Non Sequitur Critical Thinking

Wandering about twitter this morning I stumbled on a couple of links I thought I’d share here. The first is an article by Steven Nadler, a philosopher at Wisconsin, who argues in a contribution at Time that the one weird trick to solve America’s stupidity crisis is a basic course in critical thinking.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be epistemologically responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

No argument here.

The second link is a medium-long piece by Jay Nordlinger of National Review on the subject of Confederate monuments. Along the way to making the (to me, obvious) point that the Confederacy represented an unequivocal moral evil, Nordlinger went meta and made the following remark about slippery slope arguments:

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson?  If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

This is a clumsily stated but not unreasonable point. The only thing surprising to me–and I’m willing to consider this a consequence of professional deformation–is the novelty with which the subject matter is presented: “hey, have you ever thought about slippery slopes?” Of course you have. (Or maybe you haven’t, if so, you should; that’s Nadler’s point).

The slippery slope is a bread-and-butter topic of any worthy critical reasoning course. Justly so. Sadly, as Buckley correctly suggests, people frequently abuse the term as well as the argument form (for abuse of terms see this post by Scott). They do so especially when the matter regards permitting or prohibiting something. If we prohibit x, then logic dictates we prohibit y, and then it will further require that we prohibit z. The chain itself of increasingly horrible consequences does the work of the argument. In the present case, should we remove the statues of Confederate soldiers, etc., then logic requires we remove the statues of other morally problematic figures (like George Washington)  then there will be no statues (or something).

Buckley’s point is that this energy-saving line of thought absolves you of addressing the question as to whether reasons apply the same way in the separate cases. The slope is actually slippery, though I wonder whether we should use this term (maybe another time for that claim), when the reasoning applies in the separate cases. In these cases, however, what you actually have is a parity of reasons argument. The same reasons that allow x also allow y. A somewhat recent example. When the Bush administration invited religions to collect federal money for charitable activity, Wiccans showed up (to the dismay of the Bush administration). A quick note on the slope here: I hardly think the Wiccans would consider themselves the bottom of any kind of slope.

Sadly, Nordlinger seems to obscure this distinction and fall exactly into the cognitive efficiency  problem Buckley identifies, only in his case rejects the possibility of a parity of reasons case out of hand. This is a point any (again worthy) critical thinking course ought to make–not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Fallacious slippery slopes is that you don’t do any real analytical work. The problem in rejecting parity of reasons arguments out of hand is to do the same thing.

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Confederate statuescritical thinkingJay Nordlingerparity of reasonsSlippery Slope argumentsSlippery SlopesSteven NadlerWilliam F. Buckley

The basic structure of all arguments involves three interdependent elements:

  1. Claim (also known as the conclusion)—What you are trying to prove. This is usually presented as your essay‘s thesis statement.
  2. Support (also known as the minor premise)—The evidence (facts, expert testimony, quotes, and statistics) you present to back up your claims.
  3. Warrant (also known as major premise)—Any assumption that is taken for granted and underlies your claim.

Consider the claim, support, and warrant for the following examples:

Example 1
 
Claim: The No Child Left Behind Act (2001) has led to an increase in high school student drop-out rates.
 
Support: Drop-out rates in the US have climbed by 20% since 2001.
 
Warrant: (The claim presupposes that) it‘s a "bad" thing for students to drop out.
Example 2
 
Claim: ADHD has grown by epidemic proportions in the last 10 years
 
Support: In 1999, the number of children diagnosed with ADHD was 2.1 million; in 2009, the number was 3.5 million.
 
Warrant: (The claim presupposes that) a diagnosis of ADHD is the same thing as the actual existence of ADHD; it also presupposes that ADHD is a disease.

Claims fall into three categories: claims of fact, claims of value, and claims of policy. All three types of claims occur in scholarly writing although claims of fact are probably the most common type you will encounter in research writing. Claims of fact are assertions about the existence (past, present, or future) of a particular condition or phenomenon:

Example: Japanese business owners are more inclined to use sustainable business practices than they were 20 years ago.

The above statement about Japan is one of fact; either the sustainable practices are getting more popular (fact) or they are not (fact). In contrast to claims of fact, those of value make a moral judgment about a phenomenon or condition:

Example: Unsustainable business practices are unethical.

Notice how the claim is now making a judgment call, asserting that there is greater value in the sustainable than in the unsustainable practices. Lastly, claims of policy are recommendations for actions—for things that should be done:

Example: Japanese carmakers should sign an agreement to reduce carbon emissions in manufacturing facilities by 50% by the year 2025.

The claim in this last example is that Japanese carmakers‘ current policy regarding carbon emissions needs to be changed.

For the most part, the claims you will be making in academic writing will be claims of fact. Therefore, examples presented below will highlight fallacies in this type of claim. For an argument to be effective, all three elements—claim, support, and warrant—must be logically connected.

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