Sunday, January 1, 2012

Critical Thinking

He then advises them to use logic, lamenting, "Why don't they teach logic at these schools?"

      -- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis

I worked for many years for a large corporation with a very simple one-word slogan, “THINK”. (It was a good thing that we had THINK signs all over the place because even with them there were many who forgot to). Sometimes simple is good, but not in this case. Simply thinking isn't enough. Many people do a lot of thinking and never have a good idea or figure anything out. You have to think critically. You can find some really complex definitions out there that may be way more accurate than how I express it, but at least your brain doesn't explode trying to get your hands around how I'm about to define it.

When I talk about critical thinking I am concerned with drawing conclusions (and presumably taking appropriate action) based on un-biased, clear, reasonably complete checking of the facts. How much checking is needed to be “reasonably complete” depends on the subject. How important is it? What are the consequences to being wrong? Are your decisions or actions irrevocable? Generally if you are going to take any action, now or in the future, or you find the subject worthy enough to comment about verbally or in writing, it is worthy of at least some research and thought. To not think critically is stupid.

I have a habit of reading my Facebook page or reading comments to online news items while eating lunch. I can't remember the last time I did this without reading at least one item that demonstrated that the writer applied absolutely no thought before responding.

Why does this matter? Propaganda depends on your not thinking critically. Propaganda's close cousin, advertising, also depends on your not thinking critically. You are constantly bombarded with both and neither are there for your benefit. Yes, there are some good causes and good products, but if they are truly good they will still appear good after you think about it. Worst of all, lack of critical thinking is habit forming and contagious. Great civilizations have been lost because its citizens forgot how to think critically, or just got too lazy to think.

I'll give more examples in future posts, along with suggestions about how to improve your critical thinking, but I'd like to pass on an example I encountered today. A "friend" on my Facebook page, a raving left-wing activist (but I like him anyway) posted a reference to a poster about inequality in our justice system. The heading says, "Our two-tiered justice system". Below that are two pictures. One is a good looking white guy in a suit labeled, "This man could face up to 6 months in prison or home detention for stealing $2.5 million dollars." The other picture is a black guy in what appears to be prison garb with the caption, "This man spent 33 years in prison for stealing a $140 black and white TV." The bottom of the poster says, "Crime Does Pay for the 1%."

The Facebook post is followed by many responses, most saying how terrible the system is, and how the rich always get away with their crimes and the poor fellow doesn't etc. Some argue that white-collar crimes should result in lower sentences than "real" crimes and that while both are bad, if you have crowded prisons you should use the space for dangerous criminals. Regardless of the comments, I didn't read one response that indicated that the author had done even basic research on the subject. All responded with strong opinions reacting only to the information presented, which was incomplete and unsubstantiated. (I forgot to mention that the names of the two criminals are given on the poster). All of the comments, until I posted my response, were biased, based upon muddled reasoning, and showed no evidence of checking the facts. Although not the topic of this post, this is also a good example of not asking what the purpose of the original poster was created.

With about a minute of research on each person on the poster, I found:

  • The white-collar guy was found guilty of insider trading because he used information given him by his father about a business transaction in the works which he used to buy stock in a company and flip it for a $2.5 million dollar gain. The father was also convicted and tossed off the board of directors of the company. They guy was given a suspended sentence, prohibited from working in the finance industry ever again, required to return all of the money, and has to pay a fine (amount not specified). Definitely a bad fellow.
  • The other fellow, the thief who stole a TV set, definitely got an unreasonable sentence, although he wasn't initially sentenced to the 33 years stated on the poster, nor was it a simple theft. Although not tried for assault, the record shows that he walked into the home of an 87-year old woman, "roughed her up", and took off with the TV set. He was caught before he could sell it. At the time he had a long rap sheet for thefts and some violent crimes. While I couldn't find the exact initial sentence in the press clippings, everybody, including the prosecution say the sentence was unreasonable. However, his prison stay was extended because of numerous prison rule violations including weapons charges and violence. He was denied parole 25 times. While there is no question that he got a bad deal, he is hardly the poster child for injustice.

So what's the point? Whether "they" are trying to sell you a product or a politician, or they are trying to get you to take action on their cause, they are counting on your not checking the facts. They are counting on you to react without thinking. They don't really think they are going to get away with fooling all of the people, but it is a numbers game. x% (whatever they think they can get away with) times a really big number is a big enough number.

When you see or hear something, check out the facts before buying, voting, or commenting. Not doing so is stupid.

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