Saturday, April 15, 2006

Critical thinking is---critical

Much of what I write on this blog refers back to history, with the goal of trying to make connections between then and now. Many times after I've written a post of that sort (or any sort, actually), I read a comment that seems especially obtuse, and I'm torn between the thought that the commenter's failure to understand what I've said (forget agreeing with it; we're talking about simple understanding here) represents a problem with critical thinking, and the notion that the commenter actually has a difficulty with reading comprehension.

Then again, it could be both. Or perhaps neither; maybe its just impatience and laziness coupled with hubris: a tendency to barely skim a post or article, think one has understood it, and then proceed to respond and try to refute it without even trying to comprehend the arguments being presented in the first place.

Or, then again, maybe the commenter is just a troll, and the "incomprehension" is feigned, strategic, and purposeful. Trolls get off on provoking all the other commenters (and the blogger, too, if possible) to dance and jump around and to generally wear themselves out in an effort to explain and to answer and to defend. So maybe the commenter has understood all too well what was said, and is just having fun stirring the pot and watching the steam rise as the stew bubbles fast and furiously.

But let's be kind, and assume for the moment that there really is some sort of comprehension problem, at least for many. Which reminds me that I've often thought by far the most important task of education is the teaching of critical thinking. With this skill mastered, students would be set for life, able to assimilate and evaluate new information reliably and to use good judgment in making decisions (including those all-important voting decisions, not to mention composing blog posts and blog comments).

But without the ability to think critically, it really doesn't matter how many facts a person has at his/her fingertips, because the information will be useless as a guide to writing, or to action--or to life itself.

Santayana's old adage, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," often feels all too true (and, I might mention, even those who do remember are often dragged right along with them into that repetition, tragic Cassandras shouting vainly into the wind). But is the failure to "remember" the past a literal one? Are people condemned to repeat history because they don't learn the facts--the dates, the battles, the famous movers and shakers? That's certainly part of it, in many cases.

But it may be more crucial that, even armed with facts, people often seem to lack the ability to put them into context, to evaluate them and the spin different sides give to them, to extract meaning and guide future action by applying them to the present day. And, after all, why else learn history, if not to help us act in the present and the future?

Again, I'm not talking merely about those who disagree with me. I can recognize that there are logical, well-thought-out arguments on the other side, those that don't misrepresent what opponents are saying in the first place. I may not agree with the premises or the conclusions, but I can follow the reasoning. It's distortions and sophistry and failures of logic that bother me the most.

A major part--maybe the major part--of critical thinking is learning to recognize logical fallacies in argument. Why is this not ordinarily taught in school and considered a required subject, as important--if not more so--as history or English, or even reading?

I don't know about you, but I certainly was never even introduced to the topic, despite having received a fairly decent public school education in the honors classes of a New York City high school, and attendance at several major well-known and highly respected universities as both an undergraduate and then a graduate student.

So, what's going on here? Critical thinking seems to be considered mostly the realm of logic studies, which are easily avoided at most universities (see this list of colleges that presently require some sort of critical thinking courses of their students; note that although the University of California system appears to require one such course of all students, in actuality the category is defined so broadly as to be virtually useless).

Some are trying hard to remedy the situation, even at a pre-college level; here's the website of a group called "The National Center for Teaching Thinking" based in Boston, for example. But, quite obviously, we have an awfully long way to go.

So I've got another series contemplated: my plan is to every now and then take one logical fallacy and write about it. First up on the agenda (although not today): the strawman fallacy.

We'll see how far I get with this; I'm learning some of it as I go along, myself. And my tendency towards Blogger Attention Deficit Disorder (BADD, or ideaphoria; I've got ideas for about two hundred different unwritten posts churning around right now, with short notes on most of them) has been known to get in my way.

But I'm trying to do my bit--although, of course, the vast majority of my readers are already critical thinkers, right?

[ADDENDUM: Okay, okay, this is getting a little weird. I wrote most of this post yesterday, was busy earlier today, and just now as I went to post it I happened to check over at Dr. Sanity's, and found this, which I had not seen before.

I guess it was an idea whose time had come, especially for psychobloggers.}


At 3:57 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

The idea that readers compend your blogposts is somewhat silly. Your blog archives already form a compendium. Why would your readers create a second accumulation? Illogical.

At 3:59 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

Therefore, your assertion about the importance of critical thinking is refuted.

At 4:03 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

I stand corrected, gcotharn :-).

And, by the way, that comment of yours is awfully--critical!

At 5:23 PM, April 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link ("see this list of colleges...") takes me to a USAToday page about President Bush.

At a very elementary level critical reading/thinking is useful in comparing the headline to the content of MSM articles. Frequently they don't jibe. I applaud your campaign.

The DRSanity link is valuable.

Richard in Port Orchard, WA

At 5:33 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Oops--have no idea how that link thing happened. I don't have time to search for the correct link right now and fix it (going out), but I will try later.

The point was that there weren't very many colleges on the list.

At 7:49 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger El Rider said...

As a student at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit college, I was required to take two years of Philosophy. I chose one logic course, it was one of the most important courses that I took.

At 9:07 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

I believe that in the classical tradition logic was studied as part of rhetoric. This of course included discussion of the common logical fallacies. From the wikipedia:

Today the term rhetoric can be used at times to refer only to the form of argumentation, often with the pejorative connotation that rhetoric is a means of obscuring the truth. Classical philosophers believed quite the contrary: the skilled use of rhetoric was essential to the discovery of truths, because it provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments.

" provided the means of ordering and clarifying arguments." Ah, that is what we are looking for. Perhaps some parts of the trivium could be revived to good purpose.

At 9:07 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

Raw Data: The problem is that one person's troll is anther person's "good questioner."

Bona fide trolls are not really too hard to distinguish from honest questioners, especially over time. One troll gambit is to never answer when the troll him/herself is responded to--to keep moving the goalposts, shifting to another point, and then another, to avoid having to acknowledge an error.

Bloggers spend a great deal of time writing posts. We have only limited time to spend answering and responding to questions and commments; we have to choose how best to spend it.

Very often I ignore most of the comments and questions--troll-like or otherwise--here. Just not enough time. I figure the other commenters do a very nice job of answering and discussing; my main work is to set up the post that sparks the discussion.

One other thing I've noticed is that commenters often come on a blog and make a certain point or ask a certain question, not realizing that it's been gone over a thousand times before. One gets tired repeating oneself, and that's often another reason for nonresponses.

At 9:26 PM, April 15, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had logical fallacies in college, but then I took the logic courses (comp sci major specialising in formal languages and computability). One of the interesting things about logical fallacies is that they don't prove anything - and just that. People tend to move them into the realm of "you are wrong" when there are more choices than correct or incorrect. A great example is the slippery slope argument - it proves nothing and doesn't have to happen yet is correct almost every single time with respect to things like increasing taxes or increased govt control. To ignore a slippery slope that has been slippery every single time it's come about in known history is idiocy, yet many choose to do so (after all, it is a logical fallacy).

The thing that tends to amuse me with some of the "trolls" (the ones that really believe what they say and are really bad with the moving goal post or blatant hypocracy) is there are a limited set of opinions it causes one to form. You listed them in long form but it boils down to "Do you want to be stupid or dishonest". I never could figure out which was better to assume.

At 9:37 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger David Foster said...

I suspect this phenomenon has something to do with the increasing number of people in the country who work only with *words*. If you are, say, an auto mechanic, a farmer, or a tool-and-die maker, then you *must* have at least some capacity for cause-and-effect reasoning...otherwise, the car won't run, the crops won't grow, or that parts won't get made. This is much less true in the purely verbal occupations.

At 9:44 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

David: take a look at this post.

At 10:18 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

I agree that critical thinking is important to teach, but it's only half of what you need. In addition, one needs to be able to express oneself orally and in writing clearly and persuasively. In fact, the demands of the latter frequently helps with the former.

The need for critical thinking is less necessary in the sciences, because, well, there are rules. True, many people get by in the maths and sciences by rote memorization, but you don't stick around if you don't learn to master the material, make it your own, and analyze it. This the way most people develop critical skills in the first place.

Not to single anyone out, but, from what I have seen of the blogosphere, most of it consists of reactions to political events, and recourse to past political events (history) to put the current events in some kind of context, and from that context to infer the future.

The problem is that, with history, there is no "right" answer; The reason being that historical events are a congeries of events, and there is simply no way to "prove" with regard to a past event or series of a events that one single cause was more important than another, or many others. Furthermore, precisely because past events are passed there is no way to test if a tweaking of a proposed cause would engender a radically different outcome. For this reason, I think it is clear that we have to accept that most interpretations of history and most interpretations of current events based on history are "non falsifiable." Of course that doesn't mean we have to roll over and die, it just means we have to be modest in our arguments.

Most of the arguments that arise due to the use of historical materials (say, 20th C history), are due to saying, current event A is like past event B. And the argument can be made. But on the other hand someone else can come up and say, no, current event A is not like B, for such and such reasons, it is more like C, and so on. There really is no end to this dialectic (I mean this in the classical sense), until one side manages to create a cogent and persuasive edifice of logic that manages to set the tone until it is also eventually supplanted.

I don't say these things to be jaded or cynical. If you really study the history of historiography, as well as the political uses of history as historiography, I don't see how one can come to a different conclusion; as it says in one of my favorite religious books, "There is nothing new under the sun", and human history is not new. BTW, what I note about the tendency to extract facts about cause and effect in history also pertains to moral judgments derived from history: just because s.o. may be certain of his or her POV today, don't think that others at different times were equally sure of their POV's in the past, and I do think there is a bit of hubris in assuming that we, today, got it right (as opposed to all those dummies in the past.)

As for "And, after all, why else learn history, if not to help us act in the present and the future?" Well. I think the reason I have studied history most of my life is because it gives me insight into the human condition, to find out how people just like us coped with the various challenges of existence and attempted to solve them. It is a deepening experience, because, it allows you to live a thousand times.

I have to demur on the idea that an interpretation of the past can be a reliable guide to current or future politics because that interpretation rests on the assumption that the past bears a single interpretation of cause. It just does not.

I think I understand the background, if not exactly here, then at least the background Dr Sanity references. I would guess that it is about the WOT, and most currently Iran. Sanity writes "The pervasive denial of the reality of 9/11" -- which, whatever he or anyone else chooses to say about must be a matter of interpretation, and therefore non-falsifiable, and disputable, reveals the underlying agenda. The argument that is latent right now is that there is a clearcut historical narrative that explains what Iran now is (Nazi Germany) and there is therefore a clearcut path of action (something like, immediately bombing the hell out of it). It is being suggested (not necessarily by Neo) that those who do not accept this line of argument are trolls, or in denial, or incapable of critical thinking. If you step back from this, you can see that the line of argument is essentially setting up an argument that goes something like this: I believe that A is B, because, clearly, A is B, and anyone who doesn't see that A is B is either insincere, mentally ill, stupid, has a hidden agenda, or is a bad person. Nothing new here, either. Happens all the time: it is an attempt to take a non-falsifiable interpretation and turn it into an orthodox ideology.

I think a better approach to this whole matter is to recognize that no one is going to get everyone to agree all the time. It isn't possible; and sincere disagreement is one of those ugly realities of life, like tooth decay and death. To the point of attempting to influence politics, insofar as anyone in the blogosphere does that, one simply wants to make a clearcut argument for action based on logic and reasonable historical inferences. Then make the argument, and see what happens.

I do see in the post-9/11 mentality a tremendous increase in fear and anxiety; because most of the arguments I have seen for forceful, even brutal, action are based on fear: get them, before they get us. Well, hold on a minute. First, if we are driven by our fears, are we in control? Second, what can our enemies (however defined) actually do? Third, what were they able to do before 9/11, and how would we have successfully interdicted them at that time? Fourth, what will be the consequences of our actions, and are we willing -- as a nation -- to make the appropriate commitments? I don't know.

At 10:53 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Joan said...

Steve, Dr. Sanity is female. Also, by my reading of the good doctor's post, you're engaging in the perfectionist fallacy here, by attempting to discredit any attempts to understand the present and predict the future based on historical events. Obviously you're correct in saying we can't always account for every causal factor in a historical event, and we certainly can't go back and tweak something to see how it changed the outcome. Nevertheless, to say that we simply can't forecast future behavior based on history is, well, silly. Human nature is fairly constant, don't you think?

I do, so even if historical parallels aren't exact, they can give us a good idea of how things might go.

Second, with your contention, most of the arguments I have seen for forceful, even brutal, action are based on fear: get them, before they get us, you're accusing the administration of using another rhetorical ploy Dr. Sanity discussed, scare tactics. She noted we should be careful to distinguish scare tactics from genuine warnings for which there is a good reason to act and/or experience the emotion. Do you really think that we shouldn't be actively defending ourselves and seeking out and destroying our enemies? Do you think they are not trying to destroy us? The president has a solemn duty to protect this country and its citizens, and many of us think those are good things to do.

On the subject of critical thinking in general, I've been surprised by the number of people who are impervious to facts, especially about things like the disaster caused by our withdrawal from Vietnam, or the decreasing casualties now in Iraq. There is no discussion possible with such people.

At 11:13 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger Steve said...

Joan: Thank you for the information on Dr. Sanity's gender. I don't think it's terribly relevant, but I will keep it in mind.

Second, you misuse the perfectionist fallacy, and furthermore, you agree with me. I am not attempting to discredit the use of historical analogy (which is what is at issue here), it is rather than one can never tell when using an historical analogy that it is a correct one, based on the difficulty of establishing cause and effect.

Obviously you're correct in saying we can't always account for every causal factor in a historical event, and we certainly can't go back and tweak something to see how it changed the outcome. Nevertheless, to say that we simply can't forecast future behavior based on history is, well, silly.

That is a non sequitur. If you cannot reliably agree on past interpretations, then you cannot reliably forecast the future. That is why historians are usually poor prognosticators.

Human nature is fairly constant, don't you think?

Context is everything with humans.

I do, so even if historical parallels aren't exact, they can give us a good idea of how things might go.

This can only mean that you accept my judgment that history is not the source of reliable guidelines for interpreting current or future trends. It can, indeed, give us an insight as to what might happen.

Second, with your contention, most of the arguments I have seen for forceful, even brutal, action are based on fear: get them, before they get us, you're accusing the administration of using another rhetorical ploy Dr. Sanity discussed, scare tactics.

I am not accusing the administration of anything, but what I do see a lot of on the internet are arguments to the effect that we have to seriously bomb X, Y, or Z in the Middle East because if we don't they will bomb us.

Do you really think that we shouldn't be actively defending ourselves and seeking out and destroying our enemies? Do you think they are not trying to destroy us? The president has a solemn duty to protect this country and its citizens, and many of us think those are good things to do.

I think that if we have to engage in the Muslim world in a serious war then we should be preparing to engage in a serious war, and not offering various Bomb Panaceas. But at the same time I think that if we are going to engage in such a war we have to pay attention to the validity of our grounds for war, and the evidence in support of those grounds (e.g., WMD's), as well as realistic pre-planning, and so on.

I wasn't aware of big improvements in Iraq, but if that's the trend, that's great.

At 11:57 PM, April 15, 2006, Blogger The Scrutinator said...

Great post!

I weary of telling some people that they didn't read very carefully (or at all).

The (apparent) lack of comprehension and muddled thinking in general sure seem to go hand-in-hand.

I hope that the objective observer will see it for what it is.

At 12:20 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Kurt said...

When I was teaching college composition courses (as a graduate student at one of the public ivies and then as a visiting assistant professor at a small college in the midwest), I used to do a section on logical fallacies and propaganda, but I wouldn't say a lot of my students really mastered the material. Still, at least they were exposed to it. (Why I decided to leave teaching is a story for another time.)

My time at the small college, though, coincided with the Lewinsky scandal and the Clinton impeachment. Up until that point, I had always been deferential to faculty members, assuming that they must have had good reasons for their beliefs and that they were well-informed and logical. But now that I was a faculty member, I'd go to lunch with my colleagues, and they'd rant and rave about Ken Starr in a way that made it abundantly clear to me that they were not thinking all that critically about the issues involved. They were often poorly informed about the facts, and their logic was often riddled with fallacies or other flaws.

I don't mean to suggest I had previously been so naive as to think that academics were all fair-minded intellectuals, but until that point, I hadn't seen their flaws illustrated so starkly as I did during that time. And part of what I also saw was a system whereby faculty members often talked tough but were frequently lenient graders for fear of being savaged by students on course evaluations. Most wouldn't admit that, of course, but it was quite evidently the case.

So in a roundabout way, what I'm trying to say here is that few college graduates are learning critical thinking skills because 1). few of them are actually being taught those skills, specifically, 2). many of their instructors are too blinded by their own partisan prejudices to be very good at teaching critical thinking about bigger issues in the first place, and 3). the current system of higher education today often puts at a disadvantage those instructors who make a point of challenging their students to think critically, because doing so is often uncomfortable for students (who have been praised all their lives by teachers more concerned about their self-esteem than their mastery of the material), and that discomfort is often reflected on negative teaching evaluations.

At 12:40 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

If a troll

1)yanks a comment thread in his own direction, then
2)refuses to complete a disagreement he has engendered, either by:

a. resolving the disagreement, or by
b. narrowing the disagreement to an essence over which arguers can agree to disagree;

then I ask this:

aren't trolls, almost by definition, and almost exclusively, leftists?

Painting broadly: isn't a conservative generally drawn to considering ideas, and especially to examining ideas in light of their broad philosophic and/or religious beliefs? And I would say the same about a traditional liberal, such as a JFK liberal, circa about 1960. Don't such conservatives and liberals generally wish to examine ideas in light of their beliefs, examine differences, and resolve differences as best as possible?

Then there is the third group, for which no good descriptor has yet been created, which I shall call "leftists." This group does not wish to honestly examine and resolve disagreements. I blame Chomsky. Not that this group has read him - and who, really, can make it through the crap this guy writes(?) - but rather that Chomsky's technique of muddying the water has become so widely copied. My question is what, really, do such leftists seek to accomplish? They do not honestly seek back and forth discussion of ideas, as friends (cyberfriends!) might undertake. Do they seek successful persuasion? Victory? Reassurance that they are the most clever of all - or the most informed?

Whatever they seek, I wonder if we are abetting them by calling them trolls? They are, overwhelmingly, leftists. I wish we had a superior term to more accurately characterize them.

I used to say they were people who were perfectionists, and anything short of perfection was almost unbearable for them. Tammy Bruce said (very rough paraphrase) they are people who deeply unhappy with the realities of life; and their message is anyone who is happy with life is a fool and a sucker; and they are trying to educate the rest of us so we can be deeply unhappy also. I notice that also. Leftists, if they believe in God, have a big gripe with God over how he designed the world. If they don't believe in God, maybe their biggest gripe is that some people do.

I have consistently visited only one leftist blog - and I finally stopped going even there, because the blogger quit engaging me, and began the skipping, skipping, skipping strategy on a consistent basis. I blogged, about leaving that blog, here:

At 1:21 AM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We also see in our comments section an interesting form of "critical thinking" that the more intelligent tend to go for (and I highly agree with David on this, though I generaly expand it to anything that you are in control of your world). Essentially choosing thier idea and working backwards. Many times that takes a lot of critical thinking and a great deal of facts to get something coherent. So, even then, critical thinking isn't a cure all. In fact with people like Noam Chompsky it causes more trouble than it helps (for instance when he gets policies he likes legislated).

I don't think anyone really came to the conclusion that the Terrorist do not really want to kill us and went forward from there - if they did they either fall into that "stupid" category or uninformed, but the class of people I'm talking about are fairly intelligent and well read.

Essentially we see the "scientific method" reversed, conclusions come first and you work backwards to your core axioms that are logically consistent. For them that thier argument/idea is internally logically consistent is ample evidence that they are correct, as we have seen for quite a few even 9/11 wasn't enough and I bet for many there is nothing that can shake thier beliefe (after all, it's those axioms that are fluid, not the conclusion).

It's interesting to see thier mental gymnastics. I go through spells where I fell like arguing with them and some spells where I do not (right now in a spell where I don't really feel like it). Though if you poke hard enough (good knowledge of logical fallacies helps here) almost all of them will finally say something that is loony.

At 2:06 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) said...

It seems to me that a good question deserve an answer even if the person asking is asking for annoying grant you that much for the sake of discussion. And obviously if it is not a good question well then you can simply ignore their stupidity.)

One of the key hallmarks of a troll is that they're not interesting in discussion, period. If they're not simply hurling insults, they're presenting questions they couldn't care less how you answer, and completely ignore any answers you present (or may even combine the two, calling your answers idiotic, without giving even the slightest hint of why). This is the simple saturation bombing technique; it has a single objective: to keep your opponent constantly on the defensive, sapping their ability to do anything productive by consuming their time giving endless answers you won't listen to, anyway.

But one of the surest signs of a troll is the complete lack of ability (or even willingness to try) to answer any counter-questions or arguments made, either immediately and inexplicably dismissing the arguments or questions as intellectually lacking, or ignoring them completely. The reason for this should be obvious: if they stop to answer any questions or arguments, that breaks up their rhythm, and takes time away from coming up with new questions to toss at their opponent to keep them occupied. They are using their resources wisely.

In other words, the biggest idiots in this whole exchange are the ones who waste what time they have by responding to said trolls, when the response is 100% inconsequential, anyway.

At 2:14 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) said...

They were often poorly informed about the facts, and their logic was often riddled with fallacies or other flaws.

Ahh, the stories I could tell. One of the stories from this last semester was in social psychology. I've completely forgotten the context or the topic of the day, but the teach made some comment out of nowhere along the lines of "And we'll never have another woman on the supreme court, if Bush has his way." That made me do a double-take. I was too polite to actually come out and say it, but going through my sarcastic brain was "Hellooooo? He already didn't get his way, as he nominated a woman just last week and it became so controversial that she declined it!"

At 9:18 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger al fin said...

Excellent post, thanks! How about this logical fallacy: begging the question?

Begging the question is often done but rarely recognised--because people misues the term "beg the question." If you are like the pet troll on this thread, "begging the question" probably does not mean what you think it means.

By misusing the term, you miss the fallacy, and language gets dumbed down a little bit more.

At 11:33 AM, April 16, 2006, Blogger gcotharn said...

Thinking about leftists:
I examine every issue in light of my religious faith. It affects how I see everything.

Leftists do the same:
it is an article of faith that conservatives are evil meanies. Leftists examine every issue in light of this faith. It affects how they see everything.

At 12:17 PM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A question like "...aren't trolls, almost by definition, and almost exclusively, leftists?"


"...aren't idiots, almost by definition, and almost exclusively, conservatives?"

At 12:18 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Stephen A. Meigs said...

I'd say that the most important thing to be gotten from logic insofar as it improves critical thinking is not what it says about fallacies, but rather what it says about how to think properly. Learning first-order logic, for instance, doesn't just help you with logic and mathematics, it helps you with critical thinking. The sad thing is that mathematics (except for geometry) is not taught axiomatically in our public schools. Once one gets past calculus, in colleges and universities, mathematics is taught axiomatically; it's all theorems and proofs, essentially. Practicing critical thinking by going through these proofs is very effective at teaching critical thought. But most research mathematicians are not particularly concerned with making the foundations of mathematics more elegant and useful, or with improving the textbooks of elementary subjects. Good taste is harder to judge than the proof of some new result, and so doing something fundamental more elegantly, though this be much more useful, yet it isn't nearly as surely going to be rewarding as proving some new result mathematicians are interested in. Before society teaches logic or math in a careful axiomatic approach in secondary schools, it would be prudent to produce excellent text books for this purpose, especially considering math done axiomatically, being less result oriented, will surely be resented by those who don't appreciate understanding. The Bourbaki school in France tried to present math in a unified more elegant manner, and something akin to that movement only on a grander scale and geared also to younger students is what math needs today. And math needs to be seen as most useful for its tendency to improve critical thinking and taught as if improving critical thinking were a central objective.

Logic and the foundations of math are more important than math proper; however, I think it mainly presumptuous to judge logic otherwise than by how useful it is, and in particular, how useful it is in doing math. Logic tends to bow down to philosophy too much, e.g., to overvalue semantics and model theory over syntax.
Since computer science is very similar to logic, ideally computer science would be done so it fits in seamlessly with logic and category theory.

The study of fallacies is important, but I think this more properly a subject for psychology. Understanding correct logic will automatically give an understanding of errors that are merely logical ones. And most of the other mistakes people tend to make repeatedly when reasoning are due to insane tendencies, e.g., the tendency to be too black-and-white, which really has more to do with psychology than logic.

A certain knowledge of probability and statistics also is very useful for effective reasoning, especially when reasoning about complicated phenomena. Also useful is an understanding of how the motives of deceiving people interact to create deception and error, and what particular sorts of deceptions are likely to arise in consequence, that one may be on guard against them.

What you say about history is interesting. History is largely facts that require no deep understanding to appreciate. Trying to improve the world requires understanding of consequences, which understanding the more imitative selfish have less need for. But there is something even more complicated going on; for instance, people changing the meanings of names so yesterday's slogan supports what it didn't support yesterday. I do suppose I have a vague feeling that history (or do I mean the abstractions from history?) on a shallow level might be more bunk than truth (or at best fairly neutral), at least when it comes to teaching ordinary people about today; just why would be something to figure out.

At 1:18 PM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

M. Scott Peck writes a lot about critical thinking. He is passionate about its importance, and laments the lack of willingness to think about issues and life in a deep, careful, and intelligent way. Thinking this way is hard work, and people seem to want to skim a headline or repeat a soundbite rather than put the effort into a true understanding of the facts and issues involved.

At 3:31 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have been doing a series on Faux Logic that is much less formal than Dr. Sanity's. Now neo brings in this. The goal, apparently, is to make me look bad in front of my 4 fans. Sigh.

The troll question is interesting. I used to write for Gift of Fire, the journal of the Prometheus Society years ago, and can assure you that highly intelligent people are capable of arguing emotively and overlooking the obvious.

I don't think trolls are usually trying to simply annoy and harass. They are more usually so enamored of one or a few ideas that all else gets sucked in by their gravity. This is why there are also bright trolls. And why all of us have trollish sympathies at times.

If my guess is true, then it must follow that no troll recognises it.

We notice illogic much more quickly in those that disagree with us, not merely because we are self-centered, but because we kindly fill in the blanks for those who agree with us, giving them credit for more logic than they deserve. Disputants seldom get cut much slack.

Many people who blog and commenty wish to teach and persuade, and so get caught up in ridiculous arguments online. Without additional social cues, it is difficult if the person arguing with you is not very bright, a monomaniac or crusader for a single cause, an honest enquirer who is being exposed to an unfamiliar argument, a person with a particular pathology or history that prevents them from seeing a particular point, or... what have I left out? A half-dozen more possibilities, I suppose.

I have a recent post on how evidence is seldom unambiguous.

At 4:02 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Why didn't you play sttuuupid Justin, and say "I thought Miers was a woman... woah she is a man... *cringing body language*" Would it be too obvious? Low chance of success? Lack of penetration?

As for trolls, I think a lot of conservatives (or whatever they call themselves) like Justin and I, understand the philosophy of the best defense is a good offense. We just don't tend to use that strategy a lot. It's almost like pouring water into your data processors and using that as an excuse why you can't finish your programming project. For one thing, it's a waste of time, your time and everyone else's. For another, it is not very effective. Conservatives were always interested in long term strategies, rather than short term strategies. That is the entire philosophical basis of conservatism. Short term changes are unstable and anti-beneficial, while long lasting instutions are Good tm. Liberals have a different take. And it is just as valid, if not even MORE useful in the 21st century. But fake liberals have the vices of both, and the virtues of neither.

Therefore the tu quoque argument by Anon doesn't work.

"Hellooooo? He already didn't get his way, as he nominated a woman just last week and it became so controversial that she declined it!"

Not that this group has read him - and who, really, can make it through the crap this guy writes(?)

Well, I can GC. (Chomsky) And I found his works amazingly clear and unambiguous. It wasn't what I expected. Although, I should have, given his efficacy.

To Neo,

In relation to diplomacy, the less said the better. Since the purpose is to gain an advantage and edge upon the opposition, the less you say and the more they say, the more information you gain and thus the more advantage.

In relation to personal communication, the more said the better. Simply because, with the lack of body gestures and voice tones, words must substitute for other channels of communication that are lacking. The most frustrating and unclear comments are short, ambiguous and obtuse comments.

If someone doesn't understand a word or a phrasing, they're not going to admit to that and be made to feel a fool. It's a lot easier to blame other people, than to focus on self-education. Even the self-educated people don't admit it, they simply go research and come back with the knowledge. Acting as if they had known all alone what was going on.

It's the difference between human motivations leading to bad behavior and motivations leading to good constructive behavior. It can go either way, depending up a person's personality and desires.

There's another dimension to it as well. A lot of people like to quote the classical authors and famous folks. It lends a kind of credibility, to use words that one doesn't need to craft up originally using one's own personal abilities. Usually, reading comprehension isn't a problem unless a person doesn't start reading like somewhere around the 6th grade. Reading, as in, voracious reading. Not text book reading.

I believe a lot of people desire to have the definitive "quote" that will instantaneously convince anyone of their point, whatever their point is. This creates a certain vortex of doubt. Because, communication doesn't occur by quotes or sound bites, but by words and meanings. And the less informed both sides are of the other, the more words and communication channels are required for true understanding. But back to the definitive quote, you can quote something and not even understand what the author meant, so long as it sounds good. And a lot of quotes do sound good, with a flair for tone and imagery. But that does not mean that what one feels, equates to understanding. So there's a tendency of self-delusion, when it comes to short and seemingly understandable lines.

This has to do with propaganda again. The best art of persuasion removes any doubt or confusion, and latches unto a person's inspirational desires. To do that, one has to be short and use small words that a lot of people can understand, and not take too long before their attention wavers. The rhetoric skill of Ancient Greece and their demagogues, are as valid today as they were in their time.

The more that is said, the more material that another person can analyze and obtain a better understanding from. This facilitates communication, but it does not guarantee it. What it also does is to cause people to somehow think that what is said at the end, is independent of anything else. This goes back to the quotes I mentioned. Classical quotation is independent of any of the author's other works. You don't have to read Clausewitz to understand his quotes and to use them. (Although, there's a big difference if you don't read it) Which means, if a person latches onto the conclusion of Neo and thinks it is right, that person is very likely to tend to think that everything else Neo wrote is superfluous. This is even more likely to occur if someone disagrees with Neo's final conclusions. Not every one uses quotes from authors they haven't read, of course, but given the amount of classical and modern work, it is almost necessary in the usage of quotations. Therefore, this produces a "systemic error". Meaning, the system produces the errors, not the individuals or the individual actions. This is as opposed to a good scientific methodology for an experiment, but faulty implementation experimentation.

If you recall, a lot of atheists use "separation of Church and State" to mean that the church cannot encroach upon politics and government positions or property. To a person who understands the context of the quotation, used by Jefferson in his time, that deliberate or undeliberate fabrication is the exact opposite of the reality. Which is that separation of Church and State, as it was used and when it was used, was meant to protect the Church from State persecution and restrictions. To which, removing judges that show the 10 Commandments and other things, is part of. A lot of people need to be curious and understand that the quotations they hear and the soundbites they see, are only the least part of the body of knowledge in existence. Another bad reaction is that when people see something long, they react to it in an emotional manner. For whatever reasons, because "normal" people don't tend to write such long things, they start psycho-analyzing the person's motivations rather than reading what the person is saying logically. This produces incompetent and retarded prejudices and conclusions, which interfere with communication instead of facillitating it.

The idea that you cannot have any belief in God, is atheism, which is a religion. And the Founding Fathers didn't really like the state sponsoring One Religion, because the state tends to want to "convert" everyone to that One Religion. To which of course, is rather obvious, because it is already happening. When a religion conflicts with the state and its jurisdiction, the religion becomes outlawed and persecuted.

You see the consequences in lacking a fundamental understanding of Communications Theory, Human Nature, and Propaganda in just one aspect of people's lives. Yet it is ongoing and malfunctioning, in many more instances.

Given my analysis of your format, Neo, I don't tend to think a lot of people who do understand your points, would act in the manner you so described. Because if they do understand it, presumably they also understand (so they believe) why it should be wrong and explain that reasoning through concise argumentation and logic. Chomsky would understand your points Neo, but he would choose a specific propaganda method to attack it. Most commentators here, I see, don't act in a manner consistent with Chomsky. Chomsky doesn't really believe in what he says. But most people who comment here, do believe in what they say, most of the time. (as another commenter said)

I can recognize that there are logical, well-thought-out arguments on the other side

I'm so far right of Bush, i'm actually on the Left of Neo's political spectrum, but right of most Democrats. So it is easy for me to see Neo's "other side".

A major part--maybe the major part--of critical thinking is learning to recognize logical fallacies in argument.

Judging from experience, most people can't even understand the definitions of specific logi fallacies seen on net sites. I'm not talking about the name and not remembering which is which, I'm talking about actually understanding the descriptive definitive sentences saying what each logical fallacy "is". They get so confused. How do I know? It was exactly that way when I started learning logic and philosophy and writing. I don't even want to know how it is for people with lower IQs than mine. There's a specific time limit by the way. Sometime after your college years, you are just going to stop learning how to think about your thinking. So you'd better input the template correctly the first time before the cement sets.

Why is this not ordinarily taught in school and considered a required subject, as important--if not more so--as history or English, or even reading?

Because that kind of knowledge is a weapon, and many people aren't comfortable with the new generation having superior weapons than the older generation. This happened with the internet, with revolutions in arms, and so on. Again, whether systemic or experimental, the problems will cause malfunctions to occur.

We'll see how far I get with this; I'm learning some of it as I go along, myself.

Neo, here's a tip. The best way to learn logical fallacies is to find specific instances of it in other people's writing, or even your own, and describe it in writing. Describe why it is a fallacy. Did that for a few weeks on a debate forum, and kaboom, all the falacies became ridiculously easy to remember. You won't instantly recognize them of course, if you don't think about it, but so long as you avoid them, it's not really a problem. So I really don't think about them any longer. Linear logic is not enough for me. Non-linear logic, now that's interesting.

I've got ideas for about two hundred different unwritten posts churning around right now, with short notes on most of them) has been known to get in my way.

Whenever I get an idea, I just start writing until I stop. Which is sorta like Eric Flint I guess. It's hard to write about ideas I've come up with in the past, cause it is like the muse slipped away in the night or something.

This is ridiculously funny of course, because whenever I was told to "brainstorm" in school, I never understood what they were talking about.

But I'm trying to do my bit--although, of course, the vast majority of my readers are already critical thinkers, right?

I think I'm more of a critical mass thinker than a critical thinker, since once it reaches a certain mass the chain reaction starts and then stops. As opposed to other kinds of critical thinking.

I guess it was an idea whose time had come, especially for psychobloggers

The psychobloggers behave on the same mental frequency. If you recall, Bookworm wrote about dirt about a few days before Neo did. Very close mental frequencies here, much can be learned.

Personally, I don't even care about trolling. Bad arguments are bad arguments, and good arguments are still arguments. Regardless, much can be learned from both.

Very often I ignore most of the comments and questions--troll-like or otherwise--here.

Right, like John Kerry. Our very own modern major general.

The problem is that, with history, there is no "right" answer

This must be different in contrast to war, in which Full Scale Invasion is the right answer.

This reminds me. Most people don't understand that proof and evidence are inductive logic. Deductive doesn't require proof or evidence. A lot of people don't seem to understand that for some reason... cause for some reason a lot of people say they will only believe in something that has been proven, but that is rather restrictive. (the person who said that people do the conclusion first then trace it back, is refering to Deductive Logic, in reverse. A has to be true, therefore...)

First, if we are driven by our fears, are we in control?

Well, maybe steve should have asked that when steve, you, recommended the US pull into Iraqi bases and don't come out, cause you were afraid they'd get blown up like helpless kittens by IEDs.

As I told people here before, don't take counsel of your fears. Obvioiusly one has to at least have the self-honesty to admit fears, before they can do something about taking or not taking counsel of them.

If you cannot reliably agree on past interpretations, then you cannot reliably forecast the future

I don't tend to think agreements by committee ever did forecast anything correctly. It is only a non sequitor in the sense, that well, it is not part of Steve's reasoning and therefore, well as you can see. And therefore, if you believe that something is wrong if it is not part of steve's reasoning, then I guess that would be a valid use of non sequitor... although not very useful in my opinion.

People can't predict the future because they don't know everything that is going on now. No computer programmer can know what a program can do, if all he knows is what his individual module and contribution is. This is irregardless of how much historical knowledge he has about the history of programming by his fellow team-programmers. To predict the future, one must know the present, regardless of the past.

The past has nothing, nothing, to do with any inherent ability in predicting the future. What the past is good for, is testing current scale models of analysis algorithmns. Feed specific data and times into the machine, get a prediction of the past. Then check to see if that was correct historically. Then, this allows accurate prediction of future events, using that algorithmn and method.

At 5:04 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Roll on the Floor Laughing my Pondanadonk off.

Lucas Arts is always good for a laugh or two.

Only the Sith speaks in absolutes, indeed. Sorta like the absolute that "anger and rage" will lead to the Dark Side. Sorta like the idea that familial connections will corrupt and distract a Jedi, therefore he must be removed from his family (social workers of Lucas Arts unite).

There is a lot of complexity in the Star Wars philosophy, it just so happened that it wasn't on purpose when Lucas Arts created the story foundation.

Lucas Art's own personal beliefs and inconsistencies and hypocritical actions, were translated to the Jedi. And that is why the Jedi deserved to be destroyed.

They did not deserve victory as the United States of America have deserved victory in our history.

There were some transparent things Lucas was trying to tell us, and I wrote it here.

A lot of the sith philosophy makes sense. In a kind of Freedom Fighter way that is.

It's just funny a person mentioned star wars.

By the way, I think Neo's title should have been "Critical Thinking is either critically useful or a meltdown serious problem"

In a way the Democrats are like out of control chain reactions. They don't know who to fight, so they bombard everybody.

At 6:00 PM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, if you wanted examples of logical flaws you don't have to look much further than the comments of that paleo-(as opposed to neo-)conservative, Steve. Non-sequiter? Neo writes "why else learn history, if not to help us act in the present and the future?", and Steve reads that as implying that "the past bears a single interpretation of cause". "Straw man" argument? How's this: "The argument that is latent right now is that there is ... a clearcut path of action (something like, immediately bombing the hell out of [Iran])"?
Begging the question? How about his clear implication that the "post-9/11 mentality" is irrational, when the issue itself is whether the fear and consequent decisions are entirely rational responses to a manifest reality?

But never mind Steve. The one point I'd add to this well-taken post is that genuine critical thinking involves more than just awareness of logical fallacies. And persuasive, even emotional appeals are not necessarily indications of a weak or duplicitous argument. I think that truly critical thinking involves an approach that, regardless of the passion of one's involvement in an issue, is always testing the case being made, probing the evidence, looking for alternatives, weighing each step. And such thinking is all the more critical -- as well, of course, as all the more difficult -- when applied to one's own pet positions and theories.

At 8:43 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

steve is more conservative than I am. The low down really is that steve writes in a sort of stream of consciousness style that I used to use, and still do at times.

Politically, steve is part of the Conservative Coalition back in 1990. It is true he is not a neo-conservative, simply because it is apparent he never switched from liberalism in the past.

That just means that while he is right of Murtha, in political and war calls, he is also to the left of other Republicans.

Namely, this is like the divide between those Old Generals calling for Rumsfeld's resignation. Namely, there are people, military or civilian conservative, who tend to favor the Bigger Hammer approach in the War on Terror. Namely, fighting this war if it was Gulf War I all over again with the stipulation, that this is the Cold War redone. Huge armored divisions, with enormous mechanized divisions in combined arms approach. 500,000 troops, a million troops preferably. 70% logistics chain, 7/10ths of the troops are logistics and not front line combat.

I'm not sure if that makes steve a troll, but his position is consistent, and thus is the divide in the Republican party. Between new blood and old blood, between liberal minded adaptation and conservative minded tradition.

Just as there is a divide in the military between "doing it the SF (spec ops) way" and "doing it the Army way". Wrong way, the right way, and the army way.

Most people's logic isn't very valid or rigorously thought out on the internet, so it's not like I get surprised all that often at people whose thinking don't tend to run in straight lines. Medical doctors had to call in philosophy experts to figure out what the "ethics of ethuanasia" was all about. They had no basis on which to figure out a policy, no logic, no reasoning, nadda. Ridiculous.

At 8:48 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Justin Olbrantz (Quantam) said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but I tend to think of a real troll as being defined by a malicious intent to either harass others (this being their primary concern, not just a by-product), or to break down discussion completely.

At 8:54 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I tend to think "troll", since it was never defined in denotative nor connotative nor contextual means, meant that someone was not worth debating or arguing with.

Steve is worth arguing with, because he is representative of the Old Guard in the Republican Party, and thus he should not have the sabotage intentions of the Democrats either domestically or foreign wise concerning American policy.

steve is more honest than most Democrats. He is also more polite, he doesn't usually get angry in his words, and he keeps his composure. A military discipline that most Democrats would benefit from (aqua), to the extent that I'd benefit from their lack of screaming, that is.

But, you can't expect everyone in your party to agree with you. Even if you don't belong in that party, except by choice.

At 9:43 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger troutsky said...

I see the world through a set of lenses, filters that have been developed by everything I have been taught by others or found on my own through research. When it comes to science, I can look at data produced by verifiable experiment. When it comes to politics or historical interpretation, Steve is correct, we are back to hypotheticals and beliefs.

At 9:48 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Joan said...

Sally, I think if we look hard enough at Steve's comment, we can find examples of almost every rhetorical ploy and fallacy that Dr. Sanity catalogued.

I respect that Steve took the time to answer my challenge to his first comment in this thread, but I didn't respond earlier because the only reply I could muster was "Whatever, dude." I guess he likes playing word games, but I'll still stand by my original opinion that he is missing the point.

At 10:13 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Troutsky should be aware, and so should everyone else, that logic is only 1/2 science. Science only uses inductive logic, it never uses deductive logic. Politics and philosophy make use of 100% of the field of logic.

Troutsky is not playing with a full deck if he thinks his scientific logic applies in any way to politics. And neither would steve, for example, if he did the same thing.

At 11:23 PM, April 16, 2006, Blogger a guy in pajamas said...

As Louis L'Amour once wrote, American schools don't teach kids how to think, they teach them how to have opinions.

Also, science uses every kind of logic, as well as intuition, accident, and other means. Robots don't do science, humans do.

At 9:32 AM, April 17, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Of the science, therefore, which expounds the operations of the human understanding in the pursuit of truth, one essential part is the inquiry: What are the facts which are the objects of intuition or consciousness, and what are these which we merely infer? But this inquiry has never been considered a portion of logic. Its place is in another and a perfectly distinct department of science, to which the name metaphysics more particularly belongs: that portion of mental philosophy which attempts to determine what part of the furniture of the mind belongs to it originally, and what part is constructed out of materials furnished to it from without. To this science appertain the great and much debated questions of the existence of matter; the existence of spirit, and of a distinction between it and matter; the reality of time and space, as things without the mind, and distinguishable from the objects which are said to exist in them. For in the present state of the discussion on these topics, it is almost universally allowed that the existence of matter or of spirit, of space or of time, is in its nature unsusceptible of being proved; and that if anything is known of them, it must be by immediate intuition. To the same science belong the inquiries into the nature of Conception, Perception, Memory, and Belief; all of which are operations of the understanding in the pursuit of truth; but with which, as phenomena of the mind, or with the possibility which may or may not exist of analysing any of them into simpler phenomena, the logician as such has no concern. To this science must also be referred the following, and all analogous questions: To what extent our intellectual faculties and our emotions are innate---to what extent the result of association: Whether God, and duty, are realities, the existence of which is manifest to us a priori by the constitution of our rational faculty; or whether our ideas of them are acquired notions, the origin of which we are able to trace and explain; and the reality of the objects themselves a question not of consciousness or intuition, but of evidence and reasoning.

At 9:44 AM, April 17, 2006, Blogger Stephen A. Meigs said...

I don't like the expression "troll". People who cross the bridge into forums, newsgroups, etc., with a great deal of commotion are not behaving like trolls, they are more behaving like Billy Goat Gruffs. Usually, these gruffy people are quacks, cranks, etc., but occasionally they are just people with extraordinary things to say who like to get to the point. An advantage of blogs over internet forums and newsgroups when it comes to discussion is that there is an editor on top whose views are fairly obvious. Without that, you get something akin to a toilet stall for grafiti. And in newsgroups especially (where the expression was used long before blogs were invented), where it is a total free-for-all, there are posters who hang out just like the troll in the fairytale and curse, snarl, stomp, etc., every time someone tries to cross the bridge into the newsgroup brusquely without bowing down to the regular posters. They don't solve the crank problem, because their posts about the cranks can be as voluminous and as little interesting as the posts of the cranks. And they do even more harm by scaring people away who have interesting things to say. But it's the trolls under the bridge who generally use the term troll, applying it to people who more resemble the third Billy Goat Gruff. Somehow criticizing people calling one a troll (in the modern sense) by pointing out that they are the ones being troll-like (in the fairy tale sense) sounds sort of like an insane, childish thing to do, but there you go, it's really actually the exact way they are behaving, and maybe if one analyzed the psychology or history involved, one would discover why troll-like people decided to call their antagonists trolls. My impression is I don't feel anyone in this thread is being much of a troll in any sense of the word.

At 11:37 AM, April 17, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Now if trolls phrased their argumentation methodology like step here, there wouldn't nearly be as much of a problem.

At 2:07 PM, April 17, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

> I happen to think that the "troll defense" is one of those last-ditch admissions of near-defeat. One can't answer the questions so the inquisitor becomes a "troll" and can be ignored.

It seems to me that a good question deserve an answer even if the person asking is asking for annoying grant you that much for the sake of discussion. And obviously if it is not a good question well then you can simply ignore their stupidity.)

At 2:14 PM, April 17, 2006, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

oops -- follow the above with this ---

I'll tackle that one -- the difference between a troll and a blogger is simple -- the troll isn't interested in the answers to the questions and never in a dialogue of response-counter-response.

Additionally, the troll utilizes the "reset switch" so common to The Left on many issues (I'll grant, I've found The Right to be similarly Stuck On Stupid where anti-abortion is concerned): If you DO get them into a dialogue, you can start from some agreed-upon set of questions, answer them, get a positive "yeah, that follows" response, take it another step, get a similar response, etc., until you demonstrate a major fallacy of their position, which they cannot and do not deny.

Then, two days later they'll be back at the original position which they were at as though the discussion never happened.

They've hit the "Reset Switch":

"Danger Will Robinson! Foreign, sensible ideas present! Ideas clash with established rule system! Purging initiated... Purging... Purging.... Ideas Purged. All is Right and Proper Once Again."


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