Critical Thinking as Productive Questions?
1. What types of truth claims should trigger particular responses?
2. What words should we use to signal that a particular kind of truth claim has been made?
3. Why does it matter how we conceptualize a particular truth claim?
Americans increasingly have a Vitamin D deficiency.
Meditation can calm the beast in our heart.
Beyonce seemed sad tonight.
Men are tough.
Evolutionary processes are lacking in purpose.
Each of the statements above is a claim that someone has offered to propel our behavior or belief in a direction consistent with that of the person who made the claim. Without a doubt, our brains are flooded with statements containing "truths" we are being urged to make our own.
Which ones would we want to pay the most attention to? I think that the answer lies partly in the lexicon we use to process the claims.
I am going to suggest some labels that we can apply to truth claims and then suggest how we should respond to claims once we have categorized them. Caveats: A. Like many categories, the boundaries of various types of claims will be overlapping. B. In all instances as far as I can tell, the burden of proof for claims resides on the shoulders of the person making the claim. Any other approach to burden of proof would be chaotic in that we would be at any one time believing almost all claims. How could we ever prove even a small percentage of the negatives that we would need to establish?
Types of Truth Claims:
- Laws or big T Truth--if you understand the claim and you are not experiencing brain dysfunction, you must accept the accuracy of these. Laws establish a dependable relationship among parts of our experience. Just as these are difficult to establish, they are incredibly difficult to refute. Psychological, sociological and cognitive obstacles obstruct the efforts of those who wish to say a law is incorrect. What is being called a law here is distinct from the social construction of rules that legislatures enact.
- Probabilities---These estimates of likelihood come in various magnitudes and are subject to a huge array of contextual variations. Today, for instance there is a 50% chance of snow where I am typing, but the intensity of the snow at various times of the day, and the variables that can move during the day and thereby frustrate the original probability estimates are in the dozens. The questions we would address to someone toting a probability estimate are related to alternative potential methods of calculation and the assumptions residing behind the projection. Probabilities are always 2nd cousins to lawful statements in the competition for public attention because they are and sound so much more contingent than a big t Truth.
- Generalizations--These claims are just what they sound like---claims about what is typical. In other words, they have a "most" implicitly embedded in them. Now a major problem arises for my students and for many people who should know better. Only a strong sense generalization contains or implies that the claim is valid for ALL members of the group whose behavior or attitudes are being explained. To me it is so annoying when someone "refutes" a generalization with a counter-example. Perhaps they are reacting to the real possibility that those using generalizations will over-generalize in their excitement about their "most" claims. A counter-example refutes a strong sense generalization, but let us hope few of us would make or rely on those kinds of generalizations in the first place. We would want to question generalizations when we hear them by making sure that the process by which they were arrived at is one we respect.
- Stereotypes--If we are to distinguish these truth claims from generalizations, and if we are to embellish the word with he negative connotation it generally has, I think it makes sense to see a stereotype as a faulty generalization, often with unfair connotations attached to the deployment of the truth claim. In other words, when we hear "men are tough," we might cry out "stereotype" to make the claim that the generalization is opaque or even untrue, AND we are resisting the image of men as unfeeling and stridently competitive.
- Here I am somewhat stumped. What would we call the typical truth claim? Bollocks from a nimrod? Perhaps "hunch" or "wish". Ironically, the lack of quality in this category should not cause us to demean them as a category. Even our best truth claims begin not as wildfires, but as a spark. We want people to feel free to speculate and guess. I just wish that people's tone showed more self-awareness that they are usually just bloviating. They would be in real trouble were someone to say "and why is that?"
So which kinds of claims should we pay our most focused attention to? As for so many other tough questions, don't you think the answer is "depends on the purpose"? For example, when the truth claim is about our health, we need to be very careful to determine the quality, type, and source of the truth claim. But when the truth claim revolves around our supper menu, reliance on a sloppy truth claim or failure to distinguish among what a biased waiter suggests, the 2000 reviews on Trip Advisor, or the circumspect research of nutritionists is epiphenomenal. it just does not much matter.