Saturday, September 26, 2009

Critical Thinking and Its Alternatives

A good article by Lane Wallace in the Atlantic (ht to Mark Kleiman) on certain aspects of human reasoning that have great relevance to today's political debates. People are not, as all agree, perfectly rational. One irrational thing we do is to cling to beliefs even after evidence clearly indicates these beliefs are factually wrong. And I'm not talking about grand spiritual questions here, but things that are clearly subject to resolution based on evidence. Ms. Wallace, for example, discusses the question of who got to the North Pole first, Cook or Peary. There are people still passionately attached to one conclusion or the other, on this question and many other similar questions, long after the evidence supporting their conclusion has been shown to be inconclusive or in error, and other evidence has indicated some other conclusion is correct.

While most of us, most of the time, will base our conclusions on the evidence, and will alter our beliefs based on what evidence there is and how reliable the evidence is (the reliability of the evidence being based on some independent standard), this is not always what we do. In some cases we will work in the opposite direction, basing our beliefs on some gut level reaction and then judging the evidence as being reliable or not based on whether it supports our conclusion. Mark Kleiman has distinguished these as "data based reasoning" in the first instance and "motivated reasoning" in the second. But by this second method we can never escape our conclusion no matter how wrong it is. This then is the irrationality trap that keeps people believing in things long since shown to be false.

The success of some of our intellectual activities over the past several centuries, science perhaps most notably, is due to recognizing this tendency and to keep the process focused on reasoning from evidence to conclusions. A central aspect of the critical thinking process is that conclusions are always tentative. That is, we believe these things are probably true, but keep in mind that that could be wrong. As long as one does so you do not become so attached to that conclusion that you switch to "motivated reasoning".

People vary in how likely they are to select "data driven reasoning" over "motivated reasoning", but the preference for the later can also be encouraged by better education and better explanation of the critical thinking process. There is also a theological argument for preferring the "data driven approach" that those who are more religiously inclined might be advised to present and perfect.

For any given person engaged in reasoning about the world and trying to understand the world about him, we can assume that said person does not posses the wisdom and omniscience of God. Therefore said person will, in drawing conclusions and listening to his gut often come to erroneous conclusions. It is an arrogant affront to assume that any person is incapable of error. But if the person is possibly wrong in his conclusions then by definition his conclusions are tentative. That is the very meaning of the term. Later evidence or experience might show that the conclusions are in error. A person should, if he does not assume that he is equal to God, treat his own opinions and conclusions as tentative.

Note, however, that the above paragraph is open to a possible misunderstanding, which also gums up our arguments. While I say that all conclusions are tentative, they are not all equally so. All conclusions that have been drawn to date might be overturned by some later evidence, might not all are equally likely to. That the Earth is a spheroid in orbit about the Sun is a tentative conclusion is true, but so well supported by the evidence that it would be absurd to act in any way as if it might be proven wrong. The conclusion that the Moon is the result of an impact with the Earth during the formation of the solar system is also tentative, but somewhat more so. It is not absurd to imagine that future evidence might replace that conclusion with some other, or some modified version of the impact theory. The conclusion that there was life on Mars in the distant past is also tentative, but much more uncertain than the other two. It is based on the evidence for liquid water on that planet and the inconclusive evidence from a meteorite discovered on the Earth.

To be able to have rational discourse on any subject, we need to engage in "data driven reasoning". This requires us to make use of the principals of critical thinking which recognizes that our conclusions are tentative, but we must be able to recognize that they aren't all equally so.

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