. is harvesting more than five million pounds a year of this not-so-exotic grain.

Nutri-Marketing advertised its "Dream-Away" diet pill (42 tablets for $20) as a product that would allow you to take one before going to bed and then wake up slimmer and trimmer. And they had a study done by a medical clinic to prove it. That by itself is true, sort of. Nutri-Marketing did indeed spend $30,000 to have an independent medical clinic round up sixty people for the test. But—the clinic put half the people on the Dream Away pill and a 1200 calorie a day diet. The other half of the people were given a placebo and no diet. Amazingly enough, the people on Dream Away and the 1200 calorie diet lost more weight than the ones on the placebo and no diet. There's a difference between truth and whole truth. That's the kind of awareness that needs to be developed. When a claim is made, you should think, "I wonder if that's the whole truth?"

In a nutshell, then, awareness should include not only knowledge and knowledge of possibility, but the ability to control your assumptions. Don't assume too much knowledge about anything. Always believe that you might be wrong or that the story may have additional elements you don't yet have in hand. There is an old proverb, "To assume is to be deceived." Many people draw far reaching conclusions based on tiny facts and enormous assumptions and are usually wrong.

Let truth and reality unfold without your assumptions and prejudices getting in the way.

This attribute of a critical thinker, then, is to see ideas in perspective, to realize that he is fallible and may be wrong, to admit that the other side or sides have some good arguments also, and to recognize the complexity of truth. This is all encompassed in the term circumspection.

Independent Judgment. A final attribute of the critical thinker, and this is really just a summary of the other three, is the ability to form independent judgments based on good evidence. While this class is really about finding and marshaling good arguments, we have to slog through an extensive swamp of distortion, manipulation, ploys, half truths and fallacies before we can get to the mountain of enlightenment. Evidence must be collected, weeded, and put together into something meaningful. This is the process of synthesis. It might be said that to synthesize is to find meaning.

We live in an information culture now. The industrial revolution has given way to the information revolution. Seventy five percent of all knowledge in existence has been created since you were born. But very little of that knowledge is presented in a pure form. Most comes to us in a biased form. Just think of the ways our access to information and the attitudes and values we receive are controlled: best seller lists are easily rigged by book publishers, and none of the main best seller lists contain the biggest best sellers, which are religious books and romance novels; book and film reviews are sometimes arranged to provide favorable or negative criticism; disc jockeys and radio stations are still paid to play certain records in spite of the outlawing of payola years ago. And here you thought you had chosen the music you like all by yourself. Consider this: fewer than 300 people control perhaps 80% of what you see on television. In a poll of these people, 51% believe that adultery is all right, 97% are in favor of abortion, 80% believe that homosexual relations are all right, and only 7% go to church or synagogue as much as once a month. And yet these people are shaping the culture and values which many people in American society imitate, believing that the behavior and values they see on television and in movies are "normal." By the way, two thirds of these people believe that television should be a major tool for social reform, so they are consciously instilling their views into the programming you see.

In a word, then, critical thinking means not taking the world at face value. It means learning to analyze and examine ideas, learning how the manipulators work, learning to be cautious and sympathetic and open to a range of possibilities. Critical thinking is also substantially disturbing and uncomfortable, because it means that you must be willing to examine your own ideas and beliefs to see what rational base, if any, they have. If you have strong views on some popular raging topic like capital punishment or nuclear energy or even theology, you'll have to take the emotional risk of examining the grounds for those beliefs and of considering views opposed to yours. In this process, the truth will emerge much stronger than ever, for it will gain a serious, thoughtful, intellectual base that will withstand attack or ridicule, and the false will be cleaned out of your intellectual baggage.

Cautious evaluation, circumspection, care in generalizing, and independent judgment—these are what critical thinking is all about. I hope that by the end of the semester you will feel mentally liberated and more in control of your mind than ever.

A part of developing an independent judgment is the ability to ungeneralize. From birth on, we are constantly attempting to make sense of our world by generalizing from our experience—this is the inductive method. Unfortunately, our experience is usually limited and we often overgeneralize. A little child pets his dog and mommy says, That's Fido. The child says, "Fido!" in a happy discovery. But then the child strokes the carpet and says, "Fido!" He has overgeneralized. It's funny when a little kid does it, but adults too often make some of their most profound generalizations based on a sample of one or if they are generous, two or three. We all know, for example, that men are all alike, that women can't drive cars, that professors are absent minded, and so on. But how big a sample are these conclusions based upon?

And not only do we pigeon hole and stereotype others, we stereotype ourselves. Too often we can be manipulated into seeing ourselves as a certain type—environmentally concerned, model teenager, rebel, extrovert, introvert, class clown, and so on.

What we need to do, then, is to ungeneralize—unmake some of the generalizations we've nailed down before really investigating things and allow all of our generalizations to be open to modification or even overturning. Further, we need to be cautious about forming new generalizations. We want to form generalizations quickly for psychological reasons—because doubt and uncertainty are uncomfortable. However, we must learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity and ungeneralized phenomena if we are to be good and fair thinkers. So, if you have begun to form generalizations about this class, me, or the person sitting next to you, you'd better be careful!

These critical thinking abilities will do only one person—you—good if they are not accompanied by one more important ability, articulation, the ability to say just what is going on, the ability to tell others exactly what in an argument is good or bad. Sometimes it's easier to perceive an unfair statement than it is to say what exactly is unfair about it. But if we just say, hey, this is illogical or this is completely biased, but can't say why, our hearers will think, "He just disagrees with the position stated."

Interestingly enough, an important part of articulation is the ability to argue on different sides of an issue (note that I didn't say both sides, because that's either/or thinking—most issues have many more than two sides). Another golden principle of critical thinking we will study is that there are usually very good reasons on all sides of an issue. Often people have a position opposite or different from yours not because they are stupid or evil but because they have found more persuasive reasons on that side. In order to bring them over to your way of thinking, you will have to understand those reasons and empathetically consider why those reasons are persuasive to others.

Logic: Truth and Validity

Whenever we begin to reason about a problem, our ultimate goal is to reach a solution which is both correct in itself and derivative from the arguments or reasons we have adduced—that is, the solution must be both true and valid. Often we can detect unacceptable reasoning either because we recognize the arguments as false, or because, while the arguments may be true, we realize they are being improperly applied to the situation. For example, it is easy to see what is wrong with these statements: And it does not takes us long to figure out what is going on in a series of advertisements like these: Sometimes, however, the subtleties involved in a line of reasoning are such that, without training, we cannot readily see whether or not the arguments are being applied justly, and we are therefore in danger of being duped or manipulated.

Fortunately, since the attempt to persuade one another by argument is a concomitant of the human condition, the acceptable lines of reasoning toward a just (that is, true and valid) conclusion have been somewhat systematized over the centuries. This system we call logic. Logic may be defined as a method of judging and choosing arguments, and of arranging them in such a way that the conclusions derived from them will be true and valid. Further, logic involves the detection and examination of implications and conclusions already built in to expressed statements of opinions and beliefs.

Let us look at our definition a little more closely. First, we said that a conclusion must be both true and valid to be just or acceptable. To be true a conclusion must derive from genuine proofs or reasons which address conclusively through the reasoning faculty the questions appropriate to the problem or solution. That is, the proofs must not be merely apparent or possible or probable; they must be definite and actual. They must be facts and not lies. The proofs further must always be aimed at the reasoning faculty and not appeal to the emotions, which are too easily deceived. The proofs must be full and convincing answers to the right questions. And finally, there must be no trickery, verbal or otherwise, involved in the presentation of the argument—that is, the argument must be free of logical fallacies.

As an example, in the argument, "You should buy Top Choice Dog Food because it looks like hamburger," we would say the conclusion is not true because the proof does not answer the proper question we should ask when considering a purchase of dog food. We would not ask, "Which dog food looks like hamburger?" but, "Which dog food is most nutritious, the best liked by my dog, most economical, and easiest to use or buy?" or some such combination of rational factors. It might also be objected in this example that the proof is not really true, because Top Choice does not really look like hamburger. The question of truth, then, in a proof or argument or premise or reason might be broken down as follows:

1. Is the reason (proof) true?
2. Is it aimed at the reasoning faculty?
3. Does it answer the right question or questions, and does it do so conclusively? That is, is the argument pertinent or relevant?
4. Is the presentation honest and straightforward? Is it the whole truth?
If the answer to any one or more of these questions is "no," then we say that a material fallacy of reasoning has been committed. Material fallacies are those involving errors of content in an argument. There is something wrong with the facts, words, appeals, or relationships, which prevents the conclusion from being true.

To be valid a conclusion must be reached according to an acceptable form (or structure) of reasoning. Sometimes the main form of an argument is simply one of question and answer ("Is the acquisition of sex appeal my main consideration in buying toothpaste?" or "Do I really believe that this toothpaste will give me, of all people, sex appeal?"). But many times arguments are set up (consciously or unconsciously) in a three-part form called a syllogism. Each part of a syllogism may be true, and yet the conclusion may not be valid because one or more conditions of form have been violated. For example, look at the following:

All birds are worm eaters.
Some people are worm eaters.
Therefore: Some people are birds.

While both of these premises (the first two statements) are true, let us say, the conclusion is neither true nor valid. Or take this example:

All engineers read Engineering News.
Fred reads Engineering News.
Therefore: Fred is an engineer.

Let us assume for a moment that all three of these statements are perfectly true. Nevertheless the syllogism is invalid because it violates acceptable form; and thus the conclusion, while true in itself (Fred is indeed an engineer), does not follow from the premises. Such an error of structure is called a formal error. (After you complete this section on formal logic, you may want to turn back here to see how these examples have gone wrong.)

Another part of our definition of logic was that it involves "the detection and examination of implications and conclusions already built in to expressed statements of opinions and beliefs." Often an arguer will base his reasoning on assumptions and foregone conclusions, or will make statements which imply previous conclusions or premises. Such bypassed arguments or assumptions may be untrue or not be acceptable to the arguer's audience, or they may involve fallacies. For this reason several fallacies of hidden premises and conclusions have been identified; among them are begging the question, unacceptable enthymeme, and compound questions. Consider, for example, the implications of the following statement:

Notice how this implies that if you continue to hold to the tenets of heroism, you are neither mature nor experienced nor capable of vision, but are incapable of accepting the multiplicity of experience, and are rigid and absolute. Since the writer's definition of maturity involves accepting his opinion about heroism, we would say that there is a question-begging definition hidden in his statement. Also, the writer's choice of words involves to some degree the fallacy of emotive language; positive words like "mature," "vision" and "experience" are associated with the writer's position while the negative words (in this context) "intense" and "young" are associated with the position he opposes. By understanding in this way the thinking and opinion forming which have already occurred and the conclusions which have already been drawn, we are in a better position to evaluate further conclusions. Obviously, if we find to be false what the arguer takes for granted, the rest of his argument is highly suspect, to say the least.

Politicians and advertisers are frequently cited in this handbook as committers of logical fallacies because they are two of the primary groups today interested in persuasion, and it is in the persuasive argument that the fallacies—of evidence, appeal, and so forth—come into play. Fallacies are used instead of proper arguments either because proper arguments are weak or nonexistent or because the fallacies work better. Moreover, proper arguments often require a thinking, informed audience, willing to put reason above impulse, flattery, and self interest; fallacies appeal to educated and ignorant alike, and to the uninformed are often almost irresistible. We may all agree in theory, for example, that an automobile should be purchased on the basis of superior engineering, durability, serviceability, mileage, handling, comfort, and so forth; but a brand-by-brand comparison of these aspects would require considerable effort and self-instruction. It is easier to take the word of the bikini-clad girls who say they like men who drive a particular kind of car. But for the student who would rather resist such false appeals and improper arguments, this handbook has been written.

Review

Terms and Concepts
analysis
synthesis
critical thinking
circumspection
articulation

Questions

1. Distinguish between truth and validity.

2. What are the four requirements for good thinking?


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com