A Checklist for Skepticism, Doubt, and Critical Thinking

We are all subject to flawed reasoning. Any one of us may catastrophically misread the landscape we’re navigating, whether literal or metaphorical, causing us to arrive at false beliefs that end in our deaths. We may also be thwarted in our purposes by setting them too high or low. Someone might outmaneuver us. We may make all the wrong allies—and find ourselves with all the wrong enemies. There are so many ways, and at so many levels, our critical thinking can fail, and so it is that we bring questions to the claims that people bring to us for our consideration–questions like these: (1) Does this person have any real evidence for the things they believe—and what is the quality of that evidence? (2) Are there converging lines of evidence supporting these claims? (3) Is the person an expert on the matters in question, or do they rely on authorities and experts to support their claims—and how reliable are those authorities and experts, exactly? (4) If the person doesn’t have direct physical evidence or data to support their claims, do they at least have other good reasons for believing what they do? (5) Given the quantity and quality of the evidence and reasons available to them, how strongly should they actually hold their beliefs? (6) What indications are there that the person is actually competent to weigh evidence and arguments (do they apportion their beliefs to the evidence, for instance, or do they seem overconfident, believing things without sufficient warrant)? (7) Are their beliefs coherent with other things that are well-known and established (the things we think we already know about the universe and how it works)? (8) Has the person actively sought out disconfirming evidence and arguments? (9) Has the person weighed alternative beliefs or explanations and really come to the best beliefs or explanations on offer? (10) What roles are group belonging, self-identity and esteem, financial interest, temperament, and desire—desire of any sort—playing in this person’s conclusions? (11) Is this person under the spell of a narrative that they’re telling themselves and others about their claims—and are there other ways—better ways—to tell the story of this matter that might break the spell? (12) Why does this person start their stories and claims where they do, and why do they stop their stories and claims where they do? (13) Do the explanations for these starting and stopping points amount to, when push comes to shove, question begging (circular reasoning)? (14) Are the heuristics (the rules of thumb, models, maps, narratives) the person overlays onto reality too simple? Too complicated? Is this person open to reality testing them? (15) Is the person introducing any static into their arguments (things that are beside the point, emotional appeals, logical fallacies, etc.)? If so, why are they doing that? What’s the signal in the noise here?

The critical reasoner brings such skeptical questions, not just to others, but back upon the self. Skeptical questioning directed outward, toward others, but never back upon oneself, is not skepticism. Do you have the capacity, not just for bringing criticism to others, but for self criticism–and the hearing of criticism?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Checklist for Skepticism, Doubt, and Critical Thinking

  1. All excellent points. I’d add mathematics to it. With a good understanding of math it’s possible to accept or discount a whole range of information. Even in the basic sense of whether a behaviour/practice falls into the category of majority or minority.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Good point about math playing a role. If I were to add a math question to the above, I’d have to think about how to phrase it. Suggestions?

      It’s hard to be against math literacy–especially literacy surrounding statistics–but I’ve also known mathematicians and analytic philosophers who seemed unusually resistant to metaphorical and analogical framing of problems, which made them (in my view) weaker thinkers in numerous respects. There’s an analytic-synthetic art to life that doesn’t readily answer to mathematical precision. (It’s akin to using The Origin of Species like a cookbook to tell a particular tortoise how to behave on the island of Galapagos.)

      And things are in need of reality testing even when we seem to have strong deductive arguments for a position. For instance, there are philosophers who treat deductive argument as something as certain as mathematics (for instance, Catholic philosophers who derive God from first cause deductive reasoning that is, in principle, not capable of reality testing). Nothing rattles their confidence (not the Holocaust, not the problem of suffering, etc.). Russell, Aquinas, Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Leibniz were all impeccably trained logicians–and (at minimum) highly math literate–yet came to very different conclusions surrounding the nature of God and God’s existence–which they all reflected on in ways akin to mathematics, attempting to reason deductively about it.

      So it seems to me always interesting to ask where people start and stop their arguments and proofs, as where one chooses to start and stop seems to strongly determine
      the answer one reaches.

      There’s a great new book out that I’ve read once through, and am now reading through a second time to absorb more thoroughly: “Algorithms to Live By.” You might like it. For instance, if you define and simplify certain parameters, such as search time for an apartment, they argue that you can get a precise answer as to how long you should look before you leap (37% of your allotted search time). That will give you, statistically, the best chance of locating the best apartment. Thus, if you’ve allotted yourself a month to search, you might spend 11 days or so with the checkbook at home, and then leap at the next apartment that’s better than all you saw before. (This assumes you can’t go back and get an apartment you looked at earlier–that it’s a seller’s market.)

      To my mind, though, such a formula, though it might give you the greatest probability of landing the best apartment, also discards that evolution actually gives people different temperamental set points for looking and leaping. Some will wait a long time, some will be impulsive, and in some environments, therefore, somebody will win at the impulsive margins once in a while (super impulsive or super cautious). So I would still say apartment hunting should be treated more as an intuitive art than a prescriptive science. Maybe you’re at the right temperamental set point for winning the best apartment (just as a tortoise on Galapagos might have the best evolutionary strategy).

      • My point is more that a certain degree of mathematical precision and clarity is a requirement to any debate.
        Otherwise we have exceptions being treated as rules. And from there to sweeping generalizations that imply black people have a penchant for criminality… See what I mean?

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I do see what you mean, and I’m going to look again and see if clarity and precision can be plugged into the above. That’s super important. You’re right. It’s hard to scrutinize a claim or evaluate supports for a claim if they are stated in a vague manner. But with regard to your example of implicit bias, which I’ll summarize as “You say black male, I say criminal,” what is that (aside from gross prejudice, which we are agreed needs to be avoided)? I would say it is a heuristic (a rule of thumb, a model, a map overlaid onto something–in this case a human being).

        But how do we know when our heuristic is too simple or too complicated? Can math or greater precision help us here? In asking the universe a question, how do we determine the right signal in the noise (or at least the most probable one if we’re trying to figure out the future)?

        Most of us, for instance, had overlaid onto Election 2016 models that did not expect Trump to win–and here we are. Were we being irrational? Why didn’t we detect the right signals in the noise? Why did we discount certain signs, and not others? Why did we weight data wrong? I don’t know.

        Maybe the uniqueness of the political moment meant we were all behaving as innocents, and from here on we’ve got experience, and will therefore be more clear-eyed. (Why did some know when to leave Europe in the 1930s, while others hoped for the best? Was Neville Chamberlain irrational when he declared “truth in our time”?)

        I like this Nietzsche quote, in his essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873), which suggests that we’ve substituted genuine complexity for wishful thinking and hope-oriented dreams (which I would interpret as simplifying models or heuristics that seem to be scarcely better than chance in far too many instances):

        “What do human beings really know about themselves? Are they even capable of perceiving themselves in their entirety just once, stretched out as in an illuminated glass case? Does nature not remain silent about almost everything, even about our bodies, banishing and enclosing us within a proud, illusory consciousness, far away from the twists and turns of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream and the complicated tremblings of the nerve-fibers? Nature has thrown away the key, and woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed in peering through a crack in the chamber of consciousness, out and down into the depths, and thus gain an intimation of the fact that humanity, in the indifference of its ignorance, rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous—clinging in dreams, as it were, to the back of a tiger.”

  2. andrewclunn says:

    This is the sort of post that deserves to be mulled over a bit.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Thanks, and sorry I didn’t jump into the France/Islam video thread a bit, but I’ve been super busy the past month.

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