Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

1. What is the effect of our tendency to dichotomize on our reaction to counter-evidence?

2. In the absence of clear measurements for weighing evidence, are there any guidelines for credibility?

3. So where are we in weighing the credibility of the Rolling Stone's article about sexual assault at the University of Virginia?

I have waited a long time to comment more about the horrible story of the alleged rape of the University of Virginia coed that ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE published late last fall. I was especially fascinated by the evolution of the story.  Horror was followed by denunciation of the journalistic practices of the magazine.  Then universities under legal duress, more than moral outrage, have established investigatory committees and hastily drafted policies met with loud opposition from victims' rights groups and by those alarmed at the thin due process these new policies tended to give the accused.

And what more could we expect to happen? As one important article observed "Rape Statistics Aren't So Simple."

But I was overwhelmingly interested in our seeming inability to arrive at any analysis of the ROLLING STONE ARTICLE beyond the initial horror of the claims and then the rebuke of the journalistic behavior of the author of the article and the editors of the magazine. 

Here is what I think I know after what I have read.

1. A young woman believes something terrible happened to her. A shockingly large number of women report similar disgusting abuse of their personhood.

2.  The University of Virginia and Duke are but 2 of many universities who know full well that their recruitment is enhanced by a party image.

3. A party image means alcohol in full guzzle.

4. Abundant alcohol permits and encourages behavior that is primitive in its derogation of smaller, less assertive people.

5. Fraternities + alcohol + young women are a cocktail that creates an unacceptable risk of  criminal and socially outrageous behavior. Why do fraternities get singled out? Good question. Substitute any cohort of organized, boasting young men who objectify women as conquests and whose idea of social relations includes ample use of alcohol.  I am fine with that substitution.

6. Young men or women who tell stories about what happened to them during an exciting or tragic event are not terribly reliable. Are any of us under any circumstances credible only when we are precisely correct in our telling of the stories later?

7. Huge weight was attached to factual misrepresentations by the accuser. I think I looked at all of them, But I could not figure out why those particular misrepresentations said anything important about the validity of the claims.  I know they would matter a great deal in court because courts act as if any misrepresentation is evidence of a characterological tendency to lie. How cognitively naive!

8. Accusatory articles should be cautious to represent multiple perspectives. How disappointing for a major magazine to ignore the rights of the accused!

9. The questions surrounding issues of sexual assault are so ossified that to say anything sympathetic to the rights of either alleged victims or alleged perps is to align oneself with the enemy in the minds of those who are firmly convinced partisans in advance of specific knowledge about the claim.


But now I get confused.  Why did so many people turn on the accuser after the questionable journalism of the ROLLING STONE was unveiled? Did people feel jilted?  Had they invested so much emotional commitment in the accuracy of the story that like an eye witness whose "perceptions" have been altered by a clever detective, they shifted their allegiance ferociously once their "new eyes" had been implanted? 

Or were many people simply ill-prepared to create a synthesis once counter-evidence appeared? Did they find themselves either needing to believe the accuser wholeheartedly or disbelieving her entirely? When I read the counter-evidence, it seemed weak to me.  And here I do not mean that the original claims are true, only that whatever truth value they ever had, little seems to have been lost by the journalistic excess of the author of the original article.

The image of the street where the Virginia fraternity houses are located was not questioned in any of the counter-evidence I read.  The especially active predatory behavior toward freshmen women was not questioned in anything I read. Of course, anyone in a position of passing judgment  would need to be more cautious in forming a judgement because the effect of that judgement would be so much more significant than an opinion one of us formed.

I guess my point is that from my perspective, the general theme of the article was consistent with any evidence with which I am familiar. Ordinary critical thinking skills provide us plenty of grounds for seeing certain claims as more reliable than others. And now a confession---how could any of us ever remove our experience from the opinion formation.  We know our experience is puny, but it is so salient. The result should be humility of expression, but not a reluctance to identify with or against a claim.

I cannot erase my ancient experience with fraternity rush.  In a single weekend of rush as a freshman, the opening pitch from 3 different fraternities was identical.  "Let us take you upstairs/into the basement where we take the girls when we get them drunk." I have known many fraternity members who would be as disgusted by those remarks as I was. However, male talk has all too frequently taken me back to the incredible barbarity of that recruitment spiel. 


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AuthorM Neil Browne