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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sample Lesson - Critical Thinking and Homeland Security

He who knows only his own side of the cause knows little. 
John Stuart Mills

Critical Thinking and Homeland Security

Topics in criminal justice, homeland security, and national defense are subject to politics.  Without digressing into a full definition of politics, it is enough to say that any argument on these topics is likely to be made from a position of bias.  Therefore, in order to fully understand these topics, the student must understand how to think critically.

What is critical thinking?  Critical thinking is using objective measurements and analyses to come to a conclusion about an argument or assertion.  As we will discuss, true critical thinking is hard to accomplish.

To begin with, we need to understand objective versus subjective measures.  An objective standards are based on fact, while subjective standards are reached by personal interpretation.  Even so, what can be considered as an objective standard is often argued on subjective grounds.

Example: On the subject of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct State Department business, conservatives claim that this was illegal due to national security law and accountability law, while liberals claim that this process was legal.  A law should be an objective standard, and thus easy to judge.  Why then, is there a dispute in this case?

Critical thinking includes (but is not limited to) the following processes:

  •   Identifying arguments
  •  Summarizing the terms of an argument
  •   Analyzing arguments in terms of evidence and logic
  •   Analyzing the credibility and/or strength of evidence
  •   Identifying the assumptions of an argument, both stated and unstated
  •   Accounting for discrepancies between different sources on an argument
  •   Identifying the reasons an argument is presented (bias)

Before we move into structured processes used in critical thinking, we need to look at the subjective processes that prevent objective thinking…basically, we need to ask: Why don’t humans use critical thinking?

The first thing to note here is that all humans are biased.  Someone who tells us that they are not biased is either lacking in personal awareness or is lying.  Humans are subject to the processes of socialization that bias their thinking; in addition, personal experience and individual personality have an effect on thinking processes.  The way that these processes are affected is known as cognitive bias.

Cognitive biases include (but are not limited to):

  •   Confirmation bias
  •   Normalcy bias
  •  Optimism bias
  •  Groupthink
  •  Base rate effect
  • Pluralistic ignorance
The explanation for any given bias can overlap another, and there can be multiple explanations for any given activity.  These biases can lead to the “cherry-picking” of evidence, which is selecting or agreeing only with the evidence and/or logic that supports an initial position of the argument.

The first step in any critical thinking process, therefore, is to understand one’s own personal biases.  Holding a bias is not a bad thing in itself, and there are evolutionary reasons that humans developed the “use” of bias in thinking.  However, being aware of personal bias can provide a warning light when evaluating evidence that contradicts that bias.

There are several models of the critical thinking process, and a student should familiarize themselves with several in order to determine which method works most efficiently with their own thinking process.  However, there is not a single “best” method, and critical thinking can be accomplished without the use of a model.  Some models are the Toulmin Model, the Paul-Elder Model, and IDEALS.

Example: IDEALS
 I – Identify the Problem
 D – Define the Context
 E – Enumerate the Choices
 A – Analyze the Options
 L – List Reasons Explicitly
 S – Self-Correct

There are also methods I have personally used that aren’t formally recognized models of critical thinking.  You may have developed (or will develop) or read about your own methods.

The first method I often use to evaluate information is the A-1 matrix.  Once upon a time, military intelligence evaluated information on a 2 factor scale; A-E was the range for the reliability of a source, with a score of A representing the most trusted source; 1-5 was the range for the likelihood that the information was accurate, with a score of 1 indicating that the intelligence had been corroborated with another source( so if you got a report that a German tank division was running amok in Chicago during WWII, you would judge that to be a 5, not a likely event).

The other method I use is triangulation of data.  For example, I take the information that possibly biased source “A” gives me in reference to source “C”, and the information that possibly biased source “B” in reference to source “C”; I then compare how that information matches to the material that “C” presents.  Doing so allows me to judge the reliability of that source, and often can illuminate the bias that affected the presentation of the data. This was a method used by Panamanian dictator Torrijos.

Critical thinking can be enhanced by taking courses in the following subjects:

  •      Scientific method
  •      Logic
  •      Statistics

The scientific method itself is subject to bias, so beware of using any given study too much unless that data or the conclusion that you want to present has been evaluated using critical thinking of your own.  Problems that affect the scientific and academic communities include replicability, the hesitance of journals to publish studies which do not find positive results, the question of institutional bias, the funding of studies, and groupthink.  In addition, you should consider Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, and the possibility of falsification.  Finally, in areas of human interaction such as justice or conflict, there are usually more variables that can be accounted for, so a study that cannot fully account for all other variables may not be reliable.

Logic is dependent on evidence to reach conclusions, and statistics can be misrepresented (see suggested reading).  The more you understand of scientific method, of logic, and of statistics, the better your critical thinking will become.

Other benefits of critical thinking include:

  •        Being able to present information in an orderly and coherent way
  •        Being able to integrate the data and conclusions of others into your own argument, in your own words (don’t forget to acknowledge sources!)
  •        Being in control of and responsible for your own learning.
It is the last benefit that you as a student should strive to accomplish.  Simply sitting in a classroom parroting what the professor says provides you with few benefits, “Garbage in, garbage out” applies to humans as well as computers.  If you do not possess the tools need to filter what comes in, then you can’t account for what goes out.

*A note on Wikipedia:
Because Wikipedia is edited by its userbase, it is extremely subject to bias. I have been told that it is not acceptable to use as an academic source. However, it can be read to present a basic description of the subject and of related areas. In addition, most Wiki pages have references that can be studied. Finally, regarding Wiki, there are “Talk” or “Discussion” pages in which editors of the page debate why items should be included on the page or not, and this can also provide legitimate references for study.

References and suggested reading: 

Barnet, S., & Bedau, H. A. (Eds.). (2011). Critical thinking, reading, and writing: a brief guide to argument (7th ed). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.
Brink-Budgen, R. van den. (2007). Critical thinking for students learn the skills of critical assessment and effective argument. Oxford [England]: How To Books. Retrieved from http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=355593

Facione, P. A. (2007). Critical thinking: What it is and why it counts. Insight Assessment, 2007, 1–23.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics. (2016, April 18). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lies,_damned_lies,_and_statistics
List of cognitive biases. (2016, April 18). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases
O’Connor, L. (2015, March 6). 3 Federal Laws Hillary May Have Violated By Using Personal Email Accounts for State Business. Retrieved from http://www.ijreview.com/2015/03/264655-3-federal-laws-hillary-may-violated-secret-email-accounts/

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