Based on the belief that it's good for kids to have married parents, some states in the United States are paying a marriage bonus to couples receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF, formerly known as welfare). When I discussed this novel approach to social engineering with the students in my college classes, many thought it was a good idea. However, no one thought that unmarried couples who receive TANF should have to pay an "unmarried penalty"; none of the students thought that if couples decided NOT to marry that they should be "fined" or "punished" financially for their decision. The funny thing about this discussion was that the students did not immediately understand that if the government provides more money for couples who get married, it is also paying less money to couples who don't get married. Whether we call it a "marriage bonus" or "unmarried penalty" is just a matter of framing—the way we present the information. In one frame (marriage bonus), it seems like a much better idea than the other frame (unmarried penalty). There are countless similar examples where a change in the way information is presented produces large changes in how people feel about the information. But, with some training in critical thinking, we can learn to recognize framing and thus not fall prey to attempts to influence what we think by manipulating the way information is presented.
There are so many other examples where critical thinking skills are important— ranging from decisions about politics and the environment to personal choices about whom and when to marry and whether or when to have children. If I say that only a stupid person would agree with a particular position or that everyone else agrees with me, it is often easy to sway individual and public opinions against or for the same position. I can even persuade many people that one brand of soap is a "good buy" (buy two bars and get one free) or that crime is or isn't a major threat to your safety by describing the same set of facts as "crime rates are up by 300%" versus "only five crimes have been committed in a major metropolitan area this year." Surely crime seems more menacing with the first statistical statement than the second, even though both can be true.
With the deluge of information on the internet, especially unreliable and even false information, the need to enhance one's ability to think critically is more critical than ever before. I hope that you will find the information in the fourth edition of Thought & Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking useful and informative. Over the years, many readers have written to me with real-life examples of the ways they have used the critical thinking skills that are presented in this book. Please keep those e-mails coming (Diane. Halpern@claremontmckenna.edu), and have fun with this book!