Confessions of a critical thinking teacher

In this article, Mark ponders his own lapses in his critical thinking outside of the classroom and wonders how often the rest of us fall prey to ‘The Conjunctive Fallacy’.

By Mark Hershey

The other day I was in a Japanese restaurant, staffed with Vietnamese waiters. When I sat down, I asked for water in Vietnamese. Or so I thought. The waiter had no idea of what I was asking for, even after I made several attempts at changing up the tones or playing with the consonants and vowels. Why doesn’t he understand me, I thought.  Frustrated, I burst out with, “Do you speak Vietnamese?” in English. “Yes,” he answered calmly. I felt embarrassed by the rudeness of my question, so I apologized and asked how he said the word “water” in Vietnamese. When he replied, speaking the syllables slowly and loudly enough for a thousand year old oak to understand, I responded, “That’s what I said!” and we both started laughing, simultaneously realizing the absurdity of the assumption that I was the better judge of intelligible Vietnamese than he was (admittedly, he might have been laughing for another reason).

While I teach critical thinking skills to my students in Vietnam, I had made a critical thinking error myself: I reacted out of impulse instead of thinking clearly through the fact that there could be quite a gap between a non-native speaker’s pronunciation and the native speakers’ ear. I also had not considered that the waiter might have been from a different part of Vietnam than the people I try to speak Vietnamese with every day. Another possibility is that he was not used to foreigners trying to speak Vietnamese, so that the attempt simply caught him by surprise, short circuiting his ability to pay attention to the sound of the word in his native language that was not pronounced exactly right. Finally, he might have assumed that I was just trying to speak some English word he was not familiar with. Reacting on impulse, I simply let my critical faculties sleep through the encounter.

This episode led me to ponder other critical thinking lapses I could be guilty of and wonder how common it is for many of us to make some of these mistakes in our ordinary life while teaching such skills in the classroom. While reading through Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature I was reminded again about the banality of critical thinking errors. Consider this example he gives:

“”Bill is intelligent, but unimaginative, and dull. He was strong in mathematics but undistinguished in the arts and the humanities. What are the chances that Bill plays jazz saxophone? What are the chances that he is an accountant who plays jazz saxophone?”

Would you put higher odds on the first or the second proposition? Here’s a similar question: Are the odds higher that there will be a nuclear attack on the U.S. or that there will be a nuclear attack by a terrorist sponsored by Iran on the U.S.?

Pinker says this is called “The Conjunctive Fallacy” and many people fall prey to it. Many people will answer that Bill is more likely to play jazz saxophone and to be an accountant than just that he plays the jazz saxophone. By and large people also tend to pick the second of the two propositions above regarding nuclear attacks. These responses are not just limited to survey answers but are revealed in actions. People are generally more willing to pay more for flight insurance against terrorism than for flight insurance against all causes. All these responses are nonsensical though as it is impossible for the broader condition that includes the second, more exclusive condition within it, to be less probable than the second condition. Yet, scientists, doctors, professors, and yes, even teachers of critical thinking are susceptible to its charms. Lawyers, as Pinker says, regularly rely on it to convince juries of their client’s innocence or guilt.

Another common error you might hear around the critical thinking teacher’s bilabong is a false equivalency. The fallacy is perhaps mostly commonly committed in debate over controversial political or cultural issues (though I once vociferously insisted that the Dick’s Drive-In Deluxe Burger was in no way distinct from the Kidd Valley Burger,  all evidence to the contrary). Take a hypothetical from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Laputa had been at war for centuries with the rebel territory of Lindalino. Considering that both might have committed atrocities, or had at least harmed the other, a Laputan might argue that Lindalinos cannot claim the moral high ground. Yet, that assertion fails to note that by and large Laputans have been the aggressors; Lindalinos did nothing to invite the Laputans to use their floating island in the sky to block the sunlight over the Lindalinos land, after all. Furthermore the damage committed by Lindalinos, largely in defense, is miniscule compared to the damage caused by Laputans.

I am tempted to say I hear these mistakes all the time, but then I would be guilty of something that should be quite familiar to writing and critical thinking teachers. We often see our students make this error when they begin essays with the words “All over the world….” “All over the world, childhood obesity is a major problem.” Millions of people living in parts of Africa and Asia would probably demur. My first realization that I made the same overgeneralization error started young. I used to accuse my father or a sibling of something by beginning with, “You ALWAYS say that!” Or, “You are ALWAYS + verbing.” “Really?” my father would say, “Always?” After a number of these types of exchanges, I eventually caved in and admitted that my charges were not quite fair, and that there were important distinctions to be made between “occasional”, “often,” and “always.” Now that I am fairly well educated and an occasionally mature teacher, I know better. I never make this error in my own arguments over politics, culture, political economics, or sports. Ever.

About MarkHersh

A blog about living and working in Asia and other random musings

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