Practice Critical Thinking Skills from the Recent Campaign and Its Aftermath

Well, the election is over.  But it appears that the rhetoric is far from over.  Supporters of one candidate continue to attack the other candidate and his/her supporters.  Many people wish we could just move on.

Taking Advantage of a Learning Opportunity

We cannot control whether people decide to stop the ranting and raving over the other candidate.  But, we can control how we deal with those rants and raves.  We can use this time as a learning opportunity to improve our communication skills.  Particularly, we can work on our own critical thinking skills.
I thought I’d share a post that I wrote during a previous election campaign, as we once again have an excellent opportunity to take advantage of campaign season for our benefit.

Critical Thinking

Anyone familiar with the Intelligent Communication approach knows that I emphasize processes that help us better understand what others are communicating to us.  I believe that if we understand others better, we are better equipped to respond in the most effective way.  One important aspect of achieving better understanding is using critical thinking.  What is critical thinking?  I generally use the following definition for my training programs:  “reasonable, reflective thinking, that is focused on deciding what to believe and do.”*
In this article, I want to focus on one aspect of this definition and set up an exercise using the campaign season as practice.  We will start our focus with considering what is “reasonable” thinking.  Something is “reasonable” when it is in accord with orderly, logical, and rational thinking.  So, one aspect of applying critical thinking to communication is determining whether what others are communicating to us is orderly, logical and rational.
This is an aspect of communication that is often overlooked, even when we are focused on what others are communicating to us.  We may be so focused on taking in the information, we forget to consider whether the information is orderly, logical, and rational.  We are particularly susceptible to this when we are listening to someone whom we generally like and agree with.  Effective communication requires us, not only to listen carefully, but to consider the content of what we hear and see as to its reasonableness.

Logical Fallacies

Many years ago, learning logic was a staple of the education system.   This does not appear to be the case anymore.  I cannot recall having received anything but a brief exposure to the subject of logic in my schooling through the undergraduate level.  If your experience is the same, that is unfortunate.  If we do not take some time to learn some of the basic principles of logic, we open ourselves to become victims of a number of logical fallacies.

Politicians and Creative Logic

A few campaigns ago, I began to notice how frequently candidates relied on logical fallacies in their campaign ads.  This issue is not restricted to any specific political party or ideology.  It is something that is characteristic of most candidates and political organizations.   They all are trying to persuade their audiences of a specific position.  Frequently, they are trying to accomplish this in a minimal amount of time.  They give speeches and produce ads designed to sway those who watch and listen.  To accomplish their goal, they use some form of reason.  In doing so, they do not always use sound logic.  If we want to be effective communicators, those who seek to understand, we must take some time to consider whether their reasoning is valid.

Example 1

Let’s consider a few hypothetical examples.  Candidate A announces that her economic policy will “put people back to work because it will create new jobs.”  This is a form of circular reasoning.  It provides no proof, but only restates her position.  If this was in a television ad, the candidate may buffer the statement by including a reference to an article in a leading newspaper.  By doing so, the candidate is using an influence technique known as social proof.  How often to we actually check the article to determine whether it actually supports what the candidate claims?  Additionally, we should check to see that the cited article provides a reasoned argument itself in support of the candidate’s claim?

Example 2

Let’s look at another example.  Candidate B’s campaign produces a political ad challenging his opponent’s position on foreign policy.  The ad portrays a woman who lost a child or perhaps a man or woman who lost a spouse in a military conflict overseas.  It includes pictures of the deceased and a commentary by the person about all they have lost.  As a retired soldier, I truly feel for those who have lost loved ones in combat.  They have made a sacrifice that I wish they never had to make.  This form of argument, however, is an appeal to emotion.  It provides no specific facts in regards to the other candidate’s actual foreign policy.  Without such information to support it, it is a logical fallacy.

Example 3

Here’s one more example.  Candidate C releases an ad against his opponent (Candidate D), who once worked for a very unpopular politician.  This politician’s policies proved to be very ineffective and his behavior bordered upon and perhaps crossed the line of ethics and perhaps the law.  The ad states the Candidate D’s relationship to this unpopular politician up front and then goes on to speak only of the unpopular politician.  This is a form of a genetic fallacy.  The ad implies that Candidate D’s origins, his relationship with the unpopular politician, provides the full story of Candidate D’s character and worth.

It’s Not Always Simple

When evaluating these and other claims by politicians (or anyone with whom we communicate), we need to remember that understanding is not always a simple process.  In the examples above, I am suggesting that we should not simply buy into what candidates are telling us just because they say it and support it with some form of argument.  I should also point out that we cannot reject their position, simply on the basis of their using a logical fallacy.  Their position may still be proven valid if we consider it in light of valid arguments.  Further, I am not asserting that all politicians and political groups are deliberately using logical fallacies to fool unsuspecting voters.  If I were to do that, you might suggest that I am making a “hasty generalization,” another logical fallacy we should be aware of.

The Logical Fallacy Scorecard

To help you take advantage of the campaign season to practice communication skills, I have produced a Logical Fallacy Scorecard.  This checklist consists of a dozen common logical fallacies used on the campaign trail.  Download a copy for yourself and practice identifying logical fallacies this campaign season.  Score each candidate and political organization.  Decide for yourself which candidates and organizations make the best use of logic.  This practice will also improve your ability to identify logical fallacies in your own interactions and avoid using them yourself.

Get Your Scorecard

Just like before, I am making the logical fallacy scorecard available to my readers.  You can get your scorecard here.  Since the election is over, you will likely be using the scorecard on candidates’ supporters and not the candidates themselves.  It is not going to make you an expert in logic, but it will help you begin honing your critical thinking skills.
So download the scorecard and begin identifying logical fallacies in others’ arguments.  The first step in the process is to be quick to hear, slow to speak.
*Norris, S. P., & Ennis, R. H. (1989). Evaluating critical thinking. Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publications.
Photo by DonkeyHotey

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