I'm a firm believer in 300 to 500 word articles, the length that the Associated Press has set in its new guidelines. Limiting the number of words in an article encourages clarity, and forces writers to make every word count. Concise articles are also well suited to the capacity of most people to take in new information. But there are some subjects that take more than 500 words to develop, and are best broken into multiple parts. Critical thinking is one of those subjects.
This is the first of a series of articles on how to apply the basic techniques of critical thinking to any editorial page article, opinion article, or blog post. I'll begin the series by explaining what critical thinking is, and why it's important. Throughout the series I'll provide a step-by-step guide to a few techniques used in critically evaluating the arguments people make in opinion columns.
The textbook Critical Thinking: The Art of Argument, by George W. Rainbolt and Sandra L. Dwyer, defines critical thinking as “the skill of correctly evaluating arguments made by others and composing good arguments of your own.” In other words, critical thinking is the skill of figuring out how strongly a writer's facts and logic support the point they are trying to make. Critical thinking also helps us decide what's true about a particular subject, or at least as close to the truth as we can get.
Most people, on every part of the political spectrum, would agree that politics is a notorious hotbed of unsupported assertions and logical fallacies. However, the majority of those people also believe that those unsupported assertions and logical fallacies are not perpetrated by people who believe as they do, but by people on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
I freely admit that I'm often guilty of the same double standard. If I'm not careful, I cut much more slack for the arguments of people who agree with me than I do for the arguments of people with whom I disagree politically. Academic researchers pay a lot of attention to this very natural and universal human trait. There is a whole body of research involving things such as selective exposure and confirmation bias (both are the tendency of people to seek out materials which support what they already believe), and cognitive dissonance (the state of holding contradictory and inconsistent beliefs).
Whether you are on the left, right, or middle politically, you can benefit from carefully reading political arguments, avoiding knee-jerk reactions and wishful thinking, and determining the strength and validity of what the writer is arguing.
In the next few installments of this series I'm going to examine Karen Leigh's blog post in the New York Times, entitled “How Islamic Fundamentalists Will Rule Mosul”. If you are interested in doing this exercise with me, you may want to read her post before we begin.