Reading Between the Lines

The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. And it cannot be otherwise, for every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority, the cherishing of the keenest scepticism. —Thomas Huxley (On the Advisableness of Improving Natural Knowledge, 1866) Critical Thinkers know that real debates take place ‘between the lines’, and, all too often, ‘under the mental radar’. The Critical Thinkers’ job is to pull the real issues into plain view and, if necessary, shoot them down! I introduce you here to some of the core skills of Critical Thinking: ‘reading between the lines’, examining the evidence and quickly deconstructing texts. (The chapters in Part III provide loads more info on how to do just that.) Challenging people’s rationality Do you know people whose views don’t seem to be based on any sort of rational assessment of the world, but rather on dodgy information easily imbibed — or even on blatant prejudices? Me too. And what’s more, at least some of my views — and some of your views — also fall into this rather illogical category. The fact is, even though Aristotle called men (not women, he was emphatically prejudiced) ‘rational animals’, people rarely use their rational facility in practice. (I discuss this subject in more depth in Chapter 13.) More subtly, people often present good reasons for their positions, but in reality arrive at their views for quite different ones. The good reasons are irrelevant, as you sometimes find out if you present some solid arguments that tend to disprove them. For example, suppose your neighbours buy a 4-wheel drive, all-terrain car, and insist that it is vital for when the family goes mountaineering and camping. Yet the fact is that they rarely go anywhere more remote than the nearest supermarket and hate getting their shiny car dirty. Could the real reason be that having a tank-sized car bolsters their sense of self-importance? Or maybe the government says that it has to charge students tuition fees — otherwise there won’t be enough money for everyone who wants to go to college in the future. Good reason! Odd then that the fees system actually costs more to operate than the previous universal grants system. Could the real reason for the change be something to do with dismantling the political edifice of the welfare state? Arguments may exist for doing that too, but that’s straying into politics. I’m not saying one way or the other, but I am recommending the habit of looking a little harder at the reasons and explanations people give. Dipping into the Critical Thinking skills toolbox I think of Critical Thinking as a toolbox. Philosophers have a long tradition of seeing argument skills as tools (read the nearby sidebar ‘Totting up Aristotle’s tools’ for more). Critical Thinking isn’t one tool, but lots. Plus, its skills can do a lot more than most of its experts seem to be aware of — because most of them come from too narrow a base. Totting up Aristotle’s tools The most famous writings on ‘how to argue’ are the 2,000-year-old books of Aristotle. His followers gathered them together and called the collection Organon — which is Greek for ‘tool’. Interestingly, this title reflects a controversy at the heart of philosophy that has never gone away: is logic the purest form of philosophy or merely a tool that philosophers use? So this obscure bit of Ancient Greek is surprisingly political, taking sides in an educational controversy that continues to rage today. Logic is a central Critical Thinking tool. You can see the kind of logic that it uses as a mental screwdriver with two different purposes: it enables you to take arguments completely apart and mend and reassemble them. Critical Thinking also has creative uses, such as prototyping and brainstorming (see Chapters 6 and 7, respectively). These ‘hammer-and-nails’ skills, with plenty of glue added in, are great for creating new solutions and visualising possibilities. Plus, don’t forget the social and emotional components of Critical Thinking (which I cover in Chapters 3 and 4, respectively): I like to think of these as the measuring tools in the kit — maybe as the spirit level too. Philosophical and mathematical logic is a solitary process: one person (or computer) can take on the world. After churning through a formal proof and finding a contradiction, the matter is closed! But Critical Thinking involves questioning — challenging arguments, methods, ideas and findings, demanding the context and the background. Therefore, it’s a more sociable business, where people explore and create truths collectively. Ordering your thinking: Reason, analyse and then argue In that order please! Uncritical Thinkers may start by arguing, and then pause to analyse and finally search for reasons, but making the argument follow the reasoning (not the other way around) is much better. Philosophers prefer to see Critical Thinking as a course in informal logic: the study of arguments expressed in natural language, where an argument being valid isn’t enough — the conclusion has to be useful too. The chapters in Part IV are all about that and where I take a good look at the key skills of informal logic (for example, the ‘fallacies’ that many Critical Thinking experts wax long on). But don’t be too excited at the prospect of using logic to conquer the world, because as I explain its powers are strictly limited. The difference between a sound argument and a fallacy is often far from black and white. Which isn’t to imply that people don’t make lots of silly mistakes and lousy arguments. Check out some logical pitfalls in Chapter 16. On the other hand, don’t let any of these concerns put you off using logic skills in your thinking, writing (check out Chapter 10) and speaking (see Chapters 11 and 14), because a little method can go a long way to making your arguments more persuasive and demonstrating the weaknesses in other people’s too. Which logic for Critical Thinking? You can encounter plenty of types of logics: Classical logic, Boolean logic, Quantum logic, Sentential logic and how about a bit of Multi-valued logic or Predicate logic too? Sprinkled with Fuzzy logic? No! Breathe again. . . . Critical Thinking isn’t a sneaky way to make students study logic. It’s not even a form of logic-lite! A fundamental difference exists between all the usual logics and the one that Critical Thinkers include as one of their tools: informal logic. All the other logics are concerned with the form of the arguments, but only informal logic, as the name suggests, is also concerned with the content of arguments — with issues and applications. Researchers have often found that when asked, people can’t really explain why they hold such and such a view, or what they think would count as suitable evidence for the view. Even more worrying for society, is that these same people are extremely reluctant to have their views challenged. Critical Thinking Skills are your antidote to this very common disease. Discovering what kind of thinking you do The one primary and fundamental law of mental action consists in a tendency to generalisation. Feeling tends to spread; connections between feelings awaken feelings; neighboring feelings become assimilated; ideas are apt to reproduce themselves. These are so many formulations of the one law of the growth of mind. When a disturbance of feeling takes place, we have a consciousness of gain, the gain of experience. . . . —CS Peirce (The Architecture of Theories, 1891) The quote above is about how building on what you already think is vital for future growth. But it brings problems. A 19th-century American philosopher, Peirce also indentified three kinds of thinkers, which I shall summarise here (a little creatively) as follows: Sticklers: People who form their beliefs by tenaciously sticking to whichever view they liked most originally — whatever evidence is presented to them and even however circumstances change. If asked to justify their view, they can be very thorough in finding facts to support it, while also refusing to look into anything that appears likely to run against it. (I write about facts and opinions in Chapter 15.) Followers: People who respect anyone or anything that presents itself as ‘authoritative’. They form their view in a group discussion on what they think, say, the professor is saying, or in the absence of an authority figure, on what they imagine is the consensuses view. When they look something up on the Internet, they head for the security of Wikipedia (as they imagine it!) and are reluctant to consult websites run by individuals. These kinds of thinkers, as Peirce says, are useful members of society, because they aid social harmony and cohesion. (Although they may also be found egging on tyrants and persecuting minorities.) But they aren’t useful as far as ideas go. System builders: These are people who try to fit everything into a pre-existing framework. They’re a more sophisticated version of the sticklers. Science is obliged — in practice — to operate on a similar principle. Systemisers are willing to consider new information, but if it requires dismantling the pre-existing structure for understanding the world, they’re likely to reject it. You can read more on how people process information to build knowledge in Chapter 8. According to Peirce, the smart way to see the world is to accept that everything you know may be wrong and start from scratch if need be. Or indeed end up with all the views on an issue demolished with ‘no working hypothesis’ left. Only a true Critical Thinker would do such a thing. Almost all professors of the arts and sciences are egregiously conceited, and derive their happiness from their conceit. —Erasmus Bertrand Russell ascribes this quote to Erasmus, and I can see why he liked it. Russell was a philosopher prepared to argue unpopular views (such as that war is a bad thing) and was put in prison — twice. Russell (refreshingly) took on professors and people in authority, but his point of course applies to everyone. Too few people are really open to new ideas, let alone able to take criticism — unless they’ve taken and really absorbed the lessons of Critical Thinking. US philosopher William James made a similar point when he complained that many people think that they’re thinking when they’re merely rearranging their prejudices. For Critical Thinkers, discerning thought and prejudice is a vital distinction to make and the first step is becoming more aware of your biases. (I examine this issue in Chapter 2.) James also recommends that in many areas, people should decide their position on the basis of feelings, even if they have no good or relevant arguments to support it. How logical is that? Well, not at all, but it’s not a stupid position either. In Chapter 4 I look at some distinctly non-logical ways of approaching problems. Professors tend to tell people to ‘think’, and complain when they don’t — but they fail to offer advice on exactly how to do it. For that, students have to rely largely on their own efforts, or maybe turn to specialist experts such as Edward de Bono. He stresses that thinking is a skill that has to be learned. Critical Thinking definitely owes ‘pioneers’ of thinking skills like him a polite nod, even if the approach here has to be little more, well, scientific. Speaking of which, here’s a scientist to explain about how scientists think: The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science. —Albert Einstein (A. Einstein and L. Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, 1938, p.92) Well, he has to come in sooner or later. Einstein’s point about creativity is absolutely spot-on. Check out the nearby sidebar ‘Thinking outside the box’ for an example. Thinking outside the box This anecdote shows how redefining problems can generate new insights. A gardening equipment firm challenged a meeting of engineers to use their collective thinking power to come up with a new kind of lawn mower. After some humming and ahhing, the engineers came up with . . . not very much. Some tinkering and slightly novel refinements, but nothing to create a splash in the marketplace. Then one of the engineers suggested that they return to the original problem; but to ‘go back one step’ and express it in terms of function. Instead of the engineers thinking about how to redesign lawn mowers, which meant that their thoughts followed the usual paths, he said they should think about ‘machines to help people maintain lawns’. This small, even niggly, distinction made all the difference. The engineers even created an entirely new product, based on the imaginative insight of one whose son liked playing with yo-yos. They invented the strimmer, which involves a nylon string whizzing around, thus adding a new annoyance to neighbours everywhere. The power of Critical Thinking! You can read more about creative brainstorming in Chapter 7.

Cohen, Martin. Critical Thinking Skills For Dummies (pp. 13-20). Wiley. Kindle Edition.