Friday, January 1, 2016

Critical Thinking in an Election Year

Welcome to 2016.  Now is the time to be on our toes in terms of critical thinking.  Over the next ten months we will be exposed to all kinds of ads, sound bites, speeches, analysis and opinions.  Here are some critical thinking watch-outs for the days and months ahead.

When one party (candidate, reporter, supporter, commentator, etc.) labels the solutions proposed by another as simplistic, it is only a label.  There is no other content, no counter-argument.  It implies that the position of the other party is wrong, but does so in a glib way without presenting any evidence.  The speaker expects the audience to nod in automatic agreement, but don’t buy it.  Require more.

When one party counters the position or programs of an opponent by accusing him or her or being greedy, racist, sexist, homophobic or simply evil, that is not an argument against the position or in favor of an alternative.  It is merely a label used to demonize the opponent, a shortcut used by the speaker instead of dealing in facts or evidence.  It shows a certain laziness on the part of the speaker to attribute motives rather than saying, “My opponent is mistaken, and here is why.”  After the election it will be results of these programs, not the real, imagined or proclaimed motives of anyone that make our lives a little better or a little worse.  Remember, we have had many representatives at all levels who have been very nice people, but not very competent at their jobs.  In passing this kind of judgment, they expect the audience to nod in unthinking agreement, but don’t buy it. Expect more.

Sometimes we hear, not usually from the candidates themselves but from other interested spectators, that an opponent of their ideas is stupid or naïve or crazy or some other label attached not to motives but to abilities, a label attached directly to the person, an ad hominem attack.  As more people get their political insight from late-night comedians, there is no telling what insults and throwaway joke lines might take the place of valid criticism.  These, too, are cheap shortcuts, easier than dealing with real facts, data or issues.  They expect the same kind of robotic reaction from followers and supporters.  (It applies equally to empty praise of the candidates’ strengths or motives, unsupported with results or behavioral examples.)  Again, don’t buy it.  Demand more.

As citizens and voters we deserve better, but we will not get it unless all those parties get the message that some significant group is thinking critically, immune to this kind of blatant propaganda.  I’ve heard many people comment about the upcoming elections, that our choices have gotten progressively worse – “can’t we vote for none of the above and start over?”  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  Just like almost everything else, the quality of candidates and information we get is a direct consequence of voters’ behavior in the past.

The behavioral model requires behavioral examples as evidence to any attribution, not mere name-calling and accusing.  Critical thinking reinforces this requirement.

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