CRITICAL THINKING

# Do we agree with the conclusions the writer draws from presumably correct information?

How did you reach that conclusion? The importance of critical thinking

Just because we start with the correct facts does not guarantee that our conclusions are valid. Ignorant, sloppy and motivated reasoning can lead us astray, hence the need for critical thinking. Consider the following:

Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
A cold sandwich is better than nothing.
So, a cold sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

What?! Once you trace the mess above to the ambiguity around the word "nothing", consider another example:

If it rains, I cannot play football.
If I do not play football, my team might lose the game.
If we lose the game, my friends will be mad at me.
So, if it rains, my friends will be mad at me.

This one is a syllogism, a usually valid way of combining facts in logic, that sometimes leads us to weird conclusions. There are many other examples of faulty reasoning on the Internet (search the Wikipedia for the word "fallacy").

Critical thinking is another name for making sure that the conclusions we draw follow logically from the facts at our disposal. One way of doing this is to map out the flow of one's own or others' arguments. The philosopher Stephen Toulmin tells us that proper arguments have the following structure:

For instance, if someone suggests that today's students have Internet access, and so they write better essays than their predecessors, we can lay out her argument like this:

Upon careful examination, we might conclude that the Internet does benefit students in terms of access to data, but writing essays takes more than just data, and the Internet might not help much with requirements such as critical thinking. Some students might even be caught up in the many distractions of the Internet, and might write worse essays than they would have done without Net access.

As you might find if you ran a web search on "argument mapping", there are many computer tools - ranging from the free to the expensive - offered to help us do argument mapping. The basic idea, however, is quite simple, and a computer should really not be needed to map out the main ideas in what one is reading or writing.

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