Book Critical Thinking

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I included logic, some cognitive biases, some rhetorical moves, and also (for instance) the topic of pseudo-profundity, whereby people make seemingly deep statements that are in fact shallow.

The classical example is to give a seeming paradox—to say, for example ‘knowledge is just a kind of ignorance,’ or ‘virtue is only achieved through vice.’ Actually, that’s just a rhetorical trick, and once you see it, you can generate any number of such ‘profundities’.

People are often looking for critical angles on things that people have said, and you’re limited in words.

I suspect that labels are probably in use there as a form of shorthand.

In recent years, it’s been very common to include discussion of cognitive biases—the psychological mistakes we make in reasoning and the tendencies we have to think in certain patterns which don’t give us reliably good results.

That’s another aspect: focussing on the cognitive biases is a part of what’s sometimes called ‘informal logic’, the sorts of reasoning errors that people make, which can be described as fallacious. Some of them are simply psychological tendencies that give us unreliable results.You could put anything in the slots of ‘men,’ ‘Socrates,’ ‘mortal’, and whatever you put in, the argument structure remains valid. That kind of logic, which can be represented using letters and signs rather than words, has its place.Formal logic is a quasi-mathematical (some would say mathematical) subject. Critical thinking is broader, though it encompasses that.The gambler’s fallacy is a famous one: somebody throwing a die that isn’t loaded has thrown it three times without getting a six, and then imagines that, by some kind of law of averages, the fourth time they’re more likely to get a six, because they haven’t yet got one yet.That’s just a bad kind of reasoning, because each time that you roll the dice, the odds are the same: there’s a one in six chance of throwing a six.I coined some of the names myself: there’s one in there which is called the ‘Van Gogh fallacy,’ which is the pattern of thought when people say: ‘Well, Van Gogh had red hair, was a bit crazy, was left-handed, was born on the 30th of March, and, what do you know, I share all those things’—which I do happen to do—‘and I must be a great genius too.’ That’s an obviously erroneous way of thinking, but it’s very common.I was originally going to call it the ‘Mick Jagger fallacy,’ because I went to the same primary school as Mick Jagger (albeit not at the same time).Many of the terms you define and illustrate in things like ‘straw man’ arguments and ‘weasel words’—have been creeping into general usage. Do you think that our increased familiarity with debate, thanks to platforms like Twitter, has improved people’s critical thinking or made it worse?I think that improving your critical thinking can be quite difficult.That’s a kind of informal reasoning error that many of us make, and there are lots of examples like that.which was meant to name and explain a whole series of moves and mistakes in thinking.


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