Poli-critical Thinking

I’ve been off the blogging radar for a while. It’s not that I haven’t been inspired to write – I have ideas all the time. But I’ve been spending too much time in the noise. There are so many things to read, so many voices clamoring to be heard over the din, and sometimes I got lost and overwhelmed with it all and I despair that there will ever be any understanding. I know I have friends who read my posts, and I appreciate it, but when I started this blog I nurtured secret hopes that others might read it, too. I have no desire to be well-known for what I write; my goal is to simply to share ideas in the hopes that others might find them useful. And in spite of my calling these posts “rants,” I also had (have?) hopes that I can hear other people’s ideas, even if they disagree with me. I feel strongly about many things but I have never expected other people to automatically agree with everything I say, or worse, be afraid that if they challenge me I’ll respond with rudeness or condescension. I have been guilty of arrogance and pretension, but I’ve gotten better at recognizing those traits in myself, partly through writing this blog. I don’t want to be a smug liberal, the type of ideologue who assumes that because of education and experience I’m somehow better qualified than other people to offer my ideas. And I don’t want to make broad generalizations about people I disagree with, either. It is too easy to believe that people who are anti-vaccine, for example, are crazy or stupid or brainwashed rather than sincere people with sincerely held, even if mistaken, beliefs. I am strongly pro-vaccine, and the science is on my side – but has anybody ever won an argument where they started out by saying “You’re a terrible parent because you won’t vaccinate your kids”? This is why I am such a fierce advocate of critical thinking skills. And yes, duh, everybody thinks critical thinking is important, and most people probably consider themselves to be good critical thinkers already. But in reality, it takes constant practice to keep from getting tangled in the thorns of fallacious thinking.

So why have I decided to write a post now, after being silent since January? Because I want to talk about critical thinking in online commentary about politics. I’ve considered writing posts about specific political topics, but I made a sort of informal decision to just stay away from politics during this election cycle. I don’t expect to change anybody’s mind about who to vote for. The few things I’ve posted on Facebook have mostly been my dismayed reactions to Donald Trump, or shared articles that address misconceptions about certain candidates or their ideas. And full disclosure, for the sake of this post: I voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary, though ideologically I agree with much of what Bernie Sanders represents (and I have no space here to talk about why I decided not to vote for him in spite of that agreement). But as far as I remember I have not posted anything online exhorting friends to vote for Hillary or Bernie. Even the things I’ve posted about Trump have been mostly preaching to the choir, and the few online friends I have who are pro-Trump are certainly not going to change their minds based on anything I have to say. But if you are going to post about politics, the more you avoid logical fallacies, the stronger your argument will be. So here, in no particular order, are some of my observations and suggestions about how to think poli-critically.

Facts. I’ve ranted about facts before, so I won’t get too detailed here, but people tend to confuse facts and opinions. Here’s the deal: a fact is a verifiable truth. An opinion is a judgement about a fact. So, politically, it is a fact that Hillary Clinton (whether through her campaign or the Clinton Foundation) has taken donations from Monsanto. It is an opinion that this makes her an unfit candidate for president. It is a fact that Monsanto manufactures the herbicide glyphosate; it is an opinion that this makes Monsanto an “evil” corporation. Don’t confuse the two. You can develop your own opinions, but you do not get to make up your own facts. (On a related note, I hope to soon write a post that’s been percolating in my brain for quite some time about Monsanto, glyphosate, the organics industry, and genetically modified crops. I have my issues with Monsanto, but glyphosate and GM technology are not among them).

Ad hominem. Explained at length in this post, in politics ad hominem manifests itself almost exclusively as name-calling and insults. As I asked above, has anybody ever changed your mind by calling you an idiot? And even if you aren’t strictly trying to change somebody’s mind, have you had any interest in continuing a dialogue that involves name-calling and insults? Differences of opinion can be illuminating and constructive – and sometimes you actually do change your – or somebody else’s! – mind. That won’t happen if you engage in ad hominem.

Fundamental attribution error. You can read about this fallacy in more detail here. In politics, this tends to manifest itself as a sort of ideological tribalism: me and my group are right because we are more knowledgeable or ethical or clear-headed or realistic. The other side is wrong because they are uninformed or ignorant or brainwashed or bigoted. You make right choices because you are smart and ethical; they make wrong choices because they don’t know any better or because they are morally flawed (this is also ad hominem). To avoid this error, it is wise to bear in mind that people with different political ideas think YOU are the one who is uninformed, etc. Consider that they may actually have a logical, rational, and well-thought-out basis for their beliefs, even if you don’t agree (see fact vs. opinion above). Obviously this isn’t always going to be true of another’s opinion – but it may also not be true of  YOUR opinion.

Confirmation bias (aka the echo chamber). This is one of the biggies, which is why it has made multiple appearances in my writing. This is the classic human tendency to only remember the things that support our points of view, and to forget or reject everything else. It is what causes people to stop looking as soon as they find what confirms what they already think. People also have a tendency to surround themselves with like-minded people and sources of information, which is why confirmation bias creates an echo chamber of self-fulfilling opinions. It happens to all of us, all the time. Do you believe that Hillary Clinton is innocent of anything other than poor decision-making regarding her email server? You can find all the articles you want to support that opinion. Do you believe that the Democratic party’s elite stole the primary from Bernie Sanders? You can find all the articles you want to support that idea, too. And when someone points out an article or a set of ideas that refutes your opinion, you can reject it for any number of reasons to resolve the cognitive dissonance and continue confirming your bias.

The Genetic Fallacy. One of the most common reasons to reject an alternative point of view is to impugn the source. This is an example of the genetic fallacy, wherein you reject or accept an argument based on its origins rather than on its merits. So in the case of politics, if an article in The New York Times points out Donald Trump’s many lies and inconsistent statements, a Trump supporter can reject it because it comes from a paper that is generally considered to be liberal. I have to say I find it highly amusing that people of all political stripes will use the epithet “lamestream media” to lambaste and reject any article with which they disagree. And the genetic fallacy works the other way when you use it to lend credibility to a source. This has echoes – pun intended! – of the echo chamber, because we tend to seek out the sources we already agree with. So to avoid this thinking error, rather than accept or reject a source because of where or who it comes from, weigh the argument on its actual merits. Sometimes even the sources we trust are wrong, and the ones we usually reject are right! I admit that this is one of the hard ones for me – I want to believe in the credibility of my go-to sources, but I have made it a habit to fact-check against multiple sources before forming a solid opinion.

I’m going to stop here for now, but I may add to this list in a later post. I have no illusions about this little post making any difference to anybody, but it feels good getting it off my chest. And I make no claim whatsoever to being immune from these same mistakes, but I have made a conscious and continuing effort to be aware of them in my thinking and my writing. It’s why I continue to engage, civilly and respectfully, with the people with whom I disagree (although I generally won’t tolerate name-calling). It’s why I can debate somebody on politics or culture in one post, and post a happy face on a picture of that same person’s kids in another one. It’s why I teach anthropology. And it’s why, after being careful to avoid errors in my thinking as much as possible, I will ultimately reject certain ideas and embrace others, and defend my point of view logically but passionately. If I do come across as smug or condescending at times, well – that’s just something else to work on, and I have no doubt that this political season will give me plenty of opportunities.

1 Comment Poli-critical Thinking

  1. Anonymous

    Excellent post. I have bookmarked this page so that I can refer to it and remind myself of its lessons when I find myself up aganst a well written but obviously incorrect opinion!


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