Please Don't Believe This Post

I’m dead serious about the title of this little essay. I’ll explain later. The focus of this piece is the need for more and better critical thinking (some of you probably already see the connection to the title).

Interacting on the Web for the last three years—culminating in the last three days—has revealed a severe lack of critical thinking. By “lack of critical thinking,” I do not mean lack of criticism! (As a college friend of mine would say “Nay, verily!”) What I mean by critical thinking here is the discipline of looking at a highly emotional situation and intentionally subjecting claims on all sides to healthy skepticism and—above all—vigorously questioning our own “gut feelings” and reasoning.

I’ve found myself repeatedly wondering, doesn’t anybody believe in critical thinking anymore? I fear our culture has slipped deeply into a tyranny of sentiment. Feelings rule. Calm reflection is for—I don’t know—“elites”? Maybe it’s just for “bad people who don’t care.”

I laughed when the thought occurred to me to write a piece telling people how to think critically. It’s like a guy who heats hotdogs in a microwave telling people how to cook. But the sort of rhetoric flooding the Web (and TV) lately suggests we’ve sunk so low that I may actually be a pretty good source of expertise on the subject. So here it is.

1. Value

This item is probably less about “how to” and more about “why to.” Volumes could be written (and, no doubt, have) answering the question, “why should we value critical thinking?” I’m going to take for granted for now that we all believe in it, at least in principle.

But if we really value crtitical thinking, a distinctive attitude will always be present when we attempt to win people over to our way of thinking—when we engage in persuasive communication. The attitude is pretty close to this: please don’t believe what I’m telling you.1 Yes, I’m overstating the point a bit, but I want the contrast to be as sharp as possible for purposes of explanation.

I could have entitled this essay “If You Don’t Agree with This Post, You’ve Obviously Been Brainwashed, and I Feel Really Bad for You.” This would be the opposite of a call to critical thinking and, ironically, a brainwashing technique. The last clause is especially important for moving the conversation away from analysis and toward, well, feelings—warm and nice ones. Sadly, today you can win any argument by getting people to feel the way you do regardless of whether they’ve done any actual thinking.2

People who truly value critical thinking not only practice it in their own inner life but, in their communication with others, they encourage them to do the same. It shows in a host of ways: providing people with reasons to consider, looking for points of agreement, being generous in their assessment of people’s motives (because the alternative fuels anger rather than encouraging thought) are just a few.

People who value critical thinking almost never frame an issue in a way that claims “Either you agree with me or you’ve lost your mind.” The reason is that such a claim basically says, “Your mind isn’t up to the task, so don’t think about it. No need. I’ve done that for you. Just accept what I say.”

2. Pause

It’s just about impossible to think critically while writing at 100 words per minute. There are probably a few who can do it. A few more may be able to manage it at 40 words per minute. A better idea is to ponder the particulars for a good while and then write or speak.

The ideal would be to never express anything until you’ve been able to think it through calmly first. Alas, the real world doesn’t always allow us that luxury. But we have that option far more frequently than we tend to think. I often don’t follow this principle. I nearly always wish I had.

But there’s another kind of pause that is vital to critical thinking. Pausing before communicating is important, but before that, we have to pause before concluding. If we could find a way to harness the speed at which some people jump to a conclusion, we’d have a mode of space travel faster than the “Infinite Improbability Drive”!

The process of critical thinking must begin with a suspended conclusion. You can’t think well about ideas unless you first believe there might be something to think about. Thoughtful people are quick to put new truth claims they encounter in the “Hmm… maybe” file. If their first impulse is “Yes, that’s true!” or “No, that’s false!” they pause, re-label the mental file “maybe,” and begin to think.

On a theological note, let’s consider what idea-sources we’re most in need of greeting with healthy skepticism. Surely we should not be less skeptical toward the assertions of social science than we are toward the claims of pastors and teachers.

3. Imagine

It might be fair to say that every failure of critical thinking is a failure of the imagination. All of the thinking involved employs the imagination in one way or another. But whatever else the imagination must do in the critical thinking process, it must imagine what things look like from other points of view.

It’s easy enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, imagine how it feels to be him or her and gain a bit of empathy. But critical thinking requires more than that. It requires that we engage the imagination in the task of seeing a different view as the truth. It’s like putting on a pair of mental “what if he’s right?” glasses, then looking closely at an opponent’s reasoning from that new perspective.

If this sounds like a lot of work, rest assured—with practice, anybody can do it in seconds. One word of warning, though: putting on mental “what if he’s right?” glasses can result in never seeing the problem quite the same way again, even after taking the “glasses” off. People shouldn’t do it unless they’re open to the possibility that they might have something to learn.

Another exercise in imagination is closely related: the “what if I’m wrong?” glasses. As one of my deacons likes to put it, “entertain a little self-doubt.” Critical thinking absolutely depends on it.

4. List

Listing is an effort to avoid two common enemies of clear thinking: lumping and limiting. Lumping has its place. We have to bunch similar things together in our minds because we can’t be exhaustively precise all the time. But many a faulty conclusion has been reached and championed with only inaccurate lumping to support it. Critical thinking involves asking “Am I, or is the source I’m reading, lumping things together and ignoring important differences?”

That’s lumping. What’s “limiting”? I use the term here to mean falsely limiting the possibilities in order to support a conclusion.

Imagine a you’re playing a round of the old “who done it” game, Clue. In this game, you’re not thinking very well if you immediately start getting your “either-or” going. Either Colonel Mustard did it in the lounge with the wrench or Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with the dagger. Period. End of story. (What about the study and the ballroom and the library? And what about the lead pipe and revolver? And it could have been Mrs. White or Professor Plum.)

When the issue is sensitive and emotions are running high, important distinctions and options tend to become invisible: either you believe the King James is the only true Scripture in English or you hate the King James Version. Either you believe contemporary worship music is great or you’re in favor of sentimental, theologically thin gospel songs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Either you consistently speak of past fundamentalist leaders in glowing terms or you’re a conservative-evangelical-loving compromiser. Either you agree with all the premises of those accusing a leader of something scandalous or you are claiming the leader has done absolutely nothing wrong.

In all these examples many additional possibilities exist. Critical thinking involves employing the imagination to identify all the important possibilities. (If you need help with that last one, it is possible to disagree with the premises of accusers and still suspend judgment.)3

5. Identify

Finally, critical thinking requires that we identify the argument we’re using or reading. This exercise is as simple as looking at a conclusion and asking “How are we getting here?” More specifically, it involves looking for premises. People almost always reason to conclusions in one way or another. We’ve been doing it since Adam looked at the animals and gave them names. Often we arrive at conclusions (or accept them from another) so quickly we have no idea how we “got there,” and they grip us with so much passion, we don’t much care how we got there.

But if we believe in critical thinking, we pause and consider what ideas have been linked together (the premises) to support the conclusion. If the primises we’ve linked together are incorrect or we’ve incorrectly related them to one another, our conclusion may well be false.

I realize we’re not all “thinkers,” but we do all have to think. And if we’re not willing to roll up our sleeves mentally and do some disciplined analysis of how we’re arriving at our conclusions, we ought to at least have the humility and intellectual honesty to express them with a little bit of reservation.

Notes

1 Some people already way overemphasize uncertainty in their communication as well as their belief system. I’m not talking about them!

2 The downside of this technique is that as soon as the emotional wave passes, many suddenly wonder, what was I thinking? The answer: you weren’t.

3 It’s even possible to disagree with the reasoning of accusers and still believe the accused is guilty.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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There are 23 Comments

ssutter's picture

Empathy. Much internet dialog is not discussion as much as it is two sides repeating their own in-grown (and sometimes circular) arguments. People pick sides and present arguments, but few commenters are really good at reading/emphasizing and trying to think critically about the others side (or their own) before submitting their own pre-formed opinion about a given subject.

Of course, it's possible that I'll be pressing submit and missed your description of emphathy in some form. (value? pause? -maybe)... irony - surely. but I think dialog would be far more sane if people would really try and understand the other sides goals and take the time to listen to what they say.

Of any side.... any topic. This one included.

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

There are a few people that I know IRL that have a habit of forming a response while someone is talking. You can see in their eyes that they aren't listening, that they pick up on a word here and there, and most of the time their response reflects their lack of attention and consideration. Then one ends up completely distracted and answering a premise you didn't even introduce. You leave the conversation frustrated with nothing gained or resolved. After awhile, you stop talking to that person about anything meaningful -"Lovely weather we're having" and "How's your Shih Tzu?" about covers it.

This appears to happen on the internet as well, but without a face to read, it is much more difficult. And you have to grant that they also have no face or tone of voice or personality to attach to the words they read. It often requires a very long exchange to get at someone else's meaning, but the bottom line is you have to be willing to read a post more than once and think about what they've written, especially if there are several responses in a thread from which to gain some insight into others.

Have we ceased investing in quality communication because many of us are basically anonymous to each other? Does it not matter that there are real people behind the words we read? Bro. Sutter makes a good point- empathy definitely seems to be missing in many exchanges.

I've often caught myself in unproductive hyberbole when proofreading a comment- I've used the word "all" when it would be more accurate to say "some". I've said "most" when I really meant "many", or "always" when a better word would be "sometimes" or "occasionally". Ditto when repeating someone else's ideas- I have to go back and read what they wrote and ask myself "Is that really what they said?" and sometimes on the second or third reading I found I've composed a response that addresses points they did not make. That's embarrassing. http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php ][img ]http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-ashamed001.gif[/img ]

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:
...I wonder how many never do.

Well, I always notice when someone does it to me. Recently I posted something about counseling kids who've disobeyed, but someone responded using the word 'punish' instead of 'counsel'. I wanted to jump all over that, but what's the point? Would they ever interact with what I actually said? They framed my response in the worst possible way in order to make their point. Did they do that on purpose, with malice aforethought? I don't know.

I hate having it done to me, so if I don't want to wear the shoe, I shouldn't put it on. I've already edited this post several times, removing dogmatic statements and replacing them with questions, because those statements wouldn't be fair, and would possibly be inaccurate.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Yeah you raise a good point. Under "Pause," a whole essay or two could be written on slowing down to actually read the words or hear the words.
As things get heated, we tend to devote more and more processing power to formulating responses and less and less to listening/reading. If we let that continue, we eventually are "answering" something that isn't even there.

I wonder if anybody's written a book analyzing how conversations become quarrels. I'll bet a key ingredient is "increased energy focused on answering, decreased energy given to listening." Then, once that dynamic is in motion, people start shouting because they realize the other side is not listening.

(Of course, sometimes the shouting starts sooner because one side has never bothered to offer an actual argument.. just a passionate claim. And they've assumed that if you don't agree, you're not listening. Ergo, say it louder. There's no fixing that kind of "conversation." In my experience, a person who expects you to believe them without offering any reasons why cannot be brought to the point that they realize they have offered no reasons why. I'm sure it's possible. I've never succeeded.)

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

My husband and I were talking the other day about how some folks have a hard time separating the issues. If you spend more than .03 seconds evaluating their opinion, they receive that as an attack on their character. But the most important part of an opinion, in my opinion,(HA!) is the reasoning and evidence supporting that opinion. It's the fun part too- where you get to know the person, their experiences, what they find interesting, what compels them... when I start asking questions and challenging assertions, it isn't because I don't believe that person, it's because I respect them, and want to know more about how they think.

I can't help being suspicious of someone who patently avoids ever offering anything substantive to support their conclusions, but rather claims that their experiences/education/status relieves them of any responsibility to provide verifiable evidence to substantiate their claims.

I think the answer to 'how conversations become quarrels' is Proverbs 13:10 "Only by pride cometh contention..." It's hard and humbling to examine our own motives.

ssutter's picture

(that I often fail to follow) is to be able to formulate or at least follow the other side's argument as well as they can before critiquing them with my own. It actually cuts down a lot on how often I comment, but it would help.

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

jeffgray's picture

Sam, that's a great rule of thumb. I've always phrased it that I need to be able to repeat an opponent's argument in terms he'd agree with. (BTW, Sam, when I was a kid, I used to live about 2 minutes from where your church is [I lived at Crest Hill Court ]. Wheee... trip down memory lane.)

Another rule (and here I steal from Francis Schaeffer) is that argument should not have the goal of winning the argument. It has the goal of winning your opponent to Christ (in whatever form that takes). So merely proving your point is a poor goal. You're there to edify. If you find that you've been the one corrected and edified, then praise the Lord.

Really, I think all thoughts about critical thinking are summed up in loving your neighbor. If I don't know for certain that I'm right (which is most of the time), then why would I disrespect others' ideas when they may be right? And if I genuinely believe that someone is wrong, am I more inclined to weep over an opponent's being wrong than to verbally bludgeon them? I've seen so much verbal kamikaze in the past few days... zoom into a situation and destroy everyone (including yourself).

skjnoble's picture

with your second rule: winning your opponent to Christ or as much as it depends on you/me/Christians.

I've been sitting here thinking Smile and asking myself if I should respond, and lo' and behold you proved a point from my own personal case study of one (me), that sometimes pausing long enough allows for others to say what was on my mind, more eloquently, than this case study could have said it.

Thanks for going there! Smile

Aaron: I wonder if anybody's written a book analyzing how conversations become quarrels. I'll bet a key ingredient is "increased energy focused on answering, decreased energy given to listening." Then, once that dynamic is in motion, people start shouting because they realize the other side is not listening.
Answer: James 4 Smile I think I understand that you were looking for more psych/case study type stuff, but I couldn't resist. Smile

Now going to crawl back under the rock from whence I came and study bridling the tongue. Smile

Blessings, Kim Smile

PS__I never realize how just how many smiley faces I use until I press "save." In black text--it looks so harmless.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

It is hard sometimes to know when to leave a discussion. It begins innocently enough- you state your pov, the conversation has a little back and forth to it... but then someone misinterprets something you've said, so you explain. They disagree again, you clarify again. Pretty soon you've made the same point 10 times in 10 different ways, and you have to start asking yourself if it is because 1) you have the verbal skills of a mud fence 2) the other person has the comprehension skills of a mud fence 3) there are some serious faults in your thinking process 4) there are some underlying philosophical differences that prohibit meaningful dialogue 5) the limits of the internet are sometimes just too great for two people to form any kind of understanding... in any case, if you keep trying you start looking defensive and argumentative, and getting sucked in to a conversational black hole is the last thing you had on your mind when you started.

I think much of the time, people just want to be understood. They don't care if you agree/disagree if you can at least grasp their point of view.

jeffgray's picture

Quote:
I think much of the time, people just want to be understood. They don't care if you agree/disagree if you can at least grasp their point of view.

So very true. Absolutely. I think it frequently helps to slow a conversation down by asking the person you disagree with "Is this what you're saying? That... X Y Z...?" You try to carefully repeat their position to them in different words. It helps them realize that you're genuinely listening. It also helps keep you accountable that you are listening--something I need to do more of.

Often, if my goal is to love a person, what they may need most is my encouragement rather than my rebuke. It takes the Holy Spirit, I think, to know when one is called for rather than the other, especially when what the person is saying is genuinely wrong. People aren't machines. They can't just be corrected ad infinitum without their seeing demonstrably that you love them. Anyone with kids has learned (or is currently learning, in my case) that principle. Iron sharpens iron. But that's between friends, not people who only spar against each other on message boards.

TKhaliqi's picture

From my heathen days as an executive the following two actually come to mind (remember they are from a secular point of view, but not entirely without merit)

The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation

Crucial Conversations

Both focus on what you have nicely listed in your post. Respect and listening skills.

Another (heathen!) quote that has worked really well with my kids (and me too if I can remember it)

Between any stimulus and your response there is a gap. It's up to you how long it is.

JeremyO's picture

One of my favorite quotes From Benjamin Franklin says, "Passion rules, and she never rules well". I think it might also apply to this conversation.

JO

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

14 posts and nobody has disagreed with anybody.
It's nice once in a while.

Kim, the Comment Policy says you can smile as much as you want.

Dave Talbert's picture

Nice to see some old friends on here Smile

jeffgray wrote:
I think it frequently helps to slow a conversation down by asking the person you disagree with "Is this what you're saying? That... X Y Z...?" You try to carefully repeat their position to them in different words.

I think this skill, whether practiced mentally or audibly, is one of the most crucial to helpful conversation. Unless you know what the other person really thinks or feels, you're just talking past each other.

I actually have the privilege of teaching a class on critical thinking, and we break down the process into two parts: understanding the argument and then evaluating it. I really believe that many people skip the first part entirely, and so are left with evaluating a straw man.

It's also much worse on the internet than in real life, in my experience. Whether it's because of the lack of social pressure from seeing the other person face to face, or because people often respond to a sentence or two without understanding the context, I'm generally pretty skeptical about the possibility of really productive dialogue on the net. For every nice, helpful comment thread there are a thousand flame wars.

Of course, most of those are about Call of Duty or President Obama, so if we just avoid those topics, we're already in better shape Wink

Brent Marshall's picture

Aaron, thank you for writing this. It provides some important reminders.

One big issue is that we can approach a site like this and post on it as if we were part of face-to-face conversations instead of written ones. In face-to-face conversations, we often interact quickly, even instinctively, relying on non-verbal cues to help us gauge how the conversation is going. Those cues are unavailable in online interaction, and that is a major complication.

Further, I wonder how many persons expect more of written comments? I know that I do. I know that persons have the opportunity to ponder what was said, to analyze the issues, and to craft the language of the response, and I want persons to use that opportunity.

Not all contact of iron against iron results in sharpening. It must be careful and deliberate, not haphazard.

Things That Matter

As the quantity of communication increases, so does its quality decline; and the most important sign of this is that it is no longer acceptable to say so.--RScruton

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There are pro's and con's to face-to-face vs. writing.
In my experience, face to face to debate is not "better." It's just that the sloppiness of it is not preserved in written form for other people to see and the details of bad reasoning, lumping, leaping to conclusions, overgeneralizing, etc. are quickly forgotten.

On the other hand, written debate forces people to think a little bit more because they're going to have make sentences (or something close to sentences), and then what they've written is going to be subjected to the scrutiny of lots of people.
Another advantage is that they have time to organize their thoughts (if they bother to use the time), as Brent mentioned.

The downside of written debate (in the 'net conversational form) is that you have lots of people participating in a format they lack the skills for. That is, people "debating," who lack the skills of clear thinking (same as in the face to face setting) plus lack the skills of written communication: they do not read well (even when they remember to try) and don't write well either.
Still, the underlying problem is not thinking well. In some cases, you have clear thought but lack of writing skill. But usually, unclear writing reflects unclear thinking.

The trick is regulating the online exchange so that not only are the participants limited somewhat (limited to people interested in thinking vs. shouting eachother down) but also the conversation itself is nurtured in the right direction.

The last three years have made it very clear to me that this is no small order! (For one thing, a person who is interested in thoughtful exchange on topic A may only be willing to react and emote on topic B; for another, when the topic is sensitive how you regulate the conversation is skewed by where your sympathies lie. And those are just a couple of the unsubtle challenges!)

But we have had some really, really good threads in the last year from my POV that I've learned a great deal from (another challenge is that one man's "really good thread" is another's "really boring thread.")

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

TKhaliqi… thanks for the “heathen-but-good” quotes, titles.

Links for the books you mentioned…
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skjnoble's picture

You've got me thinking and evaluating my (lack of) critical thinking skills and while I readily admit that I tend to fall into the sloppy quipster category because I naturally love a good wrangle, I also know that sometimes I feel less than compelled to comment because of: (another challenge is that one man's "really good thread" is another's "really boring thread.") These two facts alone have caused me to take a step back, at times.

I really like this quote from Chris Larson at Ligonier Ministries. "In a time when information has never been more abundant, it seems wisdom has never been so scarce."

In my opinion--while I may be severely deficient in my critical thinking skills in regards to written and verbal exchanges (feel free to lump all of my communication in there) what's even worse is I often do not exercise the godly wisdom that comes from Scripture. I can think of no other practical advice in critical thinking that is more fortifying and expertly crafted than the wisdom living Scripture describes/prescribes.

Wise communication skills seem to be obsolete these days. I hope I can be better about exercising godly wisdom in all of my thinking and communication--thereby fulfilling the greatest commandment--to love my Lord with everything, including my mind.

Blessings, Kim (smile)

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

For me personally, a forum is a great place to exercise how I think. I process better when I say something 'out loud', 'hear' myself say it, and receive feedback. I get lots of bumps and bruises that way, but I'm OK with that. DH knows that when I'm thinking about something, most of the time all he has to do is let me talk for a few minutes, and half the time I hear myself and realize where I'm going with it, and I say "Never mind- that was stupid". The problem with using a forum as a sounding board is all one's stupidity is preserved publicly for all eternity. Oh well. http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys.php ][img ]http://www.freesmileys.org/smileys/smiley-confused001.gif[/img ]

Seth Johnson's picture

"We tend to judge others by their actions(words) and ourselves by our intentions." original author unknown.

RPittman's picture

Aaron, you're saying things that I've been trying to say for almost two years on SI but you've said them better than I. The IMAGINE section is especially pertinent. To parody Mark Twain, Aaron, I'm surprised how much you've learned in less than two years! Wink

RPittman's picture

Brent Marshall wrote:
Aaron, thank you for writing this. It provides some important reminders.

One big issue is that we can approach a site like this and post on it as if we were part of face-to-face conversations instead of written ones. In face-to-face conversations, we often interact quickly, even instinctively, relying on non-verbal cues to help us gauge how the conversation is going. Those cues are unavailable in online interaction, and that is a major complication.

Further, I wonder how many persons expect more of written comments? I know that I do. I know that persons have the opportunity to ponder what was said, to analyze the issues, and to craft the language of the response, and I want persons to use that opportunity.

Not all contact of iron against iron results in sharpening. It must be careful and deliberate, not haphazard.

Iron can dull the edge on a good cutting tool. If you've ever hit a piece of barb wire in a tree with a chainsaw . . . . . .

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