Friday, March 20, 2015

Student Blog #7: The Importance of Critical Thinking

There was a recent news article that caught my attention and caused me some concern. This particular article was discussing a recent mail out that was sent to an MP’s constituents that contained information related to Bill C-51. A survey was included in which individuals were offered two options regarding their opinions on Bill C-51: they could either agree with the bill, as it is imperative to take additional action to protect Canadians from terrorism, or they must disagree with implementing Bill C-51 because, “terrorists are victims too.” I laughed to myself as I read it: what a blatant example of the fallacy of the false dilemma this argument is! The fallacy of the false dilemma (or false dichotomy) occurs when an individual presents only two opposing views when in fact other possibilities exist. In regard to Bill C-51, one might have perfectly valid reasons for not supporting this legislation, such as its impedance on privacy rights and civil liberties, which have nothing to do with sympathizing with terrorists. This example immediately brought back “fond” memories of Vic Toews who in 2012, used a false dichotomy when he told Canadians that they are either with Conservative government or, “with the child pornographers”, in regard to Bill C-30. I am sure many Canadians were delighted to be categorized as being “with the child pornographers,” simply because they opposed the content of Bill C-30.

As ridiculous as these two examples are, we may not realize that we encounter fallacious arguments on a regular basis. For example, how many times do we witness a straw person argument in our lives? A straw person argument (commonly called a “straw man” argument, but I am a feminist after all) is one that misrepresents your opponent’s position in a way that makes it easier to attack and refute. The ever-present red herring, the deliberate raising of an irrelevant issue, seems to be a staple in argumentative discourse. However, our discourse need not be mired in fallacies. Invalid arguments, although very easy to make, are also easy to detect with the right tools. Thus, the concept of critical thinking is necessary to eradicate such fallacious arguments.

Critical thinking is the process of assessing claims and arguments with rational, cognitive thought. A critical thinker does not accept unfounded claims and is familiar with common fallacies. I presented you with the fallacy of the false dilemma, the straw person, and red herring, but there are many others. There are the fallacies that contain irrelevant premises, such as the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of appealing to popularity, tradition, emotion, and so on. Other fallacies are those with unacceptable premises, like begging the question or deploying a faulty analogy. Critical thinking is also about embracing new knowledge through discovery, and is tremendously important when evaluating and forming opinions.

Why is critical thinking so imperative? Firstly, far too often fallacious arguments slip through the cracks and are deemed valid. It becomes dangerous when people of power use fallacies to win support and make policies. Without the power of critical thinking, individuals accept invalid claims and arguments that undermine truth. Secondly, there is a risk of basing one’s beliefs and opinions on biased, unsupported, and/or fallacious claims. What you stand for and whom you are depends on the kinds of knowledge that you deem to be valid and worthy of acceptance. If you do not think critically about the reasons for accepting claims, you risk allowing others to form your opinions and beliefs for you. Every day, individuals are bombarded with information. The media, through the advancement of technology, now permeates our lives so completely that it is nearly impossible to ignore. Social media is another entity that offers the user an abundance of information and opinions. With all this information streaming into our lives it is important to be able to assess what is valid and worthy of our attention.

I equate social justice and the common good with individuals making and accepting arguments grounded in evidence. A good and just society is one that seeks truth and turns away from claims that lack credible evidence. Critical thinking is the tool that separates truths from falsehoods. A just world requires a foundation of trust, and if claims and beliefs are based on invalid or inaccurate premises, how can the good or justice prevail? Relying on unfounded claims to form opinions most certainly hinders the common good.

Critical thinking is not some meaningless intellectual exercise. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of individuals using critical thinking to create a better, more just world. It has empowered women to no longer accept that they somehow are subordinate to men and thus should be afforded lesser rights. Thinking critically has also made clear that skin colour has no bearing on the value of a human life. In my own life, critical thinking has changed the way I look at and consume food.

I have been vegan for several years now and this choice, despite what so many people think, was one the easiest decisions of my life. I critically assessed the arguments that supported an animal-based diet against those that opposed consuming such a diet. After evaluating arguments, I came to the conclusion that the arguments made in favour of a vegan diet could not be ignored, such as the appalling treatment of animals, the damage to the environment, and the waste of resources that goes into livestock production that result from an animal-based diet. Critical thinking gave me the tools to discover that I could lead a perfectly healthy and enjoyable life foregoing any animal products, a decision that has greatly increased both my physical and emotional well being.

If more people thought critically about the world around them, I truly believe that positive change would ensue. If politicians, for example, could no longer rely on unfounded claims or the politics of fear to win support, and would be forced to convey concrete and factual claims to the public. Individuals would support their own arguments with logical, factual evidence and would accept nothing less from others. The media would be required to conduct and present truthful reporting. Most importantly, the world would be truth seeking, rather than retreating into falsehoods.

In order to be a critical thinker you must refuse to go through life in blissful ignorance, accepting unsupported claims and fallacious arguments. Critically engage with the world around you, and live with a passion for learning and a hunger for new knowledge. Take control of your own learning, don’t let someone do it for you; that is, know how to properly access facts and knowledge for yourself. Demand evidence and know when a valid argument is actually being made. Know the structure of a valid argument (that the premises support the conclusion), and when making an argument, always make sure you have sufficient and supportive evidence. Familiarize yourself with the basic fallacies and when evaluating claims for yourself always ask, “Is this a valid argument?” Whenever partaking of any information from the media be aware of any biases or conflicts of interests, and know what source your information is coming from (FOX News will provide a very different entertainment experience from BBC News).

The more I learn, the more I realize I know very little, as there is always so much more knowledge to acquire. A critical thinker never stops or fears learning. She or he is always prepared to embrace new territory, and move forward, rather than retreat into ignorance. It is important to examine your own life and challenge your own beliefs through a lens of critical thinking. Are your beliefs supported by evidence and truths?  Or, are you allowing falsehoods and fallacies to structure your life? A healthy amount of skepticism is often necessary when listening to opinions and arguments. Do not isolate yourself from different points of view; instead actively seek out opinions that are different from your own. If your views cannot stand up to criticism, then they were never strong enough to be held in the first place. Changing a strongly held belief is not a sign of defeat, but rather the mark of a truly open-minded critical thinker. Critical thinking, although a very simple act, has the power to change the kind of world we live in.

-Whitney Loerzel


  1. Relevant links:

    CBC story about the mailout: Link
    Globe and Mail story on the Vic Toews comment: Link

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, thanks Whitney! I like your opening paragraph, that Vic Toews argument is such a good example of radical polarization of an issue.

    While I tend to agree with you about critical thinking and informing oneself through questioning everything, I'm curious what you think about post-structuralist arguments that say objective truth isn't something human beings can ever fully know; or that meaning is socially constructed, thus evidence can never be fully analyzed without being tainted by the perceivers own beliefs.


Respectful comments are welcome. All comments are moderated by the blog author.