Truth-Seeking Critical Thinking

What is critical thinking? According to my favorite critical thinking text, it is disciplined thinking that is governed by clear intellectual standards. This involves identifying and analyzing arguments and truth claims, discovering and overcoming prejudices and biases, developing your own reasons and arguments in favor of what you believe, considering objections to your beliefs, and making rational choices about what to do based on your beliefs.

Clarity is an important standard of critical thought. Clarity of communication is one aspect of this.We must be clear in how we communicate our thoughts, beliefs, and reasons for those beliefs.  Careful attention to language is essential here. For example, when we talk about morality, one person may have in mind the conventional morality of a particular community, while another may be thinking of certain transcultural standards of morality. Defining our terms can greatly aid us in the quest for clarity. Clarity of thought is important as well; this means that we clearly understand what we believe, and why we believe it.

Precision involves working hard at getting the issue under consideration before our minds in a particular way. One way to do this is to ask the following questions: What is the problem at issue? What are the possible answers? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each answer?

Accuracy is unquestionably essential to critical thinking. In order to get at or closer to the truth, critical thinkers seek accurate and adequate information. They want the facts, because they need the right information before they can move forward and analyze it.

Relevance means that the information and ideas discussed must be logically relevant to the issue being discussed. Many pundits and politicians are great at distracting us away from this.

Consistency is a key aspect of critical thinking. Our beliefs should be consistent. We shouldn’t hold beliefs that are contradictory. If we find that we do hold contradictory beliefs, then one or both of those beliefs are false. For example, I would likely contradict myself if I believed both that "Racism is always immoral" and "Morality is entirely relative". This is logical inconsistency. There is another form of inconsistency, called practical inconsistency, which involves saying you believe one thing, but doing another. For example, if I say that I believe my family is more important than my work, but I tend to sacrifice their interests for the sake of my work, then I am being practically inconsistent.

The last 3 standards are logical correctness, completeness, and fairness. Logical correctness means that one is engaging in correct reasoning from what we believe in a given instance to the conclusions that follow from those beliefs. Completeness means that we engage in deep and thorough thinking and evaluation, avoiding shallow and superficial thought and criticism. Fairness involves seeking to be open-minded, impartial, and free of biases and preconceptions that distort our thinking.

Like any skill or set of skills, getting better at critical thinking requires practice. Anyone wanting to grow in this area might think through these standards and apply them to an editorial in the newspaper or on the web, a blog post, or even their own beliefs. Doing so can be a useful and often meaningful exercise.

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PHIL/PSYC 2100 Critical Thinking

Course Overview

This course provides tools for improved critical thinking. Critical thinking is the careful application of reasoning to determine whether some belief or claim is true.The course helps the student to identify, analyze, and evaluate various patterns of reasoning as they occur in the real world, and to reveal their potential pitfalls. The course explores the reliability of other grounds of belief as well, such as perception, judgment, experts, authorities, rhetoric, and the media. The course also covers basic psychology and sociology of reasoning and belief, and the course concludes with a critical discussion of science, the scientific method, and religion. Students will maintain a journal in which real life examples of the concepts discussed in class are collected and analyzed. Students also present on a group project on a specific topic or issue in which they apply and show off their improved critical thinking skills.

Course Content

This course follows the following basic schedule of topics:

Critical Thinking and Belief

People often hold beliefs based on bad reasoning, or not based on any reasoning at all. Critical Thinking helps people to develop beliefs that are more likely to be true. Unfortunately, there are a lot of obstacles to critical thinking, such as institutionalized thinking, habitual thinking, ideology, an inability to think independently, fear of antagonizing others, fear of losing one's own identity, wishful thinking, etc. etc. The first step to become a critical thinker is to become aware of those obstacles, and thus not only enabling one to actually become a critical thinker, but also realizing that the world would probably be a better place if we all did some more critical thinking. Indeed, critical thinking is the cornerstone of science, philosophy, and a healthy democracy.

Arguments and Logic

Arguments provide support for the truth of claims, and are therefore crucial for the truth-seeking process of crtical thinking. At the same time, many people hold beliefs on the basis of bad arguments. Being able to separate between good and bad arguments is therefore a crucial skill of a critical thinker. We will cover argument identification (realizing when one is presented with an argument when reading or hearing something), argument analysis and structure (critical reading/listening: being able to identify the exact conclusion and supporting reasons, and how those reasons fit together in the argument as a whole), and argument evaluation (are the supporting reasons well-founded? Do they actually support the conclusion? How strongly? Is the argument deductive or not? How is the logic of the argument? etc.)

Rhetorical and Emotional Strategies

Critical thinkers have a love-hate relationship with rhetoric and emotions. On the one hand, it is good to know something about rhetoric to get one's point across and be effective. And, emotions play an important cognitive role in signaling appropriate or inappropriate behavior, or flag the importance of a situation. On the other hand, however, both rhetoric and emotions are often misused by people to try and persuade, rather than seek truth. In fact, rhetorical and emotional persuasion is a staple of human behavior, and a good critical thinker should be able to once again separate the good parts from the bad parts. Another important distinction that must be made here is to separate between the real life presentation of the argument (whether written, spoken, or through some other medium of communication), and the abstract argument hidden therein.

Fallacies

Many bad arguments in real life follow one of several patterns; patterns of thinking that, while appealing and persuasive at first sight, turn out to bad after all. These are called fallacies. Fallacies are ubiquitous in real life exactly because they have evolved to be so persuasive, and thus effective, and indeed often go hand in hand with rhetorical tactics and emotional ploys. A critical thinker must be a master in fallacy detection.

Statistical and Causal Reasoning

Two very specific kinds of reasoning, statistical and causal reasoning, are high-lighted, since they are fairly ubiquitous and of great importance, but at the same time are very much subject to pitfalls and abuse. They are particularly tricky since they have the air of high precision and logic, and easily provide the user with a sense of mastery of this material, when in fact they haven't mastered this kind of reasoning at all. Indeed, reasoning involving probability, statistics, and generalizations in general is notoriously difficult, and that is not just about the mathematics, but also about the background context, conditions, and assumptions that may or may not hold in whatever real life situation one tries to apply this kind of reasoning, as well as how material is selected, analyzed, interpreted, and presented. The same goes for causal reasoning, in which one tries to establish important causal claims such as vaccines causing autism, eating bread causing Alzheimer's, etc. etc: given the potential of correlations due to reverse causation, common cause, indirect cause, or simple coincidence, causal claims are much more difficult to establish than most people think.

Cognitive and Social Biases

We already saw that people are prone to many errors in reasoning and judgment making; whether they are persuaded through the language being used, by a few striking examples from personal or anecdotal experience, or any other form bad reasoning. However, reasoning isn't the only way in which humans come to beliefs: often humans adopt beliefs from people around them, on the basis of authority, intimidation, or other form of socialization, all of which is subject to forceful social biases effecting clear and critical thinking. We will pay particular attention to the media, and how to critically think about what one hears or reads in the classroom, newpaper, street, internet, etc, and how individual, corporate, institutional, or other forms of interest can easily bias what and how things are presented to us. We will also take a look at the cognitive biases behind our own perceptual skills and recollections of memory, and other forms of cognitive and psychological biases such as the availability heuristic, representativeness heuristic, confirmation bias, etc. etc.

Science and Religion

The final segment of the course focuses on science and religion: two powerful institutions that greatly affect what people believe, but that sometimes seem to be at odds with each other. We will show how science, and the scientific method, has incorporated and formalized many of the critical thinking skills we have gone over in the course, and how it is trying to insulate itself from the many potential pitfalls and biases that plague human reasoning and belief formation. However, we will also discuss how science isn't immune to those very biases either, and how some people can slip into 'scientism': an unreasonable trust in scientific theories and pronouncements. This will be followed by a critical discussion of religion as a source of belief, but in the end, no pronouncement as to whether 'sience' or 'religion' is 'good' or 'bad' will be made. Rather, a good critical thinker is urged to not be distracted by any such labels, but to critically think about each and every issue using the tools provided in the course.

Course Assignments

There are 3 types of assignments in the course

Quizzes

Throughout the semester stduents will have short quizzes that test the students on their ability to apply the material to small bits of real lfie material selected by the instructor. Some of thew quizzes will be individual, while others are done in small groups of about 3 students each.

Course Journal

An important part of the course is the Student Journal, in which students collect examples from real life (things they read or heard, whether on the news, in a magazine, on the internet, from their teachers, family, or friends, etc. etc.) and analyze them using the toold provided in the course. The material to be analyzed must be recent and of local or global interest, thus showing the power, importance, and aplicability of critical thinking in real life.

Group Presentation

The final project of the course is a group research and rpesentation project. In small groups of 3 or 4 students, students pick a specific topic to analyze, e.g. 'gun control' or 'vaccines'. The group will then research how and what the public thinks about this topic, what the common arguments or evidence is presented in this context, and to check this for any of the rhetorical, emotional, psychological, social, or other types of pitfalls and mistakes.

Typical Grade Distribution

Typically, most grades are around a B: about half of the students get a B-, B, or B+.

Connections to Other Courses

Some basic argument analysis is also done in PHIL-1110 Introduction to Philosophy and IHSS-1140 Minds and Machines, but this course goes far more in depth. On the other hand, this course spends only little time on formal logic, which is covered in far more depth in PHIL-2140 Introduction to Logic. Finally, basic psychological and cognitive phenomena referred to in this course can be studied in more depth in PSYC-1200 General Psychology, PHIL/PSYC 2120 Introduction to Cognitive Science, and PSYC-4370 Cognitive Psychology.

An important note to students contemplating taking either Introduction to Logic or Critical Thinking

Typical Schedule of Topics

Course page Spring 2013

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