Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Critical Thinking (Pt. I)

Mary Tillotson at The Federalist presents a good lesson in critical thinking. Her immediate context is the application of a critical eye toward news reports and op-eds, but what she says is sound advice for any aspect of life. She in fact says so many good things about each of the eight points she makes that I've only space enough to consider a couple of them today. We'll look at more tomorrow.

Tillotson begins with an anecdote about a grad class she was taking that was engaged in a discussion of thinking critically about issues like "diversity, racism, and fear-mongering." She writes:
I had a hard time believing lack of critical thinking was a big problem until another student said we live in a time when race relations are worse than they ever have been, and everyone just nodded. Having grown up seeing old photographs of drinking fountains labeled “white” and “colored” and learning about the horrors of the antebellum South, I was stunned. There is a huge difference between “needs improvement” and “never been worse.”
When someone says something like what that student said they're probably not really thinking at all, much less thinking critically. In this case the students are likely just agreeing with the rest of the class in order to be congenial, polite or to be recognized by others as holding the right opinions.

Anyway, here's Tillotson's first point:
Know Your Narrative

Everyone has a worldview. Objectivity is a real thing and truth does in fact exist, but the existence of truth doesn’t mean we’re all good at seeing it. If you want to think critically, the first step is to know where you’re coming from.
Indeed, it's also good to know where the other person is coming from. Knowing a writer or speaker's own worldview helps immensely in "reading between the lines" of what they're saying.
Think of something evil that happened recently and consider these questions in that context. How do you explain good and evil behavior in people? Did the perpetrator act because he was a bad person or was he just a person who made a bad choice? Are there “good people” and “bad people,” or are we all prone to evil?
She extends these questions, but one she doesn't mention that I think is helpful is to ask whether one even believes that "evil" exists. If so, what makes an act evil and what are some examples of it in our day?

Our answers to these questions will go far in helping us to understand both ourselves and others.
Predict, But Don’t Trust, Your Emotional Response

My high school psychology teacher passed out slips of paper to our class one day and asked us to raise our hands if we thought the sentence on our slip was true. We read, shrugged, agreed, and all raised our hands. It turned out we didn’t all have the same sentence: half of us had “People who are more cautious than average make better firefighters” and the other half had “People who are less cautious than average make better firefighters.” So we discussed various cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases also exist outside psychology classrooms. When you hear something bad about someone you already don’t like, you’re much more inclined to believe it. Likewise, when you hear something bad about someone you like, you’re more inclined to disbelieve, dismiss, or downplay it. This is called confirmation bias, and it’s just true about human psychology. You can’t eradicate it, but you can be aware of it.
Confirmation bias occurs everywhere and we all fall victim to it, unfortunately. Not only are we more likely to believe something bad about someone we don't like and something good about people we do like, but we're also more likely to believe a claim is true if it supports a political, scientific, philosophical or religious position we already hold than if it doesn't.

Tillotson makes an excellent suggestion about this:
What does this look like in practice? When you hear a fact (or a “fact”) about someone, consider how you would react if that exact same thing were said about someone else. Put the opponent’s name in the sentence and observe your emotions.

At this point, you may become aware that your emotions are holding different people to different standards. This is an important step toward thinking with your brain and not with your emotions.
We certainly saw this happen a lot in the last election cycle, and it's still happening two months later. Critics of the president-elect, for example, are engaging in discourse that, had similar discourse occurred in the aftermath of Barack Obama's election, would have elicited howls of indignation from the same people.

One of the best intellectual disciplines we can develop is the ability to give people and positions we don't favor the benefit of the doubt and to ask, as Tillotson suggests, whether we would be saying or thinking or doing what we are if the person or position at issue were the person or position we favored.

For example, would those who excused Donald Trump's dishonesty or name-calling during the campaign excused them had it been Hillary Clinton instead of Trump caught in the lie or name-calling? We know in fact that they did not. People on both sides of the electoral divide were far too willing to excuse in their candidate what they saw as reprehensible in the other candidate.

Tillotson has more good advice on how to be a critical thinker which we'll consider tomorrow.