Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Critical Thinking concepts

I did a quick informal survey of philosophy instructors to see what "critical thinking" concepts they thought were most important or "fallacies" (in short, bad ways of thinking!) they thought are most common or most important that people be familiar with. Here's that list, with some vague ranking, and a quick explanation of what this error in thinking is:

  • "begging the question" - this is to assume what you are trying to argue for: your reason for your conclusion is a claim that someone would accept only if they already accept your conclusion. This is a type of circular reasoning. (Here are some question-begging arguments on abortion, for examples). 
  • "straw person" AKA "straw man" - to "straw person" a position is to present it in a weak form; it's to not present the strongest, most plausible version of the position or view in question.
  • "principle of charity" or "failing to employ the principle of charity" - this is to not attempt to interpret someone's claim(s) in the most plausible ways they can be understood, to not try to help someone clarify their ideas (when they can be clarified), to not help someone state the strongest version of their position that they can: this is all being uncharitable. 
  • NEW: "Badlighting." (New, a term developed by Molly Gardner). Badlighting is what you do when you attribute bad motives to someone who actually has good motives. It's a bad and/or abusive behavior, just like "grandstanding" and "gaslighting." Badlighters tend to interpret the words and actions of their targets through the lense of "the principle of hostility," which is the opposite of what's known in philosophy as "the principle of charity." Some, but not all, badlighters are engaging in projection: They have bad motives, themselves, and so they wrongly assume that their interlocutors also have bad motives.
  • "ad hominem" - this is to respond to some argument or reasoning with an irrelevant personal attack on the person making the argument, instead of engaging with the argument. 
  • "genetic fallacy" - this is to respond to some argument or reasoning with something irrelevant about the source of the argument (its genesis), instead of engaging with the argument itself.
    • A related popular version of the genetic fallacy is something of a combination of it and maybe an ad hominem, where someone's position is rejected or objected to not on the basis of the position or the arguments given but the identity of the person who gives it: so, instead of discussing the argument, it's observed that someone of this race and/or sex and/or class and/or political background is advocating the argument. This is usually irrelevant because that all has nothing to do with whether the premises are true or not and different people are often able to empathize with other people, even if they can't fully or perfectly understand someone else's experience or perspective
    • Update: this can also be related to critiques of "arguments from authority:" 'this person says this, so this is probably true.' Sometimes arguments from authority are good, when the authority is a genuine expert; but when the person is not an expert, they aren't a real authority on the issue, so these arguments are bad. Here the twist is the claim that the person couldn't be an expert or a good authority on the issue because of their racial or sexual or social identity, etc. which is often false: e.g., Bernie Sanders can give and endorse many very strong arguments about how racial minorities should be treated, even though he is not a racial minority; many other examples make the point. 
  •  the "Tu quoque" fallacy, or an objection from hypocrisy - this is to respond to someone's argument with the claim that they are somehow a hypocrite in making the argument: whether they are or not is irrelevant to whether the reasons they give are true claims that support their conclusion or not, or whether the argument is good or not.  
  • "slippery slope" - this is to claim that one thing will lead to something else that is problematic and that that's a reason to not accept the initial thing. This objection is problematic when it's doubtful that A will lead to B and/or it's doubtful that B is indeed bad, at least. (E.g., "Thinking that it's wrong to make fur coats puts us on a slippery slope to thinking that it's wrong to eat meat!" Yes, it should!)
  • "Red herring" - this is to make some distracting and irrelevant claims to throw people off from focusing on whatever issue they should be focusing on.
  • "Gish gallop" - this is a new term (at least for me), and I think it describes this: 
    • The situation is that someone is trying to discuss a particular narrow issue, or make a specific claim, and other people respond with a rapid-fire peppering of questions, objections, and irrelevant distractions, so the initial issue cannot be productively addressed (and, of course, none of the distracting questions are answered, none of these objections responded to, and so on; the tactic is, again, basically to create distraction and chaos so nothing can be engaged in a focused, productive way. For me, in class, when this happens, I make a "karate kid" hand gesture and say we need to "focus." Beyond that, I guess we can observe that people (including ourselves) are "Gish galloping" and that that needs to stop: being able to name this type of irresponsible engagement can help overcome it.  
  • "Confirmation bias" - this is to only seek out and notice evidence that confirms your previously held point of view and ignore or reject anything contrary, for no good reason. A new related idea is that of an "epistemic bubble." 
  • "false dichotomy" - this is to see only two (or some limited number) of options, when there really are many. "We can do A or B, and that's it" when we really could do C, or D, or E, or F... 
  • "anecdotal fallacy" - "I saw this one time, or a few times, so it's probably always that way." Sometimes - often - limited experiences, anecdotes, don't justify believing any generalizations.
  • "Is/ought & the naturalistic fallacy" - "Things are this way, or have been this way, so they ought to be this way." "This is natural - it is this way - so it ought to be this way."
  • "legality and morality" - Assuming "this is legal, so it must be moral." No: morality and law are different. 
  • "fallacy of equivocation" - using a word one way, with one meaning, and then switching to a different meaning, resulting in reasoning where the premises don't really lead to the conclusion. 
  1. "reductio ad absurdum" : show that someone's position leads somewhere (absurdly) false, which might show that the position is false. (Very much related to the modus tollens argument pattern also). 
  2. Concerns about credible sources.
  3. evaluating moral explanations; inference to the best (moral) explanation
  4. finding counterexamples to general or universal premises and claims. VERY VERY VERY IMPORTANT. 
  5. valid patterns: modus ponens and modus tollens and syllogisms
  6. invalid argument patterns: affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent
  7. the concepts of "validity" and "soundness" regarding arguments. VERY VERY VERY IMPORTANT. 
  8. Isolating necessary/sufficient conditions 
  9. theoretical virtues (simplicity, coherence, power, etc.): intellectual virtues and vices


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