Getting there from here: Critical thinking and debiasing

A primary lesson from the first day was that biases pose different problems in different contexts and need specific techniques to be negotiated. Ways to engage the social and emotional variables occupied a central role on the second day. In that afternoon, and today, the third and final day, we get more specific, considering how reasoning operates in particular contexts and the difficulties faced by critical thinking pedagogy in addressing those contexts and improving people’s practice.

Scientific reasoning concerns Ulrike Hahn, who directs us toward the advantages of Bayesian approaches to fallacies and argumentation. Hahn’s point of departure comes from Douglas Walton‘s analysis of argumentation schemes, including taking the appeal to ignorance as a central case. Accounting for how we gain and incorporate information into belief is the key benefit of Bayesian probablistic analysis, and Hahn makes quite a convincing case, at least if we take arguments to be monological. She takes the dialogical approaches of Walton and pragma-dialectics to become unnecessary in the wake of the Bayesian appraoch. Burden of proof and its dialogical shifts are a messy business, to be sure, but I don’t think we can dispense with analyzing them so easily. We need tools to reason with others, and judging by the social approaches to debiasing that prevailed on the second day, the social dimensions may be key to debiasing argumentation.

Mariusz Urbanski presented research completed with Katarzyna Paluszkiewicz and Joanna Urbanska showing that while untutored skill has a lasting effect on performance in deductive reasoning, training can improve performance on difficult deductive problems.

Debiasing was studied in legal contexts by Frank Zenker, Christian Dahlmann and  Farhan Sarwar, because it’s an environment that demands judgements be made; judges can’t suspend their evaluation of a case. People, and so perhaps judges, who score high on agreeableness seem especially influenced by anchoring.

This day gave us little room for optimism about debiasing, or the future of critical thinking as an ideal and an educational practice. An account of frustration with facilitating critical thinking at an institutional level provided the final talk, from Chip Sheffield, recounting his experience as the inaugural Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking at Rochester Institute of Technology.IMG_1510 Sheffield described how institutional pressure to develop or adopt a new assessment instrument flew in the face of a lack of other institutional and faculty support, student resistance to the integration of critical thinking in courses, and only superficial resources in the larger critical thinking movement. Yet he found some progress in student panels and discussions, and community outreach.

The result of Sheffield’s experience is his recommendation of more critical thinking courses, and more at advanced levels. So it might seem that the problem is not how to teach critical thinking but how much to teach it. That could seem to be the only room for improvement given the disjunct between the experimental research on cognition and biases and the philosophical pedagogy of critical thinking. I was struck to hear the experimental psychologists express concern over the philosophers use of “bias” losely, just as the philosophers were discouraged by the inattention to the pressures to find practical strategie for students.

However, as much as this conference demonstrated an absence of the practical evidence we want to guide critical thinking education, it also paves the way for more engagements between the psychological evidence and the pedagogical and philosophical ideals. I take particular inspiration from the work of Kenyon & Beaulac, and Howes, as philosophers attempting to explore the implications of the psychological research, but also Weinstock, Schendel, Cooke, plus Urbanski, Paluszkiewicz & Urbanska, and Zenker, Dahlmann & Sarwar in assessing the impact of specific techniques on the development of critical thinking. We have barely begun to chart the possibilities and potentials for critical thinking education, and we need more research of the sort gathered at this conference to develop and explore options. Ideally, this should be like the work from Paglieri, Mercier & Boudry, directly engaging both the philosophical and the psychological. To start with, we should explore whether they or Goodwin are correct about the effects of classroom debate.

Pedagogical techniques: Social networks, emotions, nudges, classics, games & “wisdom”

Research on the effectiveness of critical thinking education can be discouraging, as can research on debiasing: our educational techniques and intuitive strategies can be ineffective and even backfire. New options are badly needed and today several were proposed, a number trying to exploit the social contexts of reasoning and account for the context-specificity of critical thinking skills.

IMG_1404 As on the first day, we began with robust empirical research and progressed to the more theoretical and speculative. Jean Francois Bonnefon’s studies of how people reason on social networks suggests they are poor for debate, encouraging belief polarization, and discourage critical thinking understood as “system 2” cognition in dual process theory. How social networks help reasoning may be primarily through the facilitation of fact checking.

IMG_1408 The social theme continued as Moira Howes directed us to consider the emotional dimensions of bias. Standard texts direct us to consider omissions and loaded language, and such techniques may be ‘stepping stones’ to support debiasing strategies. However, debiasing is not a finite task, and depends on regular practice, like dental flossing. Epistemic virtues seem helpful in debiasing, which suggests the utility of developing communities and courses that aid people in emotional regulation, perhaps even epistemic psychotherapy!

IMG_1423 Further practical strategies were suggested by Guillaume Beaulac presenting his reflections with Tim Kenyon on some practical implications of their recent article on debiasing. They identify four levels of debiasing strategies:
(1) mitigating an agent’s general disposition to produce a particular sort of biased judgement in the first place; (2) training agents to deploy cognitive strategies that mitigate biased judgements when they arise in context (typical CT); (3) training agents (individually or collectively) to create and defer to situational ‘nudges’ that debias otherwise distorted judgements in context; (4) training agents (individually or collectively) to create and defer to processes or other situational constraints that debias actions or outcomes. The last two are, like Moira’s, fairly radical suggestions, painting a picture of critical thinking that is quite unfamiliar, and perhaps for that reason especially valuable.

The next two speakers addressed specific forms of reasoning that may facilitate the learning of critical thinking.

IMG_1427 Classical oratory remains relevant, Gabor Tahin urged, and analyzing it involves the psychology of decision making and modern argumentation theory. We might say education in classical oratory provides a type of literacy that fosters critical thinking, as gaming literacy provides a type of a critical thinking conducive to scientific method, according to Kelvin Autenrieth, who presented the idea, and Ulrich Wechselberger.


The day ended with a Skype presentation from Bob Ennis, a grand-daddy of critical thinking who dispelled the notion that he might have coined the phrase. Ennis painted for us a detailed account of an ideal critical thinking education, integrated as part of a four-year post-secondary education. Ennis aimed to address both subject-specific needs for critical thinking and those not related to specific subject content, and also to weave the CT instruction into the program or course such that it would not take extra time. He named his program the Wisdom Conception hof Thinking Critically Across the CurriculumWisdom CTAC (or alternately Illinois CTAC).


RACT watch this space

IMG_1348-0 Tomorrow begins the conference on Reasoning, Argumentation and Critical Thinking Instruction at Lund University in Sweden. Dr. Frank Zenker, a researcher at Lund, has hosted several conferences in recent years on social epistemology that I would have loved to attend, but I’m especially happy to attend this one as it deals with an intersection of academic topics of special importance. It’s an open question whether argumentation fosters critical thinking and how it affects reasoning, and the recent decades of psychological research on reasoning suggest that people’s thought is much less critical than we might tend to otherwise recognize. All sorts of bias — from perceptual to social — colour our interaction with and reasoning about the world.

The picture at the top is of a lovely brass band playing in the pub this evening, and here are a few speakers who’ve convened so far.

IMG_1355 I will post summaries and commentary on the talks as we proceed over the next few days.

What Is Argument Repair?

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the language of “argument repair.” I don’t think this is my term, but borrowed from others. Many people have found it the most interesting concept in my analysis of textbook treatments of fallacies.  Some textbook authors have asked for sources, and some instructors have developed their own exercises.

I have only found one scholarly discussion of it, and no articles aside from mine, but in critical thinking and argumentation studies it’s quite common for  innovative scholarship to be presented in textbook form.  (A great recent example of this is Maureen Linker’s Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice — I plan to post on that soon.) Richard Epstein’s Critical Thinking (Thomson Wadsworth) devotes a chapter to the argument repair, and perhaps that’s where I picked up the term.  It’s no longer in print, unfortunately, but you can find a discussion of it here.

What attracts me to the notion of argument repair is that it suggests a dialectical context. We may repair arguments in response to criticism, though we cannot in change our central reasoning (how to identify that central reasoning is the big question). That dialectical engagement distinguishes argument repair as a practice from simply charitable interpretation, which does not involve the arguer revising what is said but only an audience interpretation. (It may also include repairing one’s own argument, in an internal dialectic.) That dialectical element is present when “argument repair” appears in the one other place I’ve found the phrase, a poem “On the Immortality of the Soul” by Charles William Jones (of Islington):

In matters of such import, pith, and weight,
As the soul’s welfare and a future state,
Each should endeavour for himself to judge,
Invoke the contest, and refuse to budge:
Then to the field of argument repair,
Wisely engage in manly conflict there;
But should conviction’s force your breast assail,
Retire at once, nor your defeat bewail

This rich depiction of argument as war is far from what I want, and yet conflict is certainly part of the dialectical picture.  What interests me is that the audience allows the speaker the opportunity for argument repair.  The speaker can take “to the field” and “retire” in turns.

Although dialectical context distinguishes argument repair from simply charitable interpretation, each may follow the same guidelines.  We don’t want to shoehorn all arguments into deductive form, and yet we want to allow for implied premises, and also “blunders” in Douglas Walton’s terms (see Tindale’s article here).  Epstein in a later edition along with Carolyn Kernberger provide the following Guide to Repairing Arguments (206, 68):

Given an (implicit) argument that is apparently defective, we are justified in adding a premise or conclusion if it satisfies all three of the following:

  1. The argument becomes stronger or valid
  2. The premise is plausible and would seem plausible to the other person
  3. The premise is more plausible than the conclusion.

If the argument is valid or strong, we may delete a premise if doing so doesn’t make the argument worse.

The three criteria involve additions to the argument: the audience “putting words in the speaker’s mouth” in a non-pejorative sense, or the speaker making additions; but it’s also noted that an argument might be improved but trimming off extraneous information. Epstein and Kernberger also suggest the following limits to argument repair (206, 68):

  • There’s no argument here

  • The argument is so lacking in coherence that there’s nothing obvious to add

  • A premise it uses is false or dubious and cannot be deleted

  • Two of its premises are contradictory, and neither can be deleted

  • The obvious premise to add would make the argument weak

  • The obvious premise to add to make the argument strong or valid is is false

  • The conclusion is clearly false.

None of this indicates a dialectical context, so it’s interesting that they choose terminology different from the traditional “charity.”  So, it seems that I need to look closer at my own past practice to see if I’m doing anything different, and have made explicit my interest in the dialectical context. I’ve also sent out some inquiries to people who might know better than I, and I’ll report back.

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for Critical Thinking Squared.  2014 was a pretty slow year here, as I turned my attention to other projects (The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies and a festschrift on the work of Trudy Govier, forthcoming from Windsor Studies in Argumentation).  However, this year I return to my own research, and a book on fallacies.  Part of my interest in fallacies concerns their central role of (and the central justification for using a fallacies approach to argument evaluation arising from) their use to teach critical thinking; so expect this blog to become more active again!

You can also expect that we (Hundleby and her student assistants) will complete the textbook database on critical thinking in philosophy. We have around 70 books analyzed already, and only a few left before we’ve covered every one that we can locate in English for a North American audience. (Sometimes we include other texts recommended to us, and we aim to make our coverage err on the side of comprehension rather than exclusion.)

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,500 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 42 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Critical Thinking Movement

The critical thinking movement has roots in the US and links to the informal logic movement likewise rooted in Canada, specifically anglophone Canada. Critical thinking as a set of values and goals for education has gained momentum, though the term may be regularly abused, and the pedagogy often fail to reflect the scholarship.

So I welcome evidence that this situation might change — which I like to think of as new movement in the movement. An excellent example is the work of Guillaume Beaulac, here interviewed in French on CBC Radio. While some of us may be frustrated at our inability to understand this particular piece, it’s a sign of room for change and innovation. Not only is Beaulac concerned with providing critical thinking in French, he’s also concerned to make its techniques reflect the best available sciences of cognition and learning. You can find his work in English via his website.

Toddlers argue badly

Lot’s of interestingly bad — but emotionally understandable — argumentation here:

  • Dogmatic appeals to authority
  • Ad baculum
  • Relativism: “You’re not real. I’m real.”

A great clip for class, I’d think: just two minutes long.

Get more than what you can pay for: Free on-line CT texts

(Report from Brigham Bartol.)

One simple way of avoiding the struggle to get exactly what you want from a textbook that will be a big expense for your students is to skip the publisher altogether and post content online. There are several online sources for critical thinking, from webpages to handbooks to blogs. There are a few authors, however, who take web-based critical thinking material even further by providing entire textbooks online for free. So far we’ve included two of these books in our analysis – Cathal Woods’ “An Introduction to Reasoning” and Chris Swoyer’s “Critical Thinking: A User’s Manual”.  Swoyer’s and a few others were discussed here two years ago.

Cathal Woods’ “An Introduction to Reasoning” provides a very clear and straightforward but still thorough introduction to the basic elements of reasoning, with special attention to scientific reasoning and what Woods dubs “real-world” applications. One of the benefits of an online text is that the author is free to organize chapters in a more accessible way than printed texts allow – Woods’ text comes in four folders for four different sections, which could be read through as a whole or taken separately. The book makes great use of hyperlinks to other chapters and outside sources, so that if students ever become lost they can more easily navigate technical terms and references. Perhaps the most useful thing about Woods’ text, which gives it an advantage over others, is that it is constantly being updated and edited. Uploading his publicly accessible text to Google Drive, Woods makes weekly edits to the documents, ensuring that they are always up to date.

The text does a good job of covering both deduction and induction, but the chapter on “real-world” reasoning is particularly useful for critical thinking. In this section Woods teaches the reader how to analyze, interpret, classify, diagram, and evaluate arguments, making extensive use of exercises so that the reader is constantly engaging in the practices they are reading about. Woods’ examples are often drawn from real-life sources, or common arguments that many readers might encounter. One section which stands out as unique is devoted to ‘reasoning substitutes’ – common strategies used to avoid giving reasons, shift the burden of proof, or offer up false reasons. Woods describes how to recognize these tactics and deal with them appropriately. This sort of accessible and practical approach to everyday problems in reasoning and argument is not always included in reasoning texts, but seems essential to any good critical thinking course.

Chris Swoyer’s “Critical Thinking: A User’s Manual” is available in full as a pdf file. As in Woods’ text, hyperlinks make navigating the contents of the book much easier than in a traditional printed text. A User’s Manual pays detailed attention to psychology, focusing on perception, memory, and emotion. It devotes one of its chapters to heuristics and biases, and another to problems in reasoning which arise in social contexts. At 640 pages, Swoyer’s text is a detailed and thorough look into critical thinking, and should especially be considered as a source by anyone developing a critical thinking course which focuses on the psychological aspects of reasoning.

Online texts maintain both authorial integrity and accessibility. With a subject like critical thinking, which is so important across all disciplines, it’s vital to have open and accessible texts which are also relevant and accurate. Both Woods and Swoyer seem to have achieved this goal, and we hope that more authors will turn to the internet as a way of spreading educational material.

2013 in CT squared

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this website. I’m glad it continues to interest people, and I aim to continue adding posts about once per month.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,500 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 42 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.