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Impediments Of Critical Thinking

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chapter 2: Part 5. Other impediments to critical thinking

We saw how words can stand for something, but cannot prove the existence of things, particularly mental constructs and concepts. Let us now consider other impediments to critical thinking.
Ignoring evidence, jumping to conclusions, being carried away by the initial impression and being influenced by others are some of the other barriers to critical thinking.
Logical fallacies in our own arguments and those of others can lead to poor thinking and wrong answers. Aristotle is credited with enumerating these items several centuries back. (See my essay on Media Awareness posted on November 2, 2008 for details) They are: Appeal to personal prejudice; appeal to the mass emotions; appeal to the pity factor; appeal to the brute force; appeal to the purse; appeal to prestige ; stress the ignorance; and any other dishonest argument. The original list was in Latin. Institute for Propaganda Analysis (not in service now) simplified this list of fallacies and translated them into simple English as follows: name calling, glittering generality, testimonial, stacking the card and jumping into the bandwagon!
Rudolf Flesch simplified these fallacies into two major categories. In one, the discussant brings up a point that is irrelevant. In the other, he leaves out a relevant point.
Irrelevant points are usually casted in concrete terms “aiming at personal interests, emotions and prejudices”. When relevant points are omitted, they are usually “disguised by high, wide, and unspecific language”. Politicians and advertisers use these techniques all the time.
The way to cut through these tricks is to ask the question “So what?” whenever you hear specifics. For example, if the ad says that a famous actress uses a brand of soap, ask “So what”? When you hear generalities, ask for specifics! For example, when the ad says that one brand of pain-killer is the favorite of doctors, ask for details.
In the Indian philosophic tradition, the Nyaya system lists 18 such fallacies in arguments. A partial list includes wrangling (jalpa), attacking the opposite side (vithanda), fallacies of reason (hethvabhasa), quibbling with words and sounds (cchalam), objections based on similarities and dissimilarities (jathi) and rebuking the other party (nigrahasthanam). Sound familiar?
The point is that these tricks have been known for centuries and in every culture. But we still let others lead us astray with these tricks. We have to watch for all these fallacies when we are listening to sources trying to manipulate our thinking. We have to look for these fallacies in our own thinking also, if we want to make good judgments and convince others through reasoning.
Now that all the needed information has been collected and processed and all the fallacies have been exposed, the next step is to think of all the possible answers (solutions or options). This requires creative thinking habits.
Prof. Edward De Bono has done most of the seminal work on the components of thinking skills. He has also developed different tools to teach thinking as a skill. His course on CoRT thinking Method has been tested at different settings, from elementary schools to corporate retreats. The component skills have interesting acronyms such as CAF (Consider All Factors), PMI (Positive, Negative and Interesting), APC (Alternatives, Possibilities and Choices) and OPV (Other People’s Views). Even though we may not have occasion to use each one of these skills, it will be useful for all of us to be aware of the general idea at least, so that we can think creatively. Introducing these skills to children will give them a head start for their future. (For details, read his book on de Bono’s Thinking Course by facts on File Publications, New York and Oxford)
Prof.De Bono showed that the three common difficulties in solving practical problems are emotions, Inhibitions and confusion. He also developed a whole system of creative thinking called Six Thinking Hats to overcome these difficulties. (Six Thinking Hats. Penguin Publications 1996). This system is easy to learn. There are courses tailored to children. The participants are given problems to solve and while thinking about different aspects of a problem, they use hats with different colors. For example, while dealing with emotional issues all the participants use red hats, and use white hat when they think that more information is needed before the problem can be solved. They use yellow hats while thinking about all the benefits of a specific solution and black hats are worn while thinking about the negative aspects of a specific solution. Green hat is for using creative mode and blue hat when trying to assess where one is at in the decisions-making process.
My own personal method for problem solving is based on various techniques I learnt from reading and observing. My work with chronic illness also taught me how to take all factors into account and not jump to conclusions. I actually write my thoughts on paper while I am working on a problem. I still recall how I wrote out all the ideas with the positives, negatives, emotional issues and other people’s views when I was asked to decide on amputation of a leg of a girl with severe scleroderma. I will outline my style in the following paragraphs.
My first question usually is: “How urgent is the situation?” If it is, I act on it. I may continue to reflect on my decision even afterwards and make sure I have not ignored some important factor in the process of making a quick decision. In other words, I will have an immediate response and a considered response.
If there is no urgency, I try to think about all possible solutions. I often ask others who are involved in the situation for their ideas. I may talk with experts in the field. This is how I was able to diagnose many diseases that were unknown when I started my medical career. I may talk to people who have faced similar problem before. I may also talk with wise old people in my family or in my community or among my colleagues.
Then, I make a list of all possible solutions. I may take a pause at this stage and let the facts sink in. The pause may be for a day to several days. This is the time to look at the problem from several new angles. I have been amazed at the number of times I have woken up from sleep with some new factor I have not entered into the equation.
The next step for me is to write all the positive and negative points for each of the solutions I have included in my list. In my final decision, the number of items in each column alone will not count. I will often give an arbitrary weight to each of the positive and negative points based on their importance relative to my values and the possible consequences if that option were to be chosen.
I, then, choose the most logical option based on the advantages and disadvantages, risks and benefits of each of the options. At this most critical point, I have to check my logical choice with my heart. In other words, I have to make sure that my final decision will be congruent with my values and personality. Therefore, my question is: “Can I live with myself if I make this decision?” On many occasions, I have rejected the most logical decision because my “heart” was not comfortable with it.
Finally I have the answer that is logical and passes my personal test. But, it is not over yet because I still have to answer a few more questions:
1 What are the short term consequences, positive and negative?
2. What are the long term consequences?
3. Who will be affected by this decision? Have I informed them?
4. Am I making this decision for positive reasons (because I feel deeply about this issue or person) or negative reasons (to avoid a situation)?
We will not have time to think about all our problems so elaborately. These steps are needed only for major issues to help us make prudent decisions.
Even with the best of plans and good intentions, the outcome may not be what we hoped for. It may even be unexpected. We just have to accept the outcome and not try to find excuses for poor results. It is best to follow the most important lesson from the Bhagavat Gita: “Our role is to do our duty according to our Dharma; we are not to worry about the results”.
  • Critical thinking takes place in a mental environment consisting of our experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Some elements in this inner environment can sabotage our efforts to think critically or at least make critical thinking more difficult. Fortunately, we can exert some control over these elements. With practice, we can detect errors in our thinking, restrain attitudes and feelings that can disrupt our reasoning, and achieve enough objectivity to make critical thinking possible.
  • The most common of these hindrances to critical thinking fall into two main categories: (1) Those obstacles that crop up because of how we think and (2) those that occur because of what we think. The first category is comprised of psychological factors such as our fears, attitudes, motivations, and desires. The second category is made up of certain philosophical beliefs.

Psychological Obstacles

  • None of us is immune to the psychological obstacles. Among them are the products of egocentric thinking. We may accept a claim solely because it advances our interests or just because it helps us save face. To overcome these pressures, we must (1) be aware of strong emotions that can warp our thinking, (2) be alert to ways that critical thinking can be undermined, and (3) ensure that we take into account all relevant factors when we evaluate a claim.
  • The first category of hindrances also includes those that arise because of group pressure. These obstacles include conformist pressures from groups that we belong to and ethnocentric urges to think that our group is superior to others. The best defense against group pressure is to proportion our beliefs according to the strength of reasons.

Philosophical Obstacles

  • We may also have certain core beliefs that can undermine critical thinking (the second category of hindrances). Subjective relativism is the view that truth depends solely on what someone believes—a notion that may make critical thinking look superfluous. But subjective relativism leads to some strange consequences. For example, if the doctrine were true, each of us would be infallible. Also, subjective relativism has a logical problem—it’s self-defeating. Its truth implies its falsity. There are no good reasons to accept this form of relativism.
  • Social relativism is the view that truth is relative to societies—a claim that would also seem to make critical thinking unnecessary. But this notion is undermined by the same kinds of problems that plague subjective relativism.
  • Philosophical skepticism is the doctrine that we know much less than we think we do. One form of philosophical skepticism says that we cannot know anything unless the belief is beyond all possible doubt. But this is not a plausible criterion for knowledge. To be knowledge, claims need not be beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all reasonable doubt.