Monday, June 22, 2015

Critical Thinking for the Uncritical

Martin Cohen, Critical Thinking Skills For Dummies

Any book promising to discuss “Critical Thinking Skills” inevitably faces the same problems faced by books discussing “Democracy,” “Education,” or “God”: no agreed-upon definition. Back during my teaching days, critics demanded we teach Critical Thinking Skills, but what that meant depended on whom you asked. Everything from cultural literacy to scientific thinking to the entire Liberal Studies core could fall under that eternally elastic rubric.

For British philosopher Martin Cohen, Critical Thinking Skills roughly correspond with the medieval Trivium of Rhetoric, Logic, and Grammar. That is, Cohen wants readers to effectively organize, stage, and defend their own arguments and debates, while analyzing the arguments of others. Having attempted, with variable success, to teach the Trivium in Freshman Comp, I applaud Cohen’s motivation. But I significantly question his deployment of facts.

In keeping with the “For Dummies” format, Cohen assumes audiences have no prior familiarity with his topic. He introduces concepts with minimal recourse to jargon, and where he requires technical language, he defines every term. In broad outlines, Cohen’s tutorials make good foundations for self-guided study, and he introduces valuable concepts for broader analysis. He stresses important skills, like questioning one’s own presumptions, testing evidence, and differing structures of logic.

While Cohen focuses on generalities and philosophic principles, he’s engaging and informative. Cohen introduces advanced thinkers and up-to-date research, from Plato to Locke to Benjamin Bloom, to support his positions. Many new concepts Cohen cites excite me, making me want to discover more. But without a Works Cited list, source mining becomes difficult. That’s where problems arise, because I know some sources don’t say what Cohen says they say.

As early as Chapter Two, Cohen makes mistakes I easily identify. He misrepresents Daniel Kahneman and Thomas Kuhn. Though he never cites Kuhn by name, he quotes, incorrectly, the concept of “paradigm shift,” a term Kuhn first coined and defined. Not everybody reads such pointy-headed literature, especially not everybody buying a “For Dummies” book, so many people won’t recognize errors. I spot them, though, making me distrust other source citations.

He also defines terms incorrectly. For instance, Cohen defines ad hominem arguments as “Where the views of others are dismissed out of hand.” No they’re not. Ad hominem arguments deflect attention off the claim, and onto the claimant. Though the claimant’s person sometimes matters (elected officials’ party affiliations matter when they criticize one another), serious arguers usually consider ad hominem an attempt to salvage irreparable positions by muddying the waters.

Cohen sadly crossed my biggest line when he accused the BBC of stifling critical thinking on global warming. The BBC recently decided to stop giving climate change deniers equal time, simply because deniers lack scientific basis, and reject a position overwhelmingly shared by working scientists. You’ll literally find more debate in scientific circles about how gravity works, than you’ll find about the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

But Cohen insists the BBC should keep the media debate open because deniers exist, and because—seriously—many deniers are “articulate.” That’s a shitty reason to sustain otherwise resolved debates. Many flat earthers, seven-day creationists, and ufologists are also articulate; yet hopefully Cohen would recognize that forcing Neil DeGrasse Tyson to debate Fox Mulder would waste everybody’s time. Critical thinking sometimes requires excluding nuts and extremists from grown-up discussion.

Worse, keeping debates open inevitably rewards the status quo. Hydrocarbon producers profit when we avoid curbing our consumption, but they know you couldn’t find a climate scientist who disputes global warming (and isn’t paid by the hydrocarbon companies) with GPS and a Michelin map. But they don’t need to win the debate; to prevent you changing your carbon-burning ways, they only need to prevent resolution. See Rampton & Stauber for details.

I spot these discrepancies because I’ve read these topics previously. My reading appetites are omnivoracious, and my teaching experience spurred me to unpack very difficult topics so I could convey them. Readers encountering Cohen’s model anew will, mostly, lack my background, and have no reason to realize he makes incorrect, incomplete, or slanted claims. They’ll lack, well, Critical Thinking Skills enough to analyze Cohen’s argument. Wow, very “meta.”

Because concepts like Critical Thinking Skills lack single, enforceable definitions, it’s necessary to evaluate books like this on their own merits. I’ve attempted to do that. And Cohen’s terms don’t accord with his sources. Many buyers, I fear, will miss these gaps altogether. The results, for our economy, our freedoms, and our democracy, will have disastrous effects. Cohen offers solid principles, but undermines himself with incorrect evidence.

Thinking About Thinking is Harder Than You Think

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