An Everyday Guide to Critical Thinking
An Everyday Guide to Critical Thinking
As it comes up often in life and discussion, I figured I'd do a brief infodump on day-to-day critical thinking -- the kind that comes in handy reading articles, talking on message boards, buying products, and making decisions based on the information available. It is important to review information that you are receiving for verifiability.
Unfortunately, these subjects don't seem to be taught in the public school system, when they are extremely important. Although reading comprehension is taught, kids aren't told how to distinguish between legitimate sources and writing that is full of mistakes, fallacies, misleading information, and even outright lies. People tend to grow up believing that if it's in print, or a newspaper said it, then it must be true.
There are three main issues that I will be addressing here -- sources, fallacies and weasel words. In many situations, these aspects of critical thinking are interrelated.
The first thing to look at when you are reading, listening to or watching anything -- an article, product label, guide to animal care, TV show, or even someone's post on a message board -- is the sources. Sources are the information resources used to support claims and statements. There are many kinds of sources -- anecdotal, personal experiences, news reports, rumors, scholarship and scientific sources, and many more.
Some sources are reliable, and some sources are not.
In general, the most reliable sources are academic sources published in peer-reviewed journals. For subjects such as medicine, history, and science, these sources are essential. In order to be published in such a journal, the work goes through a systematic review process by other scientific experts. Standards of research and study are maintained.
Not all studies and research in peer-reviewed journals are created equal, but they are mostly held to a high enough standard to be more reliable than other sources. Single studies, or studies with small sample data, are generally considered preliminary or tentative evidence, that should be further pursued by more studies and more extensive sample sizes. Systematic reviews combining the results of multiple studies often need to be undertaken for solid evidence.
Books, websites, newspapers and other published sources do not necessarily have vigorous editing processes and academic standards applied. Really, anyone can find a publisher for anything. There are many books out there that claim that bettas live in tiny mud puddles, and there are books that claim the world is flat. Be wary of hinging reliability on an author's "authority" (see "Fallacies", below). Such materials are also not immune to the bending of truth or even lies, in order to promote an author's viewpoint or sell more books.
When reading books, magazines, websites and other published materials, keep in mind the author's sources for the work. If they are basing their claims on peer-reviewed scholarship, the piece can be considered more reliable than if it is based on personal experience, other books, or personal, unpublished research. Although these other sources are useful, care and critical thinking must be applied in interpreting them.
For academic topics, newspapers are not a preferred source. Newspaper articles about science, medicine and ancient history are rarely written by experts on the subject, and often misrepresent results, report discoveries out of context and leave out crucial details. Sometimes this is even done on purpose, in order to present a more fascinating or compelling article.
For example, a recent article by Fox News, quoting the Daily Mail, stated that the recent experiments at the CERN Large Hadron Collider caused "widespread concern among scientists". What they left out is that that widespread concern is limited to a very small number of people (three of whom are particularly vocal). The article also failed to mention that yes, they are scientists. However, the people most responsible for the "concern" are a botanist and retired biologist, with a minor in physics, named Walter L. Wagner, along with colleague Luis Sancho (whose credentials in physics are sketchy; a former nuclear safety officer), who filed a lawsuit to halt the completion of the LHC. Neither are qualified experts on the subject of particle physics, and this is not the first lawsuit Wagner has filed against "dangerous" experiments (all of which have been dismissed). The quote in the articles is from a retired chemist (Otto Rossler). Knowing these things entirely changes the import of the article. It wouldn't have been very interesting to read (or sell newspapers) if the news agencies had reported, "Some people who are not qualified in the area of particle physics are worried about the experiments."
While personal experiences and anecdotes are useful, they do not necessarily indicate reproducible results, nor have they been vigorously examined or tested in a systematic way. They are often colored by the source's own opinion and observation. When presented with information of anecdotal or personal nature, it is best to examine the information critically, compare it to academic research, be alert to logical fallacies, and remember that it is not a verifiable source.
Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning, in which the conclusion of an argument is not supported by the premises given. They are extremely common and most people make them every day. However, it is important to be aware of them when gathering and analyzing information, such as when learning about pet care, reading the news, or purchasing a product. Claims and arguments may be true, even when the reasoning is fallacious, but claims should always be examined for directly supporting evidence through reliable sources.
Common Logical Fallacies
Ad Hominem -- A claim or argument is rejected based on an irrelevant fact about the person making the claim or argument. This fallacy is very common, and I'm sure you will notice it during political debates! It is a fallacy because the character, circumstances and actions of a person do not have a bearing on the truth or falsity of a claim being made.
1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
3. Therefore A's claim is false.
Joanne says there is a wage gap between men and women. Joanne is a strong feminist so her statements can't be trusted. She's biased.
Appeal to Authority -- The person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. When people commit this fallacy, they accept a claim as true without adequate evidence to do so. An example of this fallacy is found above, with the "scientists" who were concerned about the LHC experiments. Although a person may be an expert in his field, that does not make that person an authority in other fields. Also, a person may be involved in a field, but not have sufficient degree of expertise to make reliable claims. In the academic community, a person's formal education, publications in peer-reviewed journals, awards won, and other evidence of their expertise may qualify them as a true expert. Claims should generally not rely on the statement of a single expert, but demonstrate agreement among other experts on the subject in question. The person must not be biased, and the authority must be identified -- not just "the experts say".
1. Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
2. Person A makes claim C about subject S.
3. Therefore, C is true.
Professor Otto Rossler is a scientist (chemist). He says that the LHC experiments will cause a quasar to form in the middle of the planet. Since he's a scientist, he must know what he's talking about.
Appeal to Common Practice -- This fallacy uses the fact that most people do X as evidence to support the action or practice. The mere fact that people do a thing does not make it correct, moral, justified or reasonable.
1. X is a common action.
2. Therefore X is correct/moral/justified/reasonable, etc.
Most people keep bettas in tiny bowls. If so many people do it, it can't be wrong.
Appeal to Novelty -- Something is assumed to be correct or better because it is new. Novelty and progress are valued in our society, so this fallacy is quite common. It is also used frequently in advertising. Age of something does not necessarily have a bearing on the correctness or quality of that thing.
1. X is new.
2. Therefore, X is correct or better.
Surely when the tyrant king is ousted by the mysterious contender for the throne, the lives of the people will improve.
Appeal to Popularity/Ad Populum -- A claim or argument is accepted as true because the majority of people feel favorably toward it. A skilled speaker might get most people to accept almost anything. In the past, the majority of people approved of claims such as "the earth is the center of the universe" and that "people of African descent are inferior to Caucasians", but that did not make the claims true. This flawed reasoning is quite common and can be quite persuasive, which is why it is often used in advertising and propaganda, as well as in ethical arguments.
1. Most people approve of/have favorable emotions towards X.
2. Therefore X is true.
Nine out of ten people prefer Stiffwhisker Moustache Wax, so it's got to be the best choice!
Appeal to Tradition -- The opposite of an Appeal to Novelty, the fallacy that a claim is correct or better because it is older, traditional, or has "always been done". It is fallacious because the age or endurance of something does not make it more correct than something newer, made obvious by the following example: Before germ theory, people thought that demons, miasma and foul spirits caused disease. Therefore, the older belief that foul spirits cause disease must be true.
1. X is tradition/older/has always been done.
2. Therefore X is true.
Bettas have been kept in small jars since they were first domesticated, so obviously that is the correct way to keep them.
Slippery Slope -- Someone asserts that an event will inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. It is particularly clear why this "reasoning" is fallacious when a significant number of steps or graduations between events are bypassed.
1. Event X has occured (or will or might occur).
2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.
If you allow gays to get married, soon people will be marrying their bettas!
Straw Man -- This fallacy occurs when a person ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, misrepresented or exaggerated version of that position. It is fallacious because attacking an exaggerated or distorted version of a person does not constitute an attack on the position itself, in the way that an attack on a poor drawing of a person does not hurt the person.
1. Person A has position X.
2. Person B ignores X and presents position Y (distorted version of X).
3. Person B attacks position Y.
4. Therefore X is incorrect/false.
Susie is against the war. She's supporting terrorism and wants us to be defenseless.
There are many other kinds of fallacies to be alert for, but these are some of the most common.
Weasel words are modifiers that make claims look substantial but really don't mean what they sound like they're saying. They are ambiguous words that can't be substantiated by facts. It also allows marketers to get around "truth in advertising" laws. They aren't SAYING it will do what it's claiming, so if it doesn't do it, they can't be sued, or punished by the government. Weasel words are also used in books, magazines and news reports to make stories more exciting or relevant. They are used in political debate, and in personal conversation. Such claims have no actual backing, and could just as easily be made up on the spot as verifiable.
"This mouthwash fights bad breath!" It fights, not stops bad breath. It could lose the fight, for all we know. "Helps" and "controls" are similar.
"Many scientists agree!" Many? How many is many? Two, three? The four that developed the product? "Widespread", "widely", "some", and other unspecified quantities are also used as weasels. Scientists? What are their credentials? A botanist is a scientist, but that botanist can not be expected to be an authority on medication or toothpaste or a cleaning product, for example. "Experts" is another weasel word. "Many people believe..." is another common weasel phrase. What people and how many? Claiming people or "someone" said it also lets a person off the hook if the statement turns out to be unverifiable or false. "I'm just reporting what some people say."
"Clinically tested" -- it may have been tested, but that doesn't mean that they found it to actually WORK. Same with "clinically proven." Clinically proven to do what? It may not have been proven to do anything relevant to the consumer. And clinically? Is this clinic the one sponsored by the company? The basement of some guy's house? What makes these clinical tests legit? Are they peer-reviewed or published in someone's online 'zine? Who performed them, a kindergarten teacher? A doctor?
"Best", "better", "nicest" and other subjective terms that are biased, normative and/or non-quantifiable.
Also, watch out for incomplete claims. Sentences like, "100% more effective!" More (weasel word) effective (weasel word) than what? Often it compares their own product to another of their products.
"It may be..." or "It could be..." are often used because then the person making the statement doesn't have to support or back up their claims. "Apparently", "allegedly", "arguably" and other non-committed statements serve the same purpose. It's easy to deny that one made a claim by using such words.
The news story about the LHC is a great example for weasel words. "Widespread" (weasel!) concern about the experiment by "many" (weasel!) "scientists" (weasel!).