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What is logical and critical thinking?

Watch Tim Dare and Patrick Girard explain what critical thinking is and what problems a course in critical thinking might address.
In this clip, we’re going to explain what critical thinking is and what sorts of problems a course in critical thinking might address. And finally, we’ll let you know what we hope you will learn from the course. So first, what’s critical thinking? Essentially critical thinking aims to ensure that we have good reasons for our beliefs. But what does that mean? Well, suppose Patrick and I are discussing whether or not a colleague of ours called Robin– just because we don’t really have a colleague called Robin– will come to some philosophy department meeting to be held this afternoon. So do you think Robin will be there, Patrick? No. I don’t think so. Why do you think that?
Meetings always go bad when Robin is there But that’s not a good reason to believe Robin won’t be at the meeting. At best, it’s a reason to hope he won’t be. So what about this reason then? Robin hates meetings, and hardly ever comes to them. Robin only turns up if there’s something important on the agenda. And there’s nothing on this afternoon’s agenda that touches on anything Robin cares about. Well, I admit that’s a better reason. It does provide stronger logical support if we make the following assumptions. One, that it’s true that Robin almost never comes to meetings because he hates them. Two, that he only turns up if there’s something important on the agenda.
And three, that there’s nothing on the agenda that Robin cares about. If those three assumptions hold, then it seems plausible that Robin won’t show up. But it doesn’t settle whether or not Robin will be at the meeting. Well, I reckon this reason will settle it. Robin’s in London on sabbatical. We were on Skype together earlier today. That’s a better reason to think Robin won’t be at the meeting. Of all the reasons you’ve given me, it gives the strongest logical support. Think of these as premises.
If the meeting is in Auckland, and if we know that London is in England, and if we know that England is roughly a 24 hour trip from Auckland, and if we’re very confident that Robin is in London, then we can be very confident that Robin won’t be at the meeting this afternoon. Still, can we be absolutely certain that Robin won’t be at the meeting. Maybe not. Maybe Robin’s a computer hacker, and has managed to fake a Skype call from London to trick Patrick. Or maybe Robin’s a mad scientist and has developed some kind of transportation device. Seriously, Tim. Come on. Well, yeah, I know. This all seems rather unlikely.
I grant that if your final reason was in fact true, I would have good reason to believe that Robin won’t be at the meeting, But it is true. When we think critically, in the sense we’re talking about in this course, we’re thinking in ways which ensure, insofar as possible, that we have good reason for our beliefs. We’re trying to come to a true belief about whether or not Robin will be at the meeting, for instance, in the sense that we’re evaluating the reasons which bear upon that belief to see if they’re good reasons to believe one thing rather than another.
Now as we hope the Robin in the meeting case shows, critical and logical thinking can be, and often is, about very ordinary, everyday issues. I think critically when I weigh up reasons to believe that I should take my car to work rather than go by train. I might consider the reasons for and against taking my car. The likelihood of traffic jams on the roads. The reliability of the train system. How important it is that I get to work by a particular time. And which of the options make it more likely that I will get there by that time. But critical thinking can also be about big questions.
You might, for instance, be worried about privacy in the age of the internet and cyber security. Or you might be concerned about various conflicts and wars around the world, and whether your country should be involved. Those and other big questions, of course, are often all over the news. In fact, the small questions and the big questions are often quite closely connected. The reasons which bear upon whether I should go to work by car or train include reasons like the contribution of private car use to global warming. And once I start thinking about global warming, I can engage in another round of reasoning about what beliefs I ought to adopt about that. I might say, for instance, global warming is overrated.
But then I would ask you why you say that. Well, I would respond, I remember summers when I was a boy. They used to go on and on. Now you just can’t count on a decent summer. I don’t reckon it’s any warmer. But Tim, what you remember from your childhood isn’t a very good reason to doubt the scientific consensus on global warming. Fair enough. In fact, we face constant demands to exercise our critical thinking skills. All sorts of people tried to persuade us of all sorts of things. That people who write editorials and letters to the editor, politicians, lecturers, advertisers, evangelists, radio hosts, health authorities, your parents, your children, your friends, and so on.
And when someone’s trying to convince you of something, you should think what reasons have I really been given for believing what this person wants me to believe? Are they good reasons? This is what we mean by critical and logical thinking. Now here’s something surprising. Since we’re all called upon to exercise our critical thinking skills all the time, since we might even think that the capacity to exercise those skills is part of what makes humans special, you’d think we’d all, or almost all of us, be pretty good at it, that we wouldn’t often make simple errors, and there wouldn’t be widespread tendencies to adopt unjustified or bad beliefs. But guess what?
We are all inclined to make certain kinds of errors when we’re deciding which beliefs to adopt. We hope that this course will teach you how to be careful so that you will at least know when to be on the lookout for these corrupting tendencies. In this course, we’ll give you several examples of bad reasoning and we’ll give you tools to assess that in a clear way. These tools will safeguard you from encounters with bad reasoning.

We are constantly being given reasons to do and believe things: to believe that we should buy a product, support a cause, accept a job, judge someone innocent or guilty, that fairness requires us to do some household chore, and so on. Assessing the reasons we are given to do or believe these things calls upon us to think critically and logically. Perhaps surprisingly, however, people are not very good at thinking logically and critically. No matter how clever or educated we are, or what our walk of life is, we are all rather easily led astray by common psychological obstacles or reasoning fallacies.

In the subsequent steps for this week, we begin to recognise some common obstacles to logical and critical thinking:

  • Confirmation bias – when we tend to only consider what we have already experienced.
  • Heuristics – mental shortcuts we use to simplify decision making.
  • Framing – when how we are presented with a problem affects the way we see it.
  • Common fallacies – some common ways that we use reasoning that are not logical or critical.
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Logical and Critical Thinking

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