Critically thinking about critical thinking

Asking the Right QuestionsI greatly enjoy dissecting the news and tearing it apart. Unfortunately, there is such a vast wealth of poorly presented news that it’s often like shooting fish in a barrel. I also enjoy shredding the statements of public and private officials. If the wealth of poor journalism is merely unfortunate, the dicta of officials is a treasure trove of calamitous proportions. Put the two together and we get not a gilded lily, but far too frequently a sugar-coated cyanide capsule.

My general rule of thumb is simply this, “first, doubt.” A healthy skepticism is necessary if we are to avoid being utterly and completely manipulated on every front by hired opinion brokers. If someone goes to the great trouble of presenting “information” (a description of the content which is debatable from the start, as it’s rather likely to be mere noise), especially if that someone has a budget to do it, it’s a safe bet there’s an agenda behind the presentation and a sincere desire to persuade the audience. Sadly, the combination of sloppy (if not downright yellow) journalism and self-serving officialdom induces in me that unholy step-twin of skepticism, cynicism. To doubt the statement is just skepticism. To doubt the speaker’s motives is, I’ve been told, crass.

Call me crass, then. Hell, sometimes I’m downright vulgar. Such is my level of ire when the motives of the speaker seem to me to be transparently self-serving and at odds with the basic proposition that their position is genuinely good, honest, and just.

Of course, how I evaluate “good,” “honest,” and “just,” could just differ from how the speaker in question evaluates fundamental principles like goodness, honesty, and justice. Perhaps. Or it could very well be that the speaker talks so much shit that, to borrow a line I saw recently online, I’m torn between offering a breath mint or toilet paper. As a person who values goodness, honesty, and justice (as I see them), as a thinker, as a writer, I feel it my duty to at least occasionally climb up on my soap box and cry out for all to hear, “Lookee there! Yon speaker is pontificating most feculently!”

Of late, I’ve also come to realize that it behooves me to sharpen my critical thinking skills. What I currently have is a touch of knack, a pinch of talent, and maybe some small iota of intelligence with an occasional twist of perspicacity. I’ve got audacity and temerity in spades, to say nothing of subtle redundancy mock humility. I’ve got a deep well of stylistic excess. What I lack is a certain rigor. To that end, I’ve decided to take up a serious study of critical thinking.

The first step was to jump right in and get a book. Ah, but which? I didn’t want to just pick up just any old book on the subject. How silly would that be, given the subject matter? I wanted to at least make sure the book came well-recommended. To that end I trusted the collected wisdom of Amazon’s review writers. Alas, this may be clear evidence that my critical thinking skills may be in direr need of repair than I first reckoned. I searched on the phrase “critical thinking” and, after choosing the category “education,” I sorted by Average Customer Review. Then, after wading through many, many books absolutely not about critical thinking, I stumbled into Asking the Right Questions by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley (disclosure: links to Amazon, but not to my own personal Affiliate account).

Thus far I’ve given the book a cursory read, just to familiarize myself with the content and maybe quickly innoculate myself against my most egregious errors. There are certainly some gems therein. There’s also more than a fair few statements peppered throughout that took me aback as being somewhat reckless in such a work. In any event, the time was not wasted. I can start applying the gems to my daily dose of disinformation. Even better, I can hone my skills by applying those bits of critical thinking wisdom to the disinformation I encounter and writing about the experience. Perhaps better yet, I can apply those very skills to the book in question as well as to the works on the subject that I’ve added to my growing wish list. Personally, I find the prospect exhilarating. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s a glimpse of just what I mean by gems and pepper.

Gem (from the very first page of Chapter 1): “You need to build skills and attitudes that will enable you to decide for yourself which opinions to make your own.”

First, that seems self-evident. After all, that’s why I bought the book, right? I’ve detected a skills deficit and wish to correct it. As for attitude, I must have something of the correct attitude, else I’d not have detected the deficit or desired to correct it. So far so good.  It validates for me that critical thinking is indeed a skill set to be developed, that can be learned.

Oh, wait. Two sentences later:

Pepper: “No one wants to be another person’s mental slave.”

Sigh. A sweeping generalization. One, for that matter, that on its surface is incorrect at least insofar as certain matters of faith are concerned. Relevant matters, at that, where current religiosity and politics frequently overlap.  Ironically, it’s the existence of these very mental slaves that drives me to pursue increased critical thinking skills.

A case in point:

Romans 1:1 Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God… (New American Standard Bible, 1995)

From the commentary at Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:

A servant – This name was what the Lord Jesus himself directed His disciples to use, as their general appellation; Matthew 10:25; Matthew 20:27; Mark 10:44. And it was the customary name which they assumed; Galatians 1:10; Colossians 4:12; 2 Peter 1:1; Jde 1:1; Acts 4:29; Titus 1:1; James 1:1. The proper meaning of this word servant, δοῦλος doulos, is slave, one who is not free. It expresses the condition of one who has a master, or who is at the control of another. It is often, however, applied to courtiers, or the officers that serve under a king: because in an eastern monarchy the relation of an absolute king to his courtiers corresponded nearly to that of a master and a slave. Thus, the word is expressive of dignity and honor; and the servants of a king denote officers of a high rank and station. It is applied to the prophets as those who were honored by God, or especially entrusted by him with office; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 1:2; Jeremiah 25:4. The name is also given to the Messiah, Isaiah 42:1, “Behold my servant in whom my soul delighteth,” etc.; Isaiah 53:11, “shall my righteous servant justify many.” The apostle uses it here evidently to denote his acknowledging Jesus Christ as his master; as indicating his dignity, as especially appointed by him to his great work; and as showing that in this Epistle he intended to assume no authority of his own, but simply to declare the will of his master, and theirs.

Further, with ~179,000 results for a Google search on the phrase “slave of Christ”, another ~54,000 for the phrase “slave to christ”, and 47.5 million for “slave christ” (without the quotation marks), it would seem to be a safe bet that the concept has a great deal of currency. Without having ready figures at my fingertips, I hesitate to guess just how many individuals in the US either consider themselves “slaves of Christ” or aspire to such, but I would suggest that the number is rather large. Consider that some percentage of that presumed “rather large” population derive their understanding of Christ and his teachings not from their Bible directly but from pastors, priests, and pundits, and do so with the faith of a child. We have, then, some number of people, a number greater than zero, possibly a rather large number, who actually do want to be mental slaves.

That’s just on the religious front. Dare I mention viewers of Fox News and the horde of Dittoheads that hang on every bloviating breath from Rush Limbaugh?

Thankfully, that’s all I have for page one!

5 replies »

  1. This article is self-defeating. He “bloviates” about others “bloviating,” while throwing out 10 cent words, where a 5 cent word will do (a stylistic trait I find annoying). Oh, and hates broad sweeping generalizations, unless of course they are his own. If the author was half as intelligent as he thinks he is, this article might be interesting.

  2. I can appreciate that my (admitted directly in the article) stylistic excesses may be off-putting. I cannot help but note that Joe either missed the irony in my “sweeping generalizations” riff, or just chose to ignore that aspect in favor of tearing down the argument by trying to tear down the author. Tsk, tsk. Your Straw Man is amused.

    To see if we can bring Joe back around to the point of the article, does the reason provided (no one wants to be a mental slave) provide sufficient rationale for the work of developing the skills and attitudes of a critical thinker? Could, perhaps, an expert at critical thinking have picked a different motivation? Or, perhaps, could he have avoided on page one of a text on critical thinking, one of the very fallacies enjoined against later in the text?

    In my usual high-fallutin’ manner, I simply dissected the claim that nobody would want to be a mental slave by illustrating the falsity with a legitimate example (religion). Wanna-be slaves > 0, statement false. Was my shot at Fox viewers and Dittoheads a cheap one? Well, duh. Monosyllabic enough? So here’s a request. What evidence do we have that the Fox/Rush audience regularly engages in critical thinking? Logically, some must. Where are they? How do we know? And why, in the name of all that’s holy, would a critical thinker intentionally subject themselves to such programming?

    Incidentally, Joe, I’m not now less SMRT because you called out what you thought were errors. Are you smarter because you did? In any event, your comment is appreciated because criticism will indeed drive me to become a better and more efficient communicator. Thank you.

  3. Erratum: It seems I showed off my n00b hat when I “cleverly” said, “Your Straw Man is amused.” Since going after the author rather than the substance is ad hominem and not straw man, I clearly have yet to get all this to second-nature status. Alas. So much for clever. Now boarding the failboat 😉