Critical thinking, a concise guide

I decided to give the book a shot. I didn’t manage to get all that far (~50 pages). Some quotes:

“Consider this excerpt from Barack Obama’s victory speech to supporters after winning the 2008 US Presidential election in which he attempts to temper the sense of euphoria at his success, and to remind Americans that they should not squander the opportunity for significant change and to build a better future for their children. Obama uses some remarkably effective rhetoric for a good cause, as he had done throughout his campaign, and he might well be admired as a talented rhetorician.” […]

“Morality requires us to consider the consequences of our actions and, since speech and writing are types of action, natural (though irrational) responses to what we say and write must sometimes be taken into account in deciding what we ought to say. We should not say what is false, but that a proposition is true is not always enough to justify expressing it.” […]

“Appeal to fear (also known as scare tactics)
This is the tactic of trying to elicit a fear in one’s readers or listeners in order to influence their behaviour or attitudes. A frequent example of the appeal to fear occurs in discussions about immigration into wealthy countries. Many politicians and other opinion-formers use the tactic of eliciting citizens’ fears of economic destitution and cultural demise by constructing deliberately exaggerated images of ‘waves of immigrants’2 entering a country illegally and generally living a life better than that they deserve; taking jobs, education, health care and state benefits to which they have no rightful entitlement and thereby making Mr and Ms Average Citizen worse off. This familiar scare tactic (that almost certainly also makes appeal to some people’s racist attitudes) is often used by politicians to persuade people to support draconian immigration policies and infringements of people’s civil rights, and to demonstrate that support by voting for them at election time. But no reason has been given for the belief that disaster would result if such extreme policies were not enacted. Instead, it is hoped that describing these disastrous scenarios will alarm people so severely as to disturb their reason, prompting the confused supposition that the disastrousness of the worst possible scenario should be matched by the severity of the preventive measures taken.”

I was close to stopping reading at this point. I’d been close to just putting the book away already when I saw that they included some – and said relatively nice things about – political waffle by Obama in the first chapter. But there were a few new concepts and distinctions introduced along the way in the book and some of this stuff I hadn’t dealt with in a while, and besides I thought that between-the-lines politicizing was a strange reason for giving up on a book on critical thinking. So I read on…:

“The ploy of equivocation also occurs when someone attempts to mislead with statistics by saying something that is true, but which they expect their audience to understand according to an interpretation that is false. The following example of attempting to mislead with statistics, which comes from a speech by George W. Bush, also includes an equivocation on the meaning of ‘average’:

These tax reductions will bring real and immediate benefits to middle-income Americans. Ninety-two million Americans will keep an average of $1,083 more of their own money.

This claim sounds like the average American will get a little over $1,000. But hang on. Ninety-two million is the number of Americans who pay income tax. One might understand Bush, as his speechwriters intend one to, as saying that the tax bill of the average American will reduce by $1,083. But if ‘average American’ means ‘American with average income’, then Bush’s claim is false. What is true is that $1,083 is the average tax reduction under the new plan. But that’s because the highest earners save hundreds of thousands (similarly, if Bill Gates is in the room along with ten call-centre workers, then the average net worth is still in the billions). The American with average income still only gets a few hundred dollars relief.”

And I just got so annoyed at this point that I decided to stop reading after I’d finished the chapter (chapter 2). This is not the way to write a book like this.


December 12, 2012 - Posted by | Books


  1. Generally a good idea to keep politics, or examples from the recent political past, away from examples used for logic, critical thinking, and the like.

    Comment by Emil | December 13, 2012 | Reply

    • Yes indeed, and even students of economics like me know that. I’m sure the authors know too, but they ignored the advice and went ahead writing the book the way they did anyway. That decision makes for some interesting questions, both regarding the authors’ motivations and regarding the decisions of some educational institutions to use the book anyway, but the answers to them are not likely to make me want to read the book.

      Comment by US | December 13, 2012 | Reply

      • I rather liked Jon Espersen’s Logik og Argumenter, even though its very dated. So are the examples, and there are some interesting examples. Still the best danish introduction to crit think/logic I’ve come across. (not OCR’d?)

        Comment by Emil | December 14, 2012

      • Your recommendation has been noted and I’ll take it into consideration. Though I must add that I had no plans of limiting myself to Danish material (‘the best Danish introduction’ is not a strong argument for reading it), and that I already have more or less decided to start out with A concise introduction to logic (11th edition) by Patrick Hurley some time next year.

        Comment by US | December 30, 2012

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