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Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

For those who may not be aware of it yet, The Reasoner is wonderful, interdisciplinary, monthly publication devoted to matters that fall largely within the sphere of formal logic and research on reasoning.  Because the focus is so often on formal methods this may not seem, at first, to be the kind of thing that most argumentation theorists naturally would be inclined to look at, but I find it often contains vignettes, short articles, and interviews that ofter serious food for thought to those with interests in informal logic, argumentation, and critical thinking.

A case in point is the most recent issue (vol. 5 no. 11), which contains a fascinating interview with mathematical logician Wilfrid Hodges and a sharp little essay attacking the distinction between critical and creative thinking by A. Minh Nguyen. (Readers of this blog may recall similar ruminations offered in this post from April of 2010).  To whet your appetite, here’s a quote from the Hodges interview:

I have no patience at all with the view of Kant, followed by Frege and some modern writers, that logic studies how we ought to think and psychology studies how we do think. A logician can tell you that if you reason by rule X, then you will sometimes find yourself deducing false conclusions from true premises. It does follow that if you want never to deduce false conclusions from true premises, you ought not to use rule X. So for example you ought not to use rule X in a research paper in pure mathematics. But in real life, where time and memory are often limited and premises are often dubious in one way or another, rule X might be for practical purposes exactly what you need. One of the major achievements of logic of the last fifty years is to start taking seriously the constraints under which we reason, and the different aims that we can have in our reasoning. This expansion of logic gives many openings for collaboration between logicians and cognitivists [i.e. cognitive scientists].

The interview moves from considerations like this one to a discussion of the relationship between logic and cognitive science, and includes an interesting discussion of the logic of the medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Sina.

The Reasoner is an open access publication. Its present and past issues as well are all downloadable in .pdf format free of charge.

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As anyone who has attended one of Erik Krabbe‘s talks knows, doodles, sketches, and cartoons are signs of great genius. I first had the pleasure of seeing his drawings in a CRRAR summer seminar a few years ago. I have to admit that being engaged by the various drawings he used there, and in the talks of his that I’ve had the good fortune to attend since then, has inspired me to re-incorporate that sort of visual element in my own classes. Being a former art major with a drawing background before converting to philosophy, I had used drawings as what I then thought of as a crutch when I first started teaching. I later abandoned the practice when I felt more secure in my role as a teacher. It turns out that I may have been terribly wrong to toss out such a powerful pedagogical tool. My drawings, it seems, were in no way a crutch. On the contrary, if Sunni Brown (the speaker in the video) is right, they are a pedagogical enhancement.  Not only are doodles often funny and engaging, she claims, but they enhance focus as well as other dimensions of critical thinking too.

While the pedagogical dimensions are interesting, equally if not more interesting is the claim that human beings may have an innate “sense” of visual literacy that develops in a regular and predictable way.  Those working on visual argumentation may find this part of the talk very salutary indeed.

All in all, it’s an interesting 6 minutes of video.  Enjoy.

Edit: Today this video popped up in my Twitter feed courtesy of @LilyLivingstone. It perfectly illustrates the pedagogical power of the doodle in mathematics. Good stuff!

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Puzzle Piece, by Wikimedia Commons user Crazy-phunk

Puzzle piece, via Wikimedia Commons

Don Lazere’s short but punchy piece in the Chronicle on the beleaguered state of critical thinking education in the American academy is well worth a read.

While I find myself agreeing with much of what he says, I think he misses one of the principal actors in the play: the increasing role of corporate influence in and on the structure and culture of American higher education.  Increasingly, administrators and board members are not professional academics but professional bureaucrats and managers who see their primary task as generating revenue.  This leads to a mentality that sees terms like ‘critical thinking’ as buzzwords, bogus assessment exercises, fodder for mission statements or worse, “branding” campaigns.  The perils therein are familiar enough and rants plentiful enough that I’ll leave it there.

What interests me the most about Lazere’s short piece is how it fits with what has really been an explosion of formal methods in the last thirty or so years.  Indeed, formal logic has changed so much that it is now virtually unrecognizable to those of us who remember the time when advances in modal logic were considered “cutting edge” to most in philosophy. From today’s perspective, the basic course in predicate calculus looks a lot like “baby logic”. ‘Critical thinking’, as Lazere points out, doesn’t seem to have much real purchase at all anymore:

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CALL FOR PAPERS: AILACT @ the APA Eastern Division, December 28-30, 2011, Washington, DC
Deadline: July 31

We are now accepting proposals on any relevant topic for the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking (AILACT) session to be held in conjunction with this year’s Eastern Division meetings of the APA.  Papers, papers-with-commentators, author-meets-critics, and panel discussions are all welcome. Send proposals or abstracts to dhcohen@colby.edu by July 31.

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The folks over at the blog Less Wrong use the term ‘dark arts’ to refer to the usage of knowledge about heuristics and biases, fallacies, and human rationality generally in a manipulative, destructive or otherwise sinister way.  A recent post there focuses on this manner of using presuppositions:

An excellent way of doing this is to embed your desired conclusion as a presupposition to an enticing argument.  If you are debating abortion, and you wish people to believe that human and non-human life are qualitatively different, begin by saying, “We all agree that killing humans is immoral.  So when does human life begin?”  People will be so eager to jump into the debate about whether a life becomes “human” at conception, the second trimester, or at birth (I myself favor “on moving out of the house”), they won’t notice that they agreed to the embedded presupposition that the problem should be phrased as a binary category membership problem, rather than as one of tradeoffs or utility calculations.

This sort of thing is nothing new to argumentation theorists, of course, but the explicit labeling of such maneuvers as “dark arts” may well be.  Argumentation theorists, rhetoricians, and informal logicians often think in terms of fallacies, mistakes or blunders instead, usually meaning to impute no moral status to such things.  In the main I think this is wise, as highly developed skill at arguing and avoiding fallacies and other such mistakes is rare. That being the case it would be deeply problematic to assume nefarious motives lying behind every fallacy.

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“Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing.  That’s voting.” — Robert Frost

In this article from the blog of the Walrus magazine, writer David Rusak nicely sums up the case that social media is increasingly taking over the way in which we communicate.

He writes:

Even in the unstructured, verbal medium of the comments field, with no built-in retweet button and no formal system logging the repetitions, we see a number of people avoiding using their own words in order to instead “cast a vote” for someone else’s. They deliberately represent themselves as part of a countable mass (in this case, of devoted fans), rather than as an individuated person with a novel point of view. I have no idea how widespread this particular trend is, but I think it exemplifies an ongoing shift in the way online communication is done…What’s more, Facebook’s Like button has now allowed us to do away with much commenting, allowing one-click responses that require the least engagement possible.

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Via Mark Battersby at Capilano University:

I would like to bring to your attention a recently published book on critical thinking about scientific information.  Is that a Fact? teaches students how to think critically about scientific and statistical information. The goal of the text is not only to teach students how to identify misleading use of statistics, but also to give students the understanding necessary to evaluate and use statistical information (e.g. polls) and statistically based science (e.g. epidemiology).  The text is written in an entertaining and informative way focusing on the statistical and scientific information that typically informs personal and public decision making.

Intended as a modern replacement for the venerable “How to Lie with Statistics,” Is that a Fact?” is more up-to-date, more comprehensive and the concepts are more clearly stated making it a much more teachable text.  The text is also written with a different attitude.  While “How to Lie..” was focused on “how to defend yourself against statistical disinformation” this text is focused on “how to make intelligent and critical use of statistical evidence.”

For more information or an exam copy click on the link below

http://www.broadviewpress.com/product.php?productid=969

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Many of us teach service courses called “Critical Thinking” in our colleges and universities.  Exactly what ‘critical thinking’ means, however, is and has been the source of much vexation.  Reading this blog post by neuroscience researcher and popularizer Jonah Lehrer put me in mind of a discussion I’ve sometimes heard bits and pieces of in this context: on whether and how critical thinking bears any relation to creative thinking.

Broadly speaking I’d suppose that most people understand critical thinking as a br0adly analytical enterprise.  Whether one is extracting an argument for evaluation, analyzing a discussion according to pragma-dialectic rules or critiquing a speech according to rhetorical canons of interpretation, the effort seems to be one in which the task is to “look underneath” the surface phenomenon of the linguistic artifact (the argument or dialogue as it is found “naturally”, in its own discursive “habitat”, say) to structural, prescriptive, and other such properties.   Creative thinking seems less to be about analyzing images or bits of text, and more about the realization of hitherto un-thought-of possibilities that arise from them, or perhaps about the ability to associate freely between different sorts of families of word or image.

It would be easy to pigeonhole critical thinking and creative thinking into wholly different mindsets by saying that critical thinking is about analysis and creative thinking is about expression, but I think this would be misleading.  Critical thinkers learn to prize clarity of expression and to be clear when the occasion requires it.  Creative thinkers also engage in analysis, for example, in the visual analysis of whether a composition or a choice of color is apt given what the artist is trying to express.  Despite the apparent differences, I’m inclined to think that creative and critical thinking aren’t wholly disparate.  Important to both, for example, is the ability to resist framing problems and other dynamics that artificially close off avenues of interpretation or understanding.  Both, I think, also require the development of character traits like intellectual independence. Certainly neither is possible without a good deal of open-mindedness. Freedom of thought and expression seems essential for developing both sets of skills too.

This is not to say that we can collapse the two.  I don’t think we can or should.  I do think, however, that it might be interesting from a pedagogical point of view to consider what critical thinking would look like if taught from a creative perspective, and vice versa.  What kind of classroom environment would best combine both?  What skills, ideally, would the student leave such a class with that he or she doesn’t leave a critical thinking class with now?

Though I am here thinking mostly of pedagogical concerns, I can’t help but wonder if thinking along these lines might not be helpful in sorting out the relationship between rhetoric and argumentation too.

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Thinking about the last post got me wondering if anyone besides myself regularly covers forms of irrationality that are studied in the social sciences in their Critical Thinking or Informal Logic classes.  It seems to me to be important for students to know about things like the endowment effect, the bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, framing problems, and groupthink (among others).  These irrational tendencies in persons and others like them certainly present obstacles to critical thinking that (we hope) can be mitigated to at least some degree by the concepts and techniques we teach.  And yet there’s not exactly a huge volume of literature bringing together critical thinking and the empirical study of phenomena like these.

What place, if any, does teaching about the empirical study of irrationality have in your overall pedagogy? Do you think it should have a place in the study of critical thinking, or should we be content to let the scientists work on it? Is it even reasonable to think that training in critical thinking help prevent these kinds of irrationality? If you do include presentations about the forms of irrationality studied by psychology, economics, &c., how do you do it?

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