Critical Thinking and Logical Argument

Article excerpt

Critical thinking and logical argument are as crucial to a democratic nation today as they were to the Founding Fathers in 1700s. An analysis of the construction of arguments can be found in any university logic class and appears in various forms in the social sciences based on the work of Stuart Chase. Chase's writing and the publications of the Institute of Propaganda Analysis were an early attempt in the last century to prepare citizens to detect fallacious arguments in public policy issues. (1) While much attention has been paid by educators to critical thinking skills, little attention in social studies education has been given to logical and fallacious arguments that are an essential part of critical thinking.

Social studies classrooms offer opportunities for students to gather and evaluate evidence, analyze and critique other people's assertions, and speak or write in support of or in opposition to an opinion. The social studies teacher may act as an instructor, moderator, questioner, and devil's advocate.

Students bring to the classroom opinions and information that they glean from the popular culture. Content material for a discussion about current issues is readily accessible to students in the form of newspapers, weekly magazines, and television documentaries and newscasts. Students may feel like experts already, or they may feel overwhelmed by the available information on a topic. Either way, the teacher can help students select sources and then evaluate information through discussions with others who are also seeking accurate information and reliable sources.

Barry Beyer offers one of the dearest conceptualizations of critical thinking. Beyer's operations were derived from the literature of science, language arts, and social studies instruction and are presented here in order (roughly) from simple to complex: (2)

* distinguishing between verifiable facts and value statements;

* distinguishing relevant from irrelevant observations or reasons;

* determining the factual accuracy of a statement;

* determining the credibility of a source;

* identifying ambiguous statements;

* identifying unstated assumptions;

* detecting bias;

* identifying logical fallacies;

* recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning;

* determining the overall strength of an argument or conclusion.

Critical thinking operations are perhaps best exemplified in the area of argumentation. (3) When students are engaged in making assertions, supporting and defending those claims through a well-developed line of reasoning, and judging the efficiency of counter arguments during discussions of social issues, they will be making use of the operations identified above. Failure to use these operations during discourse results in fallacious reasoning and flawed construction of ideas and opinions.

Common Fallacies

While fallacies contained in arguments have always been of concern to philosophers, social studies educators might do more to recognize and analyze the fallacious arguments of their students, making such errors an occasion for discussion. A few of the more-frequently encountered fallacies follow.

Ad hominem

Attacking a person's character rather that the accuracy of his or her statements constitutes an ad hominem argument (argument to the man). Specifically, one commits this fallacy by either: (a) criticizing some personal aspect of the speaker unrelated to the topic, for example, how they look or where they grew up; or (b) pointing out some special circumstance or relationship that might exist between the speaker and the topic at hand, but which is not relevant to the validity of their statements. Examples: (a) "David's objection to the new standardized tests should be dismissed entirely, since he never knows what he is talking about. …