Critical Thinking: A Few Thoughts

Some random thoughts.

  • The basic concept of critical thinking is simple. It’s the art of taking charge of your own mind.
  • Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.
  • Critical thinkers are by nature skeptical. They approach texts with suspicion.

Fallacies are common errors in reasoning that undermine the logic of an argument.

1. Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim. Example:

Well-conceived (lexically-informed) coursebooks help learners learn better than badly-conceived (grammar-informed) coursebooks.

The conclusion that should be proved is already assumed in the claim.

2. Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it. Example:

Coursebooks present a well-organised sequence of classroom practice and a well-organised sequence of classroom practice is good.

The conclusion and the evidence used to prove it are basically the same idea. Specific evidence is needed to support either half of the sentence.

3. Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than his or her opinions or arguments. Example:

Universal grammar is wrong because Chomsky is rude about those he criticises.

Obviously fallacious but very common (BTW; I challenge anybody to find examples of ad homminen arguments on my blog).

4. Ad populum: An emotional appeal that speaks to positive or negative concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Example:

If you were less interested in proving yourself right by giving obscure academic references, you would appreciate what I’m trying to say.

Obviously fallacious, but a common ploy used in those replying to my criticisms of their work.

5. Red Herring: A diversionary tactic that avoids the key issues, often by avoiding opposing arguments rather than addressing them. Example:

What you say about my inability to put together a coherent argument in well-formed sentences may have some justification, but what’s important is that you resort to gratuitous insults.

The author switches the discussion away from the point in question and talks instead about another issue.

6. Straw Man: This move oversimplifies an opponent’s viewpoint and then attacks that hollow argument.

Example:

Jane says “In CELTA, I think we should look at alternatives to the current end of course exams, such as portfolios .”

John says “If you abandon the established and proven ways of objectively assessing students’ knowledge and competencies, then you undermine the high standards we’ve set for the course.”   

Jane didn’t suggest abandoning all assessment. John is not treating the argument fairly, or refuting Jane’s position.

7. Moral Equivalence: This fallacy compares minor misdeeds with major wrongs. Example

Your suggestion that I write badly and can’t put together a coherent argument is as deplorable as a fundamental attack on human rights. 

The author compares the relatively harmless actions of an  outspoken critic with a serious attack on decent values. This comparison is unfair and inaccurate.

When studying for an MA or when walking through life, one of the very best things you can do is keep your atenna up and, to mix metaphors, sniff out bullshit. Bullshit is everywhere, and lots of it is used to defend the status quo.

Thinking critically involves never believing what you’re told without question. Sniffing out fallacies is one of the best mental exercises there is and you should make it a habit. Whenever you read a text, particularly if it’s the work of anybody in authority (academic, political, whatever), first check for logical fallacies. Then, try to detect the assumptions which inform the argument: what does the argument rest on? While there are some excellent scholars and some excellent teachers with little academic inclination writing fantastic stuff that we would do well to take notice of, there are also a bunch of fools (more and more of them teaching in universities) talking crap. We need to hone our critical thinking in order to push ahead.

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10 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: A Few Thoughts

  1. Always great to hear anyone sticking up for critical thinking, but I’m not convinced that your example of a straw man really is an example of a straw man. The author here doesn’t seem to be attributing any views to anyone. Anyway, wouldn’t attributing a hateful ‘motive’ to an interlocutor constitute an ad hominem fallacy rather that a straw man?

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  2. Hi Patrick,

    The straw man argument I gave was “Materials banks break the law, make unreasonable demands on teachers, and are just chaotic, amateurish attempts to do what coursebooks do better”. There’s no ad hominem argument here, is there?

    Still, I grant you that it’s not a compelling example. The best one I know is Popper’s summary of Marx’s arguments in “The Open Society, Vol.2.”

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  3. Hi Juliet,
    I don’t think so. Harry E. sounds like he was saying “I’ll tell you what you want to hear”. A straw man argument is when you substitute someone’s argument with a distorted, exaggerated, or misrepresented version of it, in order to make arguing against it easier. I’ve changed the example of a straw man argument in the post.

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  4. It seems to me that the barriers to critical thinking are almost entirely psychological rather than cognitive. What makes someone a critical thinker is surely a readiness to change their mind if presented with information of which they were previously unaware or if it is pointed out to them that their beliefs are not all consistent with one another. People are, it seems to me, often reluctant to change their minds in these circumstances for three main reasons,

    i) people identify with their present beliefs and derive a lot of their sense of self image from the beliefs that they presently hold

    ii) people tend to associate with other people who hold similar beliefs to themselves and being prepared to abandon those beliefs would jeopardize their continued membership of the social groups of which they are presently members

    and

    iii) people often hold the beliefs that they do because it would be materially advantageous to them if those beliefs were generally held (Upton Sinclair famously remarked that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” This is surely also what Mandy Rice Davies meant by her ‘he would, wouldn’t he?’ remark.)

    Depressingly, if I’m right about this, that people’s reasons for clinging to their present beliefs are psychological rather then rational, then reasoning with them is likely to be largely a waste of time.

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  5. Hi Patrick,

    I take your points that critical thinking is an attitude and that people tend to use their thinking to defend their beliefs rather than to question them. I even tend to agree that relying on reason to change people’s beliefs is unlikely to get good results. But I think one of the biggest responsibilities of those working in post-graduate education is to encourage students to be critical: while doing an MA, students really must appreciate the importance of adopting a critical attitude towards everything they read, and of being on the look-out for spurious and fallacious arguments. I’m particularly concerned that an increasing numbers of those teaching post-graduate courses can’t think straight, and, consequently, there are increasing numbers of students who are not aware of any problems with the reasoning or argumentation they use in their papers.

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  6. Pingback: BBC News for Active Listening and Critical Thinking: A Flipped Classroom Approach | Martin Cooke's Teaching blog

  7. Hi there,
    I find it less helpful to mesh the terms critical thinking and informal logic. I think they stand for quite separate concepts.To me the discussion of logical fallacies, how arguments should be constructed, is a subcategory in logic. Informal logic provides thinking tools that inform sound argumentation. They are applicable when we face an assertion, a claim. Very little of communication would be subject to logical scrutiny. I would not read poetry using logic. I like peanut butter … can’t be argued with. Critical thinking seems to be a wider term. One can think critically about art, and food, and relationships, etc. Informal logic is helpful to inform critical thinking. Critical thinkers, well endowed with a critical attitude can lack logic. This can be a rather awful experience. I frequently meet students that think critically, they think, where I have to sort out ideas and clear up mental fussiness. I am not sure if we can blame reason for lacking convincing power. Reason seems to be partially responsible for the fact that we tend to end up with fixed positions. I would think a right wing neo-liberalist will present a series of well formed arguments to back up his or her position. I guess we are always at risk to rationalize our preferences. To discuss preferences we would need yet another set of tools, besides informal logic, probably moral codes, ethics, traditions.

    best,

    Thom

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