There ought to be a law

Two former Justice Department officials complain about Europe’s–in particular Italy’s–use of the courts to undermine some aspects of the war on terror, such as the practice of extraordinary rendition:

>The Italian case involves a 2003 CIA mission to apprehend an Egyptian cleric named Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr. Suspected of terrorist ties, Nasr was seized in Milan and transported to Egypt, where he claims he was tortured. This was, of course, an “extraordinary rendition” — a long-standing and legal practice that generally involves the cooperation of two or more governments in the capture and transportation of a criminal suspect outside of normal extradition proceedings. It was through such a rendition that the terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” was delivered for trial to France from Sudan in 1994.

Of course the question is whether the Italian government had given their consent. According to their prosecutor, they had not:

>Yet the United States must still vigorously resist the prosecution of its indicted agents. If they acted with the knowledge and consent of the Italian government (as The Post’s Dana Priest reported in 2005), they are immune from criminal prosecution in that country. Although foreign nationals traveling abroad are ordinarily subject to local judicial authority, international law has long recognized an exception for government agents entering another country with its government’s permission.

“If” is the key word. The Italian prosecutor so far seems not to share that view. For the sake of the people ordered to rendition Nasr, let’s hope he’s wrong. This seems like it would be then a straightforward factual question. But the authors quickly shift gears:

>Unfortunately, the effort to prosecute these American agents is only one instance of a growing problem.

The growing problem of breaking the laws of allied nations? Not quite.

>Efforts to use domestic and international legal systems to intimidate U.S. officials are proliferating, especially in Europe. Cases are pending in Germany against other CIA agents and former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld — all because of controversial aspects of the war on terrorism.

One man’s “controversial” is another’s “illegal.” What would the solution be, one might wonder, to this problem:

>Accordingly, Congress should make it a crime to initiate or maintain a prosecution against American officials if the proceeding itself otherwise violates accepted international legal norms.

This all seems to miss the point of the argument. Perhaps the conclusion ought to be that US officials should not prosecute the war on terror in a way that violates accepted international legal norms.

Weird Science

Yesterday in my seminar on the philosophy of religion we had a discussion about burden of proof. Burden questions seem to be a tricky mix of psychology, politics, and epistemology–to name a few things. And this goes back to the second feature of critical thinking–at least the second one we came up with here (yesterday)–i.e., know where you stand. This doesn’t mean of course that you should know and defend where you stand, and be aware of the status of the questions before you (the first step–maybe). So, where do you stand relative to the burden of proof on any given topic? On some topics determining where the burden falls is hard, on others, it’s easy. Just ask the people who know better. Say, I don’t know, scientists on scientific questions.

So if your knee-jerk reaction to a scientific question is to question it, then you ought to know that you have a high burden of proof to overcome. Someone please tell George Will:

>Climate Cassandras say the facts are clear and the case is closed. (Sen. Barbara Boxer: “We’re not going to take a lot of time debating this anymore.”) The consensus catechism about global warming has six tenets: 1. Global warming is happening. 2. It is our (humanity’s, but especially America’s) fault. 3. It will continue unless we mend our ways. 4. If it continues we are in grave danger. 5. We know how to slow or even reverse the warming. 6. The benefits from doing that will far exceed the costs.

>Only the first tenet is clearly true, and only in the sense that the Earth warmed about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. We do not know the extent to which human activity caused this. The activity is economic growth, the wealth-creation that makes possible improved well-being—better nutrition, medicine, education, etc. How much reduction of such social goods are we willing to accept by slowing economic activity in order to (try to) regulate the planet’s climate?

Hard to know what George Will, famous climate skeptic (see also here), could mean by “clearly true” in this instance. But I think it’s something like “not even I–who read Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel about global warming hysteria–can doubt that one any more.” I know that’s a little mean. But Will doesn’t bother even trying to support his claim–clearly at odds with current qualified scientific consensus–with any evidence (at all–not even bad evidence). Instead he changes the subject:

>We do not know how much we must change our economic activity to produce a particular reduction of warming. And we do not know whether warming is necessarily dangerous. Over the millennia, the planet has warmed and cooled for reasons that are unclear but clearly were unrelated to SUVs. Was life better when ice a mile thick covered Chicago? Was it worse when Greenland was so warm that Vikings farmed there? Are we sure the climate at this particular moment is exactly right, and that it must be preserved, no matter the cost?

That’s an argument from ignorance! Who knows–maybe global warming will be good for us. We could farm in Greenland. Since we can’t tell either way, let’s do nothing.

Where am I?

Yesterday I wondered what a second rule of critical thinking might be. The first one was to identify the nature of the issue before you. Lee, a commenter, proposes one worth repeating:

>I propose for the second rule:

>“How does it fit with what I already know, or my presumptions?”

>But I do think that it is important to include a little introspection about “why do I care?” or “Why am I thinking about this” because sometimes how one answers that question reveals a motive or bias that would influence ones thinking. It might be cause to “think twice”. For example, in a discussion, podcast, article, if one reads something that sparks a reaction, is it a reaction that comes from (say) emotion, disagreement, or confusion? Politics and religion are two areas that I can think of off the top of my head that would fit the type of subject I’m talking about. My reaction could be (say) anger, support, competition or completely self serving. Answering the question of “why do I care” might start one off on the right foot.

Well. He proposes more than one. I’ve put the one I’m drawn to in bold. So in addition I think to some basic identification of the issue before you, you also ought to have the self-awareness to discover your own orientation toward it. I think that makes a good deal of sense. Anyone have any examples of this he or she’d like to share?


Matt K–frequent commenter–writes (I hope he doesn’t mind my putting this right up here on the front page):

>I wonder if there is a set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions that constitute good critical thinking. We may not be able to articulate this set of conditions, but I suspect we can come close. I usually ask myself if the information that I provide about how one critically thinks is sufficient enough to allow the person to do it successfully.

>If we analyze the points given by Bartholomew and Radford it would appear that a person could not be a successfully critical thinker with just what was provided. I’ll focus just on one problem. Statement four tells us that we should analyze assumptions and biases. Exactly how is one supposed to do this given the few other guidelines that are provided? What I suggest is that one needs to have a rule set that defines what is good reasoning and what is incorrect reasoning. Perhaps the eight provided statements are meant to serve as the foundational axioms of the rule set. If so, then it appears that the rule set is incomplete. I have no means to know that when I analyze assumptions and biases if I have done anything worthwhile or simply wasted my time. Perhaps Bartholomew and Radford mean that I should merely identify biases and assumptions in people’s arguments, which seems like a good start. But what should I conclude when I discover these assumptions and biases?

>I generally view simple guidelines, like the ones given by Bartholomew and Radford, as being good common sense suggestions. However, if one wants to be a good critical thinker one needs to do more than merely follow these few common sense guidelines. It’s doubtful, though not impossible, that one can do algebra correctly without knowing the rules. I believe that critical thinking works in a similar way. Most people have an intuitive sense of how to logically think, but to do it well consistently one needs to have a full set of rules to tell them when they are doing it correctly and when they are not.

I’d agree with him about the intuitive part. Thinking critically is an activity quite unlike the other activities one can acquire by learning. But one learns to do it somehow.

But I’m curious about the idea a set of rules for responsible thinking. And I thought I’d ask the crowd to help us add to them. Some have already provided their rules in the comments. But I’d like to proceed a little more systematically. Yesterday I wrote that one ought to have an initial sense of what the cognitive task is. Anyone want to suggest a second step?


Don’t take the title as an endorsement of this process. Lots of great comments yesterday about the nature of critical thinking–thanks to the commenters who took their time to pass along their thoughts, give suggestions, or give substantial descriptions of their own intellectual evolution. In light of these comments I thought I’d start a little series on various aspects of critical thinking. I can’t say at this point how often this will take place–that depends on what the newspapers cough up–but with the help of the readers of this site, I hope at least to make some headway.

A few years back I helped the old chair of my department author an assessment rubric on critical thinking. It seemed to me that we were just describing the various aspects of thinking which is “critical.” It struck us immediately that we weren’t going to find a set of mutually sufficient and necessary conditions for critical thinking. I’m even unhappy with the word. A few years later I knew why. In an assessment workshop using a modified version of the rubric I had co-authored, someone–actually two or more–argued that some papers on marketing were insufficiently “critical” because they failed to challenge capitalism. That seemed extreme, and illustrated for me the idea that there’s a lot more to critical thinking than critical thinking.

But back to the rubric. In the course of authoring this rubric–don’t get the idea that this thing was sui generis (we modified and adapted the rubrics of others)–it occurred to me that no single activity would constitute critical thinking in the way that I had come to think about it. Even my courses on critical thinking, when examined in light of the rubric, only cover one of 12 or so components of such a rubric.

I’d call it “rigorous” thinking but it’s too late for that. Now to the first step. This one, for many, is absolutely insurmountable:

>1. know, determine, discover, or wonder what you’re thinking about.

In other words, are you explaining a fact, arguing that some state of affairs obtains, critiquing someone else’s explanation, argument or investigation?

Critical thinking

Joel Achenbach, author of one of the Washington Post’s many blogs, raises some general points about critical thinking. I thought I’d use them as a way of generating some general meta-discussion about thinking well–as a complement to the many posts about thinking badly. Here is what he had to say:

>Learning How To Think

>Why is it that, 40 years after Vietnam, all the revolutions in information and the explosion of media outlets and the 1000 different TV channels and information available in handheld instruments and beamed from around the world at the speed of light STILL made absolutely no difference in keeping us out of a quagmire?

>Part of the answer may be that, although technology changes, people don’t. And they’re not always good thinkers. We don’t employ what is known among academics as “critical thinking.” Critical thinking isn’t emphasized in schools. I was just reading a book on critical thinking, “Hoaxes, Myths and Manias,” by Robert Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford, that lists the most important elements of learning how to think critically:

>1. Ask questions; be willing to wonder.

>2. Define your problem correctly.

>3. Examine the evidence.

>4. Analyze assumptions and biases.

>5. Avoid emotional reasoning.

>6. Don’t oversimplify.

>7. Consider other interpretations

>8. Tolerate uncertainty.

There’s more to this entry of his, but it veers off topic.

While I teach critical thinking–or a course called “critical thinking”–for a job, I’m often surprised at how many different conceptions of it there are. I thought I’d take what Bartholomew and Radford consider the most important elements of critical thinking as a starting point for a discussion of the process of thinking. You’ve probably gotten a sense of my process if you’ve read any of the items posted on this site. Since I’m continually impressed by the work of others, I wonder if some of them might chime in with a response to the above description.

In a way all things

Competitive alpha-dog types often view critical thinking as a kind of verbal combat in which one party establishes dominance over another. That may be the case at the Dartmouth debate club, but in the real world critical thinking involves the rigorous examination of what we believe and more importantly the reasons we believe it. But that’s a very general notion, since as Aristotle said, “the soul is in a way all things” (De Anima III.8 431 b22). So the first step in thinking rigorously is identifying what it is we need to be thinking about. If we’re responding to someone else’s criticisms of our beliefs, for instance, we must have some notion of what those criticisms are.

And this brings me to today’s installment of the D’Souza op-ed of some weeks ago. The reader might remember that a commenter said a few weeks ago that no sentence in D’Souza’s op-ed was immune from some kind of error. So far that’s been about right. The most basic kind of error–the one we noticed when we first read this–was a failure to grasp the basic content of his opponent’s criticism. Considering the amount of criticism he has received in his professional lifetime and before, this is really hard to believe. But alas:

>One of my earlier books, “The End of Racism,” explored why nonwhite immigrants to the United States (like me) tend to succeed academically and economically compared with African Americans who are born here. I received lots of abuse for playing down racism — as a “person of color,” no less — and taking sides with the white man. Some of my fellow immigrants from India advised me to “decolonize” my mind.

>But the personal attacks have reached new heights with “The Enemy at Home.” So much so, in fact, that I feel compelled to explain why I wrote this book, what it does and doesn’t say and why I think it prompts people to threaten me with hospitalization.

D’Souza’s first problem is that he doesn’t even bother responding to the substantial criticisms of his beliefs. So he commits the first mistake of critical thinking. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His second problem is that he assumes everyone else thinks like he does. Which ought to be a canonical rule of critical thinking:

>never assume others think as you do.

They don’t think as D’Souza does. So their views don’t require the same kind of explanation as his. As a matter of fact, the truly critical thinker realizes that views don’t require explanations at all. They require justifications. And this D’Souza simply does not understand.

Incorrectly political

Some right wing commentators wear the “politically incorrect” label like a badge of honor. So Glenn Beck, when he asks a Muslim congressman whether he is working for America’s enemies is being politically incorrect, not just ignorant about Muslims, Islam, America’s enemies, and terrorism (to name a few things). What does the phrase “politically correct” mean anyway? If we are to take Beck’s usage, then being “politically incorrect” means being unashamed of one’s ignorance–especially when it’s offensive to a minority group.

But that’s probably not what D’Souza means by it. He writes,

>The reaction I’m eliciting is not entirely new to me. As a college student in the early 1980s, I edited the politically incorrect Dartmouth Review and was frequently accosted by left-wing students and faculty. They called me names back then, too. And at the time I didn’t care. I often informed them that taking on our iconoclastic paper was like wrestling a pig: Not only does it get everyone dirty but the pig likes it.

For him being politically incorrect has meaning in opposition the left wing students and faculty. They were “politically correct” and so against his paper. That phrase, however, has no value here unless it carries with it the supposition that the politically incorrect person is actually correct, and the politically correct person is wrong–but politically in the right place. So, in D’Souza’s mind, the politically incorrect person has the courage to be right.

But this usage confuses contradiction with argument. Just because a view draws a reaction or invites opposition, does not mean it has any merit. As a commenter said recently (citing Monty Python), gainsaying is not argument. Like Beck and O’Reilly, D’Souza has little tolerance for the substance of arguments and so confuses any opposition with his poorly reasoned or researched view with personal opposition to him. Criticisms of his book are personal attacks and so all fights, for him, are dirty. Thus his oddly reversed metaphor. Someone ought to tell him–it’s bad to be the pig.

In case you’re lost, previous posts on this article can be found here.

Fight Ire with Fire

John Boehner–yes, that one–argues:

>The battle in Iraq is about more than what happens there. This is one part of a larger fight–a global fight–against radical Islamic terrorists who have waged war on the United States and our allies.

>This is not a question of fighting for land, for treasure, or for glory–we are fighting to rid the world of a radical and dangerous ideology. We are fighting to defend all that is sacred to our way of life. We are fighting to build a safer and more secure America–one where families can raise their children without the fear of terrorist attacks.

Right after 9/11 some smart guy–no doubt branded a coward and a traitor–pointed out that the very idea of declaring war on terrorism was mistaken. Terrorism is a method. Beyond that, however, he also argued that declaring war on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda only gave them the kind of global significance he had been aiming for.

In a similar vein, waging war (real war, with troops and such) on an ideology only repeats the same basic category mistake. However justified we might have been in attacking people who disagreed with us, attacking them with guns and ammo in order to defeat their ideology makes about as much sense as trampling someone’s feelings underfoot.

I suppose maybe, however, the ideas part of Boehner’s strategy consists in our steely resolve in persisting with our strategy. That’s kind of an idea. But that would only confuse how determined we are to hold our idea, not the cogency of our idea. After all, don’t we constantly complain that the terrorists hold their idea with steely resolve?

The media is the message

This has been mentioned elsewhere, but I’m going to repeat it here because it boggles the mind and the fellow who wrote it represents my home state:

>Thanks to the liberal mainstream media, Americans fully understand the consequences of continuing our efforts in Iraq — both in American lives and dollars. The American people do not understand the consequences of abandoning that effort or the extreme views, goals, and intentions of the radical Islamist movement that is fueling the war in Iraq and the attacks on westerners and unbelievers throughout the world.

Read the rest here (they conflate the war in Iraq with the war against radical Islam). The strangest thing about this passage however is how sloppily they make the causal claim. They should remember that the liberal media misinforms people, not the other way around. Unless they really mean that it’s good that people are informed. If this is the case, then they ought to put a “but” at the beginning of the next sentence.