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Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Importance Of Critical Thinking Skills In The Age Of Trump

"If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices (Thomas Aquinas 1945, p. 129)."
Yes, I just quoted Thomas Aquinas right off the bat. You're welcome, freshman philosophers.


One of my major battles if you will in life, as a writer, a lifestyle consultant and coach and a free thinker has always been to help people to engage their senses of logic and reason and to challenge and assist them in so doing. Whether they be my clients or simply people I happen to be having discussions with during the course of my day, this is something I try to encourage. The opening of one's mind does not come with little to no effort or by believing in that in which we want to believe. Some truths are inconvenient, yet becoming aware of them still serves us well. Awareness is key.


But how do we know what to believe and what not to believe? We live in a country and in a moment in time in which our free and fair elections seem to be under attack. It comes as no surprise, then, to know that public information is also under attack. Fact is under attack, in large part, due to the dissemination of false news from sketchy sources. That is why it is vitally important, now more than ever, that we stay vigilant and sharpen our own cognitive skill sets. A dull blade is a tough instrument to use to cut through the knots and tangles of misinformation which is usually inevitably wrapped around a core of truth.


Since first setting foot in a college classroom where my world changed and my mind was opened to the many and varied opportunities available for those with open minds and critical thinking skills, I have been fascinated with the capabilities of the human mind. We as humans have such a powerful tool at our disposal. Since then, I have made it my mission to sharpen my mind. I have made it my mission to challenge my own personal beliefs and to use reasoned argument and logic to develop and hone a purposefully logical and comprehensive worldview. I know that many of you have done the same. It is however nearly impossible for those who do not have the necessary critical thinking skills and capabilities at their disposal to do this and sadly, many folks who don't possess these basic skills therefore do not realize their importance. 




The human mind seeks to make connections. That's just the way it's built. It seeks to connect that which is seemingly disconnected, but how does it know which facts and experiences are connected and which aren't? Without sharp critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills, it simply doesn't. Enter the conspiracy theorist. I have had my fair share of contact with folks like these. I always do my best to approach them with compassion and respect when making suggestions that challenge their world views. I try to stay away from assailing them with facts they will never know or care to know when dealing with people who aren't interested. What I do is attempt to provide some structured, unbiased tools for them to use to examine their beliefs, tools which I myself use, and to listen to them and understand why they have adopted these beliefs and what motivates that sort of thinking.  It's easy to berate others for disagreeing with us. It's hard, however, to accept someone else's differing point of view and approach it with respect. Sadly, in today's world, challenging other peoples' beliefs can be taken as an offense or an indictment on that person's character. This is a response that goes hand in hand with emotional thinking. When someone challenges our beliefs, we often bypass the obvious fact that it is simply that particular belief that is up for discussion and that such dialogue is not an indictment upon our character or our very right to exist. In responding to people whose viewpoints seem to have been skewed by false information, false news sources and the like, I have found that there is generally no easy way to have that discussion. We each believe that our ideas are right because we've thought of them and because we know what the factual landscape around us looks like. It is critically important, however, that each and every one of us challenge that assumption on a daily basis. One of my go-to tools in that particular fight is Occam's Razor. We will discuss that concept further. First, however, I'd like to share with you a recent social media comment I made in response to a gentleman who has stated that though numerous vetted fact gathering and reporting entities in the United States have reached a certain conclusion about election interference during this past election cycle, he chooses not to believe the information at hand. The reasoning I've seen many people use when dismissing information they don't like out of hand has been characteristically and unequivocally murky. It usually sounds something like this: "I don't believe anything written in the paper"/"I don't believe anything I see on the news." 


While I'm certainly not here to put this gentleman on blast or to call him out, I do happen to think that this particular exchange serves as one of many recent great examples from my own interactions of emotional versus logical thinking and the pitfalls that come along with it. 

 So here goes...this is my response:

Why are you having trouble with that? When it comes to situations like these [whether Russia intervened on behalf of President-Elect Trump, in this case], we've got to look at the facts that are coming in. Would you agree that it is the CIA and FBI and the other 14 intelligence agencies' jobs to collect information? If so, let's examine the information at hand and use Occam's Razor to cut away with any personally biased judgments. It's so easy to construct stories in our own minds that fit with what we already believe. The problem with that is that when we're reading unsourced or manufactured material written by folks who have their own biases and may not have the education in ethics in journalism and reporting, we're adopting their skewed judgments and their confirmation biases. I agree that the MSM gave Donald Trump too much coverage before the election and Bernie hardly any, but their stories cannot be published if they're not properly sourced. That would be a violation of journalistic ethics and integrity. That's why we hear about such violations here and there coming to light (Brian Williams would be a good example, here) when credentialed journalists write and broadcast things which are not true. That's also why we don't hear about folks who write blogs from Mom's basement getting in trouble for ethics violations. They are not credentialed journalists. When I write for certain publications, I am expected to uphold a certain standard and to source all of my information and it is expected that those sources be credible and provable. I could avoid that burden altogether if I wanted to simply blog about my opinions (I do also blog about my opinions, but I always source that material and do painstaking research as well). I could probably make a really good case right now based on conjecture both that Russia was involved and that it wasn't. I could use my own writing skills and my confirmation bias to construct and promote realistic sounding conspiracy theories and you wouldn't know what my motivations were because you wouldn't even have any information about who I am or why I'm qualified to address such topics, let alone where my information was coming from. Conspiracy theories and biased theories are based on conjecture with facts sprinkled in, often to misdirect or skew things to the writer or broadcaster's personal perspective or agenda. Sometimes these stories are purposely skewed, other times the writer or broadcaster is simply sloppy and unprofessional. 
 Please, please do yourself a favor and utilize Occam's Razor every single time you read one of these posts. Please do the same when you're considering your own world views. I had to make some uncomfortable adjustments to my world views recently and I had to use facts, logic and again, the 
scientist's, psychologist's, physicist's, logician's and philosopher's old friend Occam's Razor. Please do the same. I'm not going to tell you what to think or believe, but I'd sure like to introduce some tools that will allow you to do that.

Long response? Sure. Necessary? I certainly think so. 

 I think that the concept behind this particular comment is something we all need to consider. It goes far beyond the friend I was addressing on social media when I constructed it. Without going into an agonizing amount of detail, I will attempt to provide the basic premise of Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor was initially a tool utilized by physicists to try to suss out correct information and correct interpretation and discard that which was incorrect. Occam's Razor is about relying on facts rather than inferences, though for those of us who use it in its capacity as a critical thinking tool, it is often very helpful in allowing us to make correct inferences and to infer correct connections between facts. 

"Rudiments or principles must not be unnecessarily multiplied (entia praeter necessitatem non esse multiplicanda)”
-Immanuel Kant
  




Occam's Razor is a fantastic tool. It suggests that the most likely truth in any situation is the truth that is the simplest and that when we've discarded that which is less likely to be true, we are in fact left with the truth, which should be used as tier one for any strategy, argument or worldview that we're constructing. This is an important tool for anyone at all to have, but doubly so for someone who chooses to disseminate information. Occam's Razor is non-biased. It has no agenda. Occam's Razor does not seek to disprove false information. That's not an appropriate tactic as is, since the burden of proof is and should always be upon those making claims and not those refuting them. 

From Newton's "Three Rules of Philosophy:"
"Rule I: We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances."

Let's Examine:
 Lets look at three different basis for the same argument and determine which is appropriate and which is not based on fact and probability. The claim here is going to be that you have just told me that your pet has gone missing. Pretty basic and easy to understand, right?

 1) You tell me me that you've just been petting your cat and that s/he has up and disappeared. You can't find her anywhere. If you're asking for my logical input and my help on the matter, I'm not going to have all of the facts at my disposal. For instance, you say you've been petting your cat, but I have no information to support or refute that. I can't prove, for instance, that you didn't just pet your cat if you claim to have done so, nor can I prove that you did. You could be telling the truth just as easily as you could be misremembering or embellishing your story for one reason or another. I simply can't be sure. If I were a detective, I couldn't help you to find your cat based

 only on the information you've given me. You have no idea where your cat is or why, nor do I. The only information I have to go on is hearsay that cannot be proven. I also have the added burden in this situation of not even knowing whether or not your claim of having just seen your cat is true (since you claim to have been petting him/her just now). 

“Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes”
--Sir Isaac Newton 
(Newton 1972, p. 398)

2)If you say you've petted your cat and I'm not present and have no information about you or your cat, I cannot refute that. However, if you tell me that your cat has gone missing and you've just been petting your pet purple dinosaur, which you think may have eaten your cat, I can reasonably assume that you have not been petting your dinosaur and that your dinosaur has not eaten your cat, as dinosaurs no longer exist. To base any further argument on your claim of having a purple dinosaur in your possession as a pet and having been petting that dinosaur and further, that the dinosaur may have in fact eaten your cat is ludicrous and I can reasonably dismiss any further claims or stories based upon your initial statement about having or petting a purple dinosaur in the first place. This claim can be dismissed and should not be used to build any further information on since it's clearly untrue. Just like a building, an argument cannot be built upon a faulty foundation. 

“Nature does not multiply things unnecessarily; that she makes use of the easiest and simplest means for producing her effects; that she does nothing in vain, and the like” 
--Galileo
(Galileo 1962, p. 397)


Another sort of sketchy argument that can arise is when current claims that can neither be proven nor disproven are used to lay the groundwork for further claims. Oftentimes such claims seem reasonable, but that does not mean that they're true. Many factors can influence the articulation of such claims, including misremembering, being in possession of wrong information, embellishment or outright lying. Going back to the simple premise we just used, if you claim that you've 
 petted your cat and then structure your argument around said action despite the fact that nobody witnessed you petting your cat, that argument may seem believable (certainly more believable than the dinosaur story), but it is inherently flawed since the basis of the claim being made absolutely cannot be proven. If you had timestamped video footage of you petting your cat, which you shared with me, that would be one thing, but for arguments' sake, let's assume that you don't. Your claim may seem reasonable, but it cannot be proven, therefore we must not use that information to build further arguments from. One cannot reasonably assume that petting your cat was the last thing you were doing before your cat disappeared, 
 since there is no evidence to back that claim. You could have misremembered the order in which you were performing various tasks before your cat went missing, you could be embellishing your story or you could be outright lying. This is a faulty foundation and any argument built upon it will topple. Problems arise when people still cling to such arguments well after they have been proven to be false. Having an emotional connection to a specific worldview is great in certain ways. It's great for human empathy and compassion which are necessary and vital to the human condition. However, using emotion rather than logic to determine what you're going to believe when it comes to concrete information such as news stories, political events, world events, scientific phenomena (i.e. global warming) is dangerous. It is dangerous because you will be building upon that faulty foundation to construct an entirely false narrative and a problematic worldview as well as the erosion of our dearly held rights as citizens of this world.

 "If all of chemistry can be explained in a satisfactory manner without the help of phlogiston, that is enough to render it infinitely likely that the principle does not exist, that it is a hypothetical substance, a gratuitous supposition. It is, after all, a principle of logic not to multiply entities unnecessarily."
--Lavoisier
 (Lavoisier 1862, pp. 623–4).

 3)The third sort of basic premise might look something like this: 
 You claim that you petted your cat at 1:30pm for two minutes and you have provided me with  timestamped video to show that you were doing just that. You claim that your cat moved out of your field of vision at 1:32pm as the video ended and that it went missing shortly afterward. This claim is easily proven. I can watch your video and see the time stamp. I can now reasonably base the rest of my understanding about the situation you've described upon the facts that have been given. This claim is simple, concise, it can easily be proven and it cannot be disproven in any way. 

"[T]he grand aim of all science…is to cover the greatest possible number of empirical facts by logical deductions from the smallest possible number of hypotheses or axioms"
--Albert Einstein
 (Einstein, quoted in Nash 1963, p. 173).





Of course, you may encounter folks who have such a predisposition to their own view of things that even showing them a timestamped video will not sway their opinions. These folks might say things like "this video has been altered" in light of zero facts to suggest that being anywhere near true. They might then expect you to prove that the video has not been altered. These people are essentially conspiracy theorists, whether they aimed to go that route or not. It's easy to be sucked into conspiracy theorist rhetoric as it is often based on conjecture, with facts sprinkled in, as I mentioned before. Occam's Razor is a tool that will help you to guard against falling prey to that sort of mentality. Although I'd love to discuss which news outlets broadcast verifiable  information and which are known not to, that's not what this post is about. This post is simply about providing unbiased tools to all of us so that we can use those tools to make our own inferences and to make our correct and factually supported conclusions. 


More examples of biased conspiracy theorist rhetoric versus much more likely, fact-based information:
 •The claim that 9/11 was not caused by terrorists and was a controlled explosion:
  Even if what happened reasonably could have been the result of a controlled explosion (and I'm not suggesting that's true), we have to use our deductive reasoning skills and Occam's Razor to determine the following: is it more likely that the US would blow up its own citizens in a controlled explosion for various murky reasons or is it more likely that the threat of an air attack on the United States which had been foreshadowed in formerly confidential Presidential intelligence briefings by a group [Al Qaeda] that hates the United States developed into something very real that ended up actually happening, particularly when Osama bin Laden, leader of said group claimed credit for it? One can reasonably expect that point A led to point B which then led to point C and that the latter argument is the most likely argument to be true. Will we encounter emotional arguments based on murky logic and a few errant, liberally altered facts? Absolutely. It is our job, however, to do a bit of a mental tidy in order to guard against adopting such flawed logic. 
•President Obama wasn't born in the United States: This conspiracy theory should've been easily put to rest when the President introduced his birth certificate to the public. Is it more likely that President Obama had an elaborate forgery pre-made knowing that he would one day ascend to the office of President of the United States of America or is it a more reasonable assumption that he simply showed us his real birth certificate because he was actually born here? Clearly, the less convoluted theory is the latter. 
•President Obama is a Muslim: Not that it matters of course, but after years of evidence of The President going to various churches and espousing Christian values and Christians viewpoints and actually telling us what his religious beliefs were and that they aligned with Christianity, would it be reasonable to assume that The President is in fact a Christian or would it be more reasonable to assume that he's conducting an elaborate ruse (for what reason? Not that the reason particularly matters as this argument just doesn't hold water)? Clearly the former is much more likely to be true, given the firsthand information at our disposal. 

"The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. 

The truth is far more frightening - Nobody is in control. 

The world is rudderless."

--Alan Moore


Most conspiracy theories are not in fact true. Why then do we believe in so many of them? Could it be that the human imagination is simply that active? Oftentimes, there's an emotional reward of some kind is involved. Sometimes it simply makes us feel superior--purist. Conspiracy theories have been known to knit entire groups of people together. Unfortunately those groups quickly become cult-like in their mentality. Anyone who is an outsider "just doesn't get it" or "won't open their eyes." They're being "manipulated by the lizard people" (I'm not being derisive here--that's an actual belief that some folks hold), they're being led by some nefarious group. A word that you'll hear a lot in conspiracy theorist circles is "they." You'll hear the term "that's what 'they' want you to think." This is a convenient way to deflect from having to argue facts. It is my hope that after perusing this post and looking into Occam's Razor and hopefully after reexamining some of our own personal views (nothing wrong with reexamining them in a different light if we feel they hold water, right?) we might go forth into this world being more prepared and more armed with knowledge and fact. 

Thanks for taking a gander and feel free to look over my source information below!

Sources:


On Occam's Razor:
 What is Occam's Razor?:
University of California:
http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/physics/General/occam.html
Encyclopedia Brittanica:
https://www.britannica.com/topic/Occams-razor
Occam's Razor and Philosophy:
University of Tennessee:
http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/
Stanford University on Occam's Razor and Ontological Parsimony:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/simplicity/