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Critical Thinking .pdf


I frequently ask people to think for themselves, to make up their own minds, to come to their own conclusions. Yet it has occurred to me that some people have never been given the tools to do this. Asking people to do something, without giving them the wherewithal, is not really fair.

So I'm going to hand you the key to the toolbox.

Thinking is a skill. Like any other skill, it's something that can be learned. Unfortunately, it's not often taught in the early grades, where it's really needed. Instead, for whatever reason, it's considered a college course if it's taught at all.

The name of the skill is Critical Thinking or Logic. Not critical as in "harsh" or "disparaging," but critical as in "a turning point" or "absolutely necessary."

If you learn this skill, you will be able to tell not only that someone's reasoning doesn't "ring true," but why. You will be able to tell if someone is expressing a fact, or only an opinion, and how to weigh that opinion. You will be able to recognize the "red flags" that show someone is attempting to manipulate you. You will be able to see clearly through the propaganda and verbal fog of today's "sound bytes" and get to the heart of the matter.

You will become manipulation proof.

You will be able to present your own views clearly and succinctly, and argue your own points with faultless logic, without resorting to emotional arguments.

I will warn you, though. If you are going to learn this skill, you will have to become fair and open-minded. You may find, as you learn to be honest with yourself, that some of your own dearly held and very comfortable beliefs are based on faulty reasoning, or no reasoning at all. You may decide that you have to give them up.

Because Critical Thinking means that you actually listen to what others are saying. It means not blindly accepting what you are told; but not dismissing it out of hand, either.

Once you learn Critical Thinking, and combine it with Research and Experience, you will find that your world changes.

You see, we live in a world where perceptions frequently don't match reality. What we think is happening is often not what is really happening at all. What we think is important isn't what's really important. What we think is risky is frequently not what is really risky.

People may even engage in behavior that actually endangers their lives in an attempt to avoid perceived risk.

Take, for instance, the whole thing about plastic sheeting and duct tape from February, 2003. The government announced that we were at risk of chemical or biological attack from terrorists, and recommended that everyone buy duct tape and plastic sheeting so they could seal off a "safe room" in their home.

Millions and millions of people went out and did just that, without thinking it through. If they had thought, they would have realized that they would be at more risk from suffocating in a sealed room than from whatever agents terrorists might be able to use. If anyone had actually sealed themselves into a room, they might have died.

Not thinking is dangerous. Believing authority figures, without checking what they say against common knowledge, your own experience, or the facts of the case, is dangerous.

Being able to think, to research and to asses risks can end fear. At the very least, it can enable you to take precautions that might work, or to determine what you should actually be afraid of.

Being able to think, to compare the words and records of candidates for public office, or the words and actions of your kids, will enable you to tell when you are being lied to.

Being able to think, to point at a phrase on the tv and say, "Straw man" or to listen to an advertisement and say, "Denying the antecedent" (both famous logical fallacies) will enable you to make sound judgments about what products or positions to "buy."

Being able to think, to understand causality well enough to see where a certain series of actions is likely to end, or to see how to get where you would like to go, will enable you to move purposefully through life, instead of just drifting.

Being able to think, and to change your mind if new evidence emerges (also a vital part of this skill) will keep you from being trapped in dead-end behavior.

It's not easy to learn, and it's not always comfortable to do. But it can give you a better life; and I believe that if enough of us learn it, it could give us a better society as well.

If you are interested, I have written a paper that explains the basics, and gives you some links for further study. It's really too long to post as an essay; but you can download it as a pdf file.

Read it, if you are interested, and think about it!