Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Have you ever just sensed that something wasn’t quite right about something someone said even though it sounded good?  I have.  People don’t always make sense and they don’t always reason well.  Sometimes it’s hard to determine what point they are trying to make or even why.  Critical thinking skills can help us to determine these things and more.  Once we know what is really being said, we can then make an informed decision as to whether or not we should agree or disagree, or follow their course of action.  

When we are learning about critical thinking, we refer to a specific point of view as an argument.  Here, an argument is not an altercation, but a statement or statements made in favor of a particular point of view.  It is usually intended to convince or persuade someone to agree with the one making the argument.  This may give you visions of Perry Mason or some other TV attorney, but arguments are also used in other areas too, such as advertisements, political campaigns, news reporting, social media posts, political or social movements, theology or even kids wanting to stay up late!  Remember:  Everyone has an agenda when they make an argument — they want you to agree with their point of view.

There are three very important questions to ask yourself as you think through ideas presented to you, especially in the public forum:

  1. Is it true?  Do the “facts” correspond to reality?
  2. What presuppositions or facts are assumed?
  3. Are the conclusions drawn logical and reasonable?

The answers to these questions will allow you to make your own decisions about whether ideas have merit and are worth considering or if those ideas should be rejected, in whole or in part.  Let’s address these three questions more specifically:

Question 1:  An argument is very unlikely to come to the right conclusion if the facts are not true.  Rarely, however, someone might to come to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.  Still, look for errors and falsehoods that might disprove the argument.

Questions 2:  When making an argument, there are always certain facts that are taken for granted before the argument begins.  These are things that the arguer supposes or assumes to be true in advance, called presuppositions.  For instance, if I said I were going to fly around the world, it would be reasonable to presuppose that I mean to use an airplane, because people do not fly like birds.  Sometimes, however, presuppositions are not so obvious.  You might have to think a little harder to ferret them out, but there are always things assumed to be true before an argument is made.  Also, be sure to specifically watch for false presuppositions that might undermine the argument.

Question 3:  How do we know if an argument is logical or reasonable?  Critical thinking skills are necessary to navigate the onslaught of information in our postmodern culture.  Without getting too involved in the complexities like the validity or soundness of arguments, or formal and informal fallacies, I will focus here on a few tactics that are common to bad arguments called logical fallacies.  A fallacy is simply something that is false.  Remember when you recognize a logical fallacy, it is at least a bad argument.  However, it could also be an attempt to intentionally mislead or deceive.

Common Logical Fallacies

The following are adapted from The Fallacy Detective by Nathaniel Bluedorn and Hans Bluedorn (ISBN 978-0-9745315-7-1).  I highly recommend this book to teach children (and adults) reasoning skills.

Ad Hominem Fallacy:  I’m starting with this one because this is my teenagers’ favorite fallacy.  At our house, it usually goes like this:  One of the older boys is arguing with the youngest brother about anything/nothing and the youngest one says, “You’re stupid!”  Then the older one says, “That’s an ad hominem fallacy!” and then the youngest one stomps away mad.  An ad hominem fallacy is where the person making the argument is attacked, rather than the argument itself.  This is a typical tactic in political debates (and brother fights).

Red Herring Fallacy:  A red herring is an irrelevant point which is introduced into an argument that sounds like it might prove the argument, but it doesn’t.  A red herring might also be a question or comment that distracts from the real argument.  As a literary device, red herrings are used in mysteries or thrillers to distract the reader from the real culprit and hide his/her identity until the end of the story.  This is a typical tactic in political debates when a candidate wants to avoid answering the real question.

Faulty Appeal:  There are two similar faulty appeal fallacies.  The faulty appeal to authority is using information from a source that has no actual authority on the subject matter, while the appeal to the people is making a claim based on the viewpoint of a group of people who are not authorities.  Neither appeal carries any weight in an argument.  For example, “All the doctors at the hospital use this mechanic, so he must be the best.”  While it may be true that all the doctors at the hospital use this mechanic, doctors are not usually authorities on auto mechanics.  Furthermore, a large clientele of doctors does that prove that a particular mechanic is the best.  He may be the cheapest or the closest to the hospital or the only one in town and that’s why all the doctors use him.

Straw Man Fallacy:  Straight from Fallacy Detective:  The straw man fallacy distorts an opponent’s position just enough to make it weak. The new argument that is created is called a “straw man” because it is easy to knock down.  (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your argument down.”)  The original argument was not as easy to knock down.  For example:

Mrs.:  Our car isn’t running right.  I think we need to buy a better one — something more comfortable.

Mr.:  Oh, so you want us to buy a brand new fancy car?  I don’t think we have enough money for a Rolls Royce.

False Dichotomy:  This is also called the “either-or fallacy.”  In this fallacy, an argument is presented where only two choices are given in a particular matter.  “Either drive your car to work or walk.”  While it is true that I can’t both drive my car and walk to work, those aren’t my only choices.  I might not go to work at all.  I might have someone else drive me.  I might ride my bike.  In any event, I am not limited to only those two choices.  It is a false dichotomy — there are more than two choices.

Argument from Silence:  An argument cannot be true simply because there is no evidence to the contrary.  For example, if I said, “There are no mountain lions near where I live because I’ve never seen one.”  Mountain lions are native to my state and I live in a rural area, so I cannot logically argue that there aren’t any where I live.  If I lived in a metropolitan area, that would help contribute to my statement, because there is evidence that mountain lions do not naturally reside in densely populated areas.  However, I cannot assert the truth of a statement simply because there is a lack of evidence to prove its untruthfulness.

Bandwagon Fallacy:  This is the appeal to do what “everyone else” is doing.  This is a fallacy because it assumes that something is true just because many or most people believe it to be true.  In reality, popularity has no bearing on truth.  This is a favorite of teenagers:  “But Mom, everybody will be there!”

Appeal to Emotion:  Here, the arguer tries to stir emotions without any logical reasoning for their argument in order to sidestep or obscure the fact that they have no evidence for their appeal.  This is a type of manipulation used to replace logical arguments.  This tactic is commonly used in advertisements such as the ad for a certain security system that depicts a fearful family who has just been robbed because they don’t have a security system (cue dramatic music).

Begging the Question Fallacy:  This is a type of circular reasoning where the argument assumes the truth of its conclusion or that requires its conclusion to be true.  This has also been called the “chicken and the egg” argument or a vicious circle.  For example, “Everyone wants the new iProduct because it’s the hottest item this season!”  

Dear reader, I hope this helps you.  It is my desire that you learn how to think critically so you won’t be fooled by flawed arguments, crafty deceptions, or rhetorical manipulations.  Of course, it is my hope always that you would see the same truth I see in our Saviour and Lord, Jesus the Christ.  More than that, I hope that you would view the world through the lens of Christ and let it act like a pair of well fitting glasses that allow you see the world more clearly.  Let these tools be a beginning.  Remember our enemy, the Satan, is prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may destroy with his schemes and deceptions.  (1 Pet 5:8, Joh 8:44, 2 Cor 11:13-14, Rev 12:9)  He will use these and many other lies to carry you away from the truth.  Be vigilant my brothers and sisters.  Train your children well.

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