Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Cloud and Collaboration

Paper written as a contribution to the Ars Electronica symposium on Cloud Intelligence.

Let's take as a starting point the discussion of 'cloud intelligence' on the conference website:
In the cloud of connections, we each become social neurons, mimicking the biological human brain but on a giant scale. This collective knowledge is far beyond anything a single search engine could index and archive. Intelligence is spreading everywhere, every minute, and cloud computing can draw new links across new ideas. (80+1, 2008)
This idea of the connected world as a global brain is not new, nor surprising. It seems clear that we can identify something like social intelligence in the community, and the analogy between humans and neurons is compelling.

Peter Russell's The Global Brain explicitly makes the connection.
We have already noted that there are, very approximately, the same number of nerve cells in a human brain as there are human minds on the planet. And there are also some interesting similarities between the way the human brain grows and the way in which humanity is evolving. (Russell, 2008)
According to Russell, the brain develops in two phases. First, there is a massive explosion in the number of neurons. And second, isolated neural cells begin making connections with each other. A similar pattern, he argues, is observed in society.

Tom Stonier writes,
In principle, this process does not differ from the evolution of primitive nervous systems into advanced mammalian brains... each node, rather than being a neuron, is a person comprising trillions of neurons ... coupled ... to their personal computers... We are now dealing with the very top end of the known spectrum of intelligence. (Hofkirchner, 2005)
As we read and hear more about the growing internet and the emerging cloud, we are also hearing more about the way in which we, as connected members of the cloud, work together. The conference website also addresses this point.
We think together but remain independent in our identity. If we could foster co-thinking to reach consensus about new solutions, we may be able to find a new direction for the future. Hope can emerge from new collaborative models based on a new paradigm; science and art will act gracefully to match human nature, and to shape the future of humanity. (80+1, 2008)
This is a common refrain. It expresses the idea that the cloud enables us to work together, to collaborate, to forge a new consensus. The cloud, in other words, reinforces the ways with which we have attempted hitherto to organize ourselves. The divisiveness, the factionalism, the disputes and conflicts that have blocked our efforts in the past, we are told, can be effectively overcome using the new technology.

Dimitar Tchurovsky's Google knol titled the 'Global Virtual Brain and Mind Project' is a good example of this. (Tchurovsky, 2009) He cites the conflicts of interests, media manipulations, bribery and the influence industry as barriers to a genuine global consensus. The response is a "worldwide social network of self-selected people resembling human brain and mind, who will collaborate in attempt to solve social problems."

The associating of collaboration and global consciousness is natural, as collaboration is central to our concept of community, and the global mind can be seen as an extension of community. We see much the same language as that used to describe the global mind, for example, "people inspired to create healthy communities cross pollinate ideas, connect & exchange stories that harness our collective wisdom." (McCarthy) These examples are typical; they could be multiplied almost indefinitely.

What is collaboration, though? Is it something that neurons in a human brain actually do? Can we describe the organization of our mind in the same terms we currently use to describe the organization of society?

The characteristics identified by the National Network for Collaboration (The National Network for Collaboration, 1995) are typical:
* Accomplish shared vision and impact benchmarks
* Build interdependent system to address issues and opportunities
* Consensus used in shared decision making
* Roles, time and evaluation formalized
* Links are formal and written in work assignments
* Leadership high, trust level high, productivity high
* Ideas and decisions equally shared
* Highly developed communication
Collaboration, on this model, can be contrasted with looser forms of association such as networking, alliance-formation or cooperation.

What distinguishes collaboration from these other forms of organization is a commonality of understanding or purpose. This theme permeates writing on the subject. Schrage calls collaboration "an act of shared creation and/or shared discovery" (Schrage, 1990, p. 6) Senge talks about the creation of a shared vision. (Senge, 1994)

In learning communities, as well, we see commonality or shared vision as central to the creation of a learning community. The idea that learning is social in nature has been a recurring theme in education, from Dewey to Brown & Duguid. Learning communities, write Kilpatrick, Barrett & Jones, "are operationalised through collaboration, cooperation, and/or partnerships. The shared goals are achieved through working together and potentially building or creating new knowledge." (Kilpatrick, Barrett, & Jones, 2003)

Or as Brown & Duguid write,
reciprocity is strong. People are able to affect one another and the group as a whole directly. Changes can propagate easily. Coordination is tight. Ideas and knowledge may be distributed across the group, not held individually. These groups allow for highly productive and creative work to develop collaboratively. (Brown & Duguid, 2000, p. 143)
Or, as they write, forging a single group around a shared task, overlapping knowledge, blurred boundaries and a common working identity. (Brown & Duguid, 2000, p. 127)

Do neurons collaborate like this? Though there may be a sense to be made of vocabulary such as a 'common identity' and 'shared task' for a collection of neurons, it seems highly artificial, based on a certain perspective of their activities as a whole, and most significantly, of limited utility is describing the mechanisms that neurons employ to form a mind.

If we push the language a bit, we can see how awkward this characterization becomes. Does it make sense to say of two neurons that they have a "shared understanding"? Neurons are not the sort of things that can even have an understanding. Do neurons unite behind a 'common vision'? Do they 'reach a consensus' and 'share in decision-making'? Does one neuron 'trust' another neuron? The language begins to stretch credibility.

Equally, the forms and mechanisms of social organization, as we understand them in contemporary society, are completely alien to the functioning of neurons. There is no 'lead neuron' who articulates a vision for all to share. Neurons don't employ a mission statement, strategies or mechanisms in order to complete organizational tasks. Neurons are not client focused, results driven or process oriented. Neurons are not managed and there is no sense to be made of them belonging to a community in anything like a normal usage of the term.

What characterizes collaborative forms of organization is, in one sense or another, sameness in the people. Sometimes this sameness is a mental property - a sameness of vision, understanding or belief. Otherwise, this sameness may be of some aptitude or capacity - a shared vocabulary, shared skill set, shared comprehension. In other forms of community, a more basic sameness is required: sameness of residency, of nationality, of language, or of religion.

By the same token, collaborative forms of organization are directed toward mental content. Communication consists of a transfer of information, with some process undertaken to ensure sameness of content in the receiver as was found in the sender. It is a model of learning and communication as diffusion. There are clear roles of knowledge production and knowledge reception. In a collaboration all members work on the same content (even if each has only a partial view of that content). There is a semantic consistency in their work.

Space precludes a detailed analysis of this phenomenon, however, it can be seen in a wide variety of models of learning and communication, from Moore's theory of transactional distance, to the concepts of knowledge translation or knowledge mobilization, to the power law model of online community, to "core knowledge" advocacy, to Vygotsky's concept of the zone of proximal development (of the latter, Cheyne and Tarulli write, "all of this is organized around the issue of control which, through ontogenesis, becomes transformed from that of an external agent over a subordinate to one of an internal agent over self and ultimately to a principle over an instance"). (Cheyne & Tarulli, 1999)

This 'sameness of entity' thesis (as we may call it) may be distinguished from an alternative representation in which diversity among entities is expected and accepted. Such an alternative model can seem quite radical. Insofar as entities are diverse, so therefore also are their mental contents, which means that when one person says "Paris is the capital of France" he or she means something different from what another person means when uttering the same sentence.

Such approaches to communication have their grounding in "incommensurability" or "indeterminacy" theses of meaning; we see these reflected in Kuhn's theory of paradigm change and Quine's discussion of radical translation respectively. As Quine says, it's not simply that we can't say that two utterances have the same meaning, it's that there might not even be an objective meaning to be right about. (Quine, 1960, p. 73) What underlies communication, what makes community possible, in such cases is not sameness of entity or shared meaning, but rather, our entering into a system of interaction with each other, into what Wittgenstein calls a "language game", the result of a negotiation calls and responses, where thinking is an activity, similar to, as he says in the Blue Book, a movement of the hand, the presumption of meaning being an ungrounded inference, a projection, or as Quine says, an "analytic hypothesis." (Wittgenstein, 1991, p. 16)

When we are not concerned with sameness of entity, when we are not concerned with shared meaning, when we are not concerned with diffusion of content, then the mechanisms for community look very different. They do not resemble collaboration, as we have described it above, but rather, what we may style here as cooperation. For the purposes of the current discussion, 'cooperation' may be thought of as the sharing by entities of a common system of communication or infrastructure. Community, then, would be defined by the interactions or connections among those entities, and the process of the global brain described in terms of those interactions.

From the perspective of a human brain, there is a very good reason why we would want the structure of neural interaction to proceed in this way. If the creation of a neural community - a mind - depended on neurons achieving a commonality of meaning, then the mind as a whole would never be capable of entertaining more meaning than a single neuron. From the perspective of a mind, meaning is not something that is passed from one neuron to the next, but rather, something that emerges from the interaction of neurons. Whether or not one neuron means the same thing as another is completely irrelevant from the point of view of the mind.

The foundation of community understood as arising from the sharing of a common system of communication is not collaboration but is rather, as suggested above, cooperation. A cooperation, then, is formed through the creation or formation of links or connections among its entities, a negotiation of communications among them. A cooperation among entities implies a separation or distinctness of interests between them; we see game-theoretic models of cooperation, for example, in such scenarios as the prisoner's dilemma, where individual interests create the possibility of conflict or betrayal. (Mayberry, Harsanyi, Scarf, & Selten, 1992) It is a mechanism similar to what we see in market economics; there is no presumption of shared objectives or goals, only a negotiation of a means of interaction.

There is no clear statement as to the exact mechanisms through which neurons connect with each other (though the biological and chemical processes are reasonably well understood (LeDoux, 2002)) but for the purposes of this paper four major models of association can be described, each of which does appear to comprise at least a part of the overall process.

First of all, simple association, also known as Hebbian association, occurs when two neurons are activated at the same time and are not activated at the same time. If the patterns of activation and inactivation are sufficiently similar, Hebb postulated in 1949, a connection between those neurons is more likely to be created. (Hebb, 2002) In human communities, Hebbian mechanisms can be seen in the connections that form between people who have similar interests; what creates the connection is not the interest itself, but rather, the fact that such people tend to read the same resources, comment on the same websites, and appear at the same events.

A second associative mechanism might be called 'association by proximity'. Neural cells may connect simply by virtue of being located in the same region of the brain. We see this, for example, in the clustering that takes place in the visual cortex, where contiguity of retinal cells is reflected in links among neurons at deeper layers. Rumelhart and McClelland describe how contiguous neurons may form inhibitory 'pools' of neurons, where the activation of one neuron actually inhibits the activation of the next. (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986, p. 28) In communities, contiguity is often the basis for association: neighbours get to know each other, and colleagues take part in social activities.

A third associative mechanism, competitive theory, is similar to the 'trial and error' pattern of learning familiar in pedagogical theory. In connectionism (the study of computational neural networks) this is described as 'back propagation'. Associative networks are formed and then fed input, from which, via their connections, they produce an output. This output is then corrected, and a signal is sent back through the network, on the basis of which the connections between neurons are modified. (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986, p. 328) The complex interactions that characterize dating, negotiations, and other iterative communications may be reflective of back propagation.

And a fourth associative mechanism, harmony theory, is based on the idea that systems of connected entities 'settle' into a state of least potential energy. This mechanism, referred to in connectionist circles as the 'Boltzmann Machine', employs the principles of thermodynamics to describe a settling function. In a Boltzmann machine, networks are repeatedly stimulated by increasing the probability that one neuron will be connected with another, then 'annealed' by gradually lowering this probability. (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986, p. 282) This is like the periodic staging of 'mixers' in which the frequency of interaction is greatly increased, followed by periods of time during which more close connections may be negotiated.

These four mechanisms (and there may be more) are distinct from the mechanisms we described above, under the heading of 'collaboration', in that there is no presumption of management or authority, no privileged nodes, and no hierarchy. The idea is that each entity is autonomous - a model most popularized in Marvin Minsky's The Society of Mind, where "each mind is made of many smaller processes" he calls "agents". (Minsky, 1985, p. 17) A (human) society of agents also sounds more like what we would want to describe as constituting a global mind, a society in which each individual is autonomous, performing his or her individual (and unique) function, forming an intelligence through interaction with the rest of society, rather than by conforming with it.

We hear, sometimes, the emerging structure of the web described as a 'new socialism'. (Kelly, 2009) But there is a tendency to represent this new socialism as an economic theory, in terms of the creation and consumption of content. "They have already constructed a vast online repository of culture, knowledge, and tools. And we are just at the beginning of what's to come." (Oso, 2009) There is, it seems, a desire to represent this as a collaboration or type of collectivism, "Wikipedia, Flickr, and Twitter the 'vanguard of a cultural movement', an emerging 'global collectivist society.'" And concordantly, there seems to be an inclination to weight people according to the value of their contribution (and by extension, even, to value people by the number of their connections). The content-based 'new socialism' is the same as the authority-based power-law driven old capitalism.

In reality, the 'new socialism' that ought to be understood as emerging on the internet is not one dogged by the tired stereotypes that seem to characterize American descriptions of the term (Lawrence Lessig, for example, defining 'socialism as coercion' (Lessig, 2009)) A more modern version of socialism may be found in the forms of 'democratic socialism' current around the world, forms of socialism as a form of personal empowerment, equality of opportunity, and association and interaction.

The concept echos what Illich talks about as 'conviviality'.
Illich's 'tools for conviviality' are appropriate and congenial alternatives to tools of domination, as convivial tools promote learning, sociality, community, 'autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment' (Illich, 1973, p. 27). These criteria, he felt, could guide reconstruction of education to serve the needs of varied communities, to promote democracy and social justice, and to redefine learning and work to promote creativity, community, and an ecological balance between people and the earth. (Kahn & Kellner, 2007)
If we are to think of the internet as a global mind, then the interpretation of the community created by such a network as characterized by cooperation, rather than collaboration, then we need to reframe some of the discussion regarding the attributes of that network, and reform our understanding of the processes and the technologies most appropriate for the creation of such a network.

Instead of attempting to identify thought-leaders, for example, and instead of attempting to identify and understand the content created on the web, the various activities of participants in the network are acts of interaction and communication. The semantics, the meaning, of interactions are not deducible from their contents; indeed, their contents are, from the larger perspective, irrelevant. Rather, we should treat them as contentless 'words' or 'signals' in a complex communication taking place among the entities. A web video created by a skateboarder: that's a word. A lolcat created in photoshop: that's a word. This article: that's a word.

We communicate with each other with these words, and the important things are, first that we communicate, not the particular nature or content of our communication, and second, what we as a species do as a consequence of that communication, not in the sense of having common ideas or doctrines or philosophies, but rather in terms of global expressions or behaviours. In such a network there are no special, privileged, nodes; being a consumer is as important as being a creator, and indeed (as has often been noted) the roles of creator and consumer become indistinguishable, and more important, so to do the roles of master and servant.

80+1. (2008). Day 81: Ars Electronica Symposium Examines Cloud Intelligence. Retrieved from 80+1: http://www.80plus1.org/blog/day-81-ars-electronica-symposium-examines-cloud-intelligence

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press.

Cheyne, J., & Tarulli, D. (1999). Dialogue, difference, and the "third voice" in the zone of proximal development. Theory and Psychology , 9, 5-29.

Hebb, D. O. (2002). The Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hofkirchner, W. (2005). Beyond the Third Culture! Science in the Information Age. Salzburg.

Kahn, R., & Kellner, D. (2007). Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich: technology, politics and the reconstruction of education. Policy Futures in Education , 5 (4).

Kelly, K. (2009, May 22). The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online. Retrieved from Wired: http://www.wired.com/culture/culturereviews/magazine/17-06/nep_newsocialism?currentPage=all

Kilpatrick, S., Barrett, M., & Jones, T. (2003). Defining Learning Communities. International Education Research Conference. Association for Research in Education.

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Viking.

Lessig, L. (2009, May 28). Et tu, KK? (aka, No, Kevin, this is not "socialism"). Retrieved from Lessig Blog: http://www.lessig.org/blog/2009/05/et_tu_kk_aka_no_kevin_this_is.html

Mayberry, J. P., Harsanyi, J. F., Scarf, H. E., & Selten, R. (1992). Game-Theoretic Models of Cooperation and Conflict. Westview Press.

McCarthy, M. (n.d.). Collaboration in Community. Retrieved from Ning: http://www.collaborationincommunity.com/

Minsky, M. (1985). The Society of Mind. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Oso, E. (2009, June 12). Cloud Intelligence. Retrieved from el-oso.net: http://el-oso.net/blog/archives/2009/06/12/cloud-intelligence/

Quine, W. (1960). Word and Object. Cambridge: MIT press.

Rumelhart, D. E., & McClelland, J. L. (1986). Parallel Distribuuted Processing, Volume 1. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Russell, P. (2008). The Global Brain: The Awakening Earth in a New Century. Floris Books; 3rd edition.

Schrage, M. (1990). Shared minds: The new technologies of collaboration. New York: Random House.

Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday Business.

Tchurovsky, D. (2009). Global Virtual Brain and Mind Project. Retrieved from Google Knol: http://knol.google.com/k/dimitar-tchurovsky/global-virtual-brain-and-mind-project/mp8du5m8vcjb/4#

The National Network for Collaboration. (1995). Collaboration Framework - Addressing Community Capacity. Retrieved from The National Network for Collaboration: http://crs.uvm.edu/nnco/collab/framework.html

Wittgenstein, L. (1991). Preliminary studies for the 'Philosophical investigations'. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Internet at 40

This is just a test, to demonstrate using Odeo to embed OU podcasts.

2009 is the 40th anniversary of the first computer network - the precursor of the internet - and the 20th anniversary of the brilliant idea that led to the creation of the world wide web. What exactly is the internet, and how does it differ from the world wide web? Who were its pioneers, and what technological surprises has it sprung? This album opens with a specially recorded interview with John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University and author of 'A brief history of the future - the origins of the internet'. He explores some of the key moments in the short but spectacular history of an extraordinary phenomenon, the people who made them happen, and some of the problems that have emerged. The album also features archive interviews with Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Donald Davies and other pioneers of the internet age, recorded in the late 1990s. The album is completed by a newly recorded interview with Rodney Harrison, lecturer in Heritage Studies at the Open University, in which he talks about his research into Second Life: Cyber-Archaeologies, Heritage and Virtual Communities. The interviews are presented by radio journalist Penny Boreham.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

High Achievers and American Society

Doug Noon quotes Gerald Bracey: "First, comparing nations on average scores is a pretty silly idea. It’s like ranking runners based on average shoe size or evaluating the high school football team on the basis of how fast the average senior can run the 40-yard dash. Not much link to reality. What is likely much more important is how many high performers you have."

The reason why averages matter is that the high achievers do not live in isolation. They are supported or held back by the remainder of society, and this has an impact not only on what they can achieve but also on what their quality of life will be.

To prove this point, and to look at the data in a new light, let's consider the 'global talent pool' diagram included in Noon's post. As we can see, the U.S. has 25 percent, which Noon suggests is "a fair number of high performers, comparatively." Canada has, by contrast, 4 percent, Britain 8 percent, etc.

Now the thing about high performers is, they are the primary generators of wealth in a society. They innovate, create, manage, discover and teach. The rest of society, by contrast, might be characterized as the 'load' that must be carried by the high performers.

That is not to say that people who are not high performers are useless, that they don't produce wealth, or anything like that. But when we are comparing nations (as economists always do, since they are in love with league tables) it is the high achievers, not the others, that distinguish one society from another.

The size of the load will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the high achievers. The larger the load, the more of the achievers' efforts will have to be directed toward supporting that load - by, for example, assuming teaching, public service and government positions, by paying higher taxes, by sharing more social services such as hospitals and schools.

So, how do we calculate the load? We can begin by assuming that the 'global talent pool' depicted in the diagram has some given size. It consists of some number of people. This must be true, otherwise we couldn't say that the U.S. constitutes 25 percent of it.

I don't know what the size it; the documentation doesn't say. It can't be extremely large. If it were a billion people, say, Canada's percentage would amount to 40 million people, which is greater than the whole population of Canada.

Since the comparisons are rations, it doesn't matter what the actual value is. So I will assume that the size of 'the global talent pool' is about 100 million. This is probably roughly accurate. I leave it as an exercise to construct the same argument with differing values (the results will be the same).

So, with the global talent pool of 100 million people, the U.S. share of this is 25 million people (25 percent), Canada's is 4 million people (4 percent), Britain's is 8 million people, and so on.

The total population of the United States is 300 million people. This means that the 25 million high achievers in the United States have a load of 275 million people - a ratio of roughly 11 to 1. So each high achiever in the United States carries roughly 11 people.

The 4 million high achievers in Canada, by contrast, carry a load of about 26 million people. This is ration of roughly 8 to 1. High achievers in Canada are relatively better off, therefore.

Britain, meanwhile, has a population of about 60 million people. Its 8 million high achievers are supporting a load of 52 million people. That's a bit more than a 6 to 1 ratio. Britain's high achievers are carrying an even smaller load.

There are countries that are struggling. Spain, with a population of 40 million, only has about 1 million high achievers. This creates a ratio of 40 to 1, which explains why it is more difficult to prosper there, even if you are a high achiever. Still, at least it is moving in the right direction. A decade ago, we could imagine that Spain had load ratios of 80 to 1 or 120 to 1.

I could create the league table here, but we can fairly easily extrapolate the results for ourselves. By considering the load along with the percentage of high achievers, it becomes clear that American high achievers are positioned roughly as OECD data would put them.

So how does the United States manage to appear to be so much more prosperous, when its 25 million high achievers are carrying such a significant load?

Part of it is, as you suggest, volume. With 25 million high achievers, they seem to be everywhere. Major urban areas like Boston and San Francisco are full of them; the density in these areas is significantly higher.

Another major part of it is that high achievers in the United States carry less of a load than they do elsewhere. Taxes are lower, public service positions are fewer, and private schools and hospitals mean the high achievers don't have to share. 50 million people are left without health insurance, something that would be unthinkable in countries with lower load ratios. High achievers achieve a relatively higher income than those in other nations, but at the cost of a lower standard of living for those in the load.

And a third part of it is that much of the higher standard of living by American high achievers is obtained on credit. This is how Americans have satisfied the aspirations of the load, and how the nation has compensated for the increasing cost of commodities from overseas.

Eventually, high achievers in the United States will have to come to grips with the fact that they carry a larger load than their counterparts in other OECD nations, and that unlike nations currently building their economies, their relative load is *increasing*. It will become increasingly difficult, or will require increasing disparity or increasing levels of credit, to support American high achievers in their current standard of living.

Other countries are developing their economies by expanding their classes of high achievers, thus decreasing the load and improving living conditions for everyone. Americans will have to do the same, eventually - the question is, how long can their levels of increased disparity and increased credit disguise the fact that the economy as a whole is underperforming.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Maritime Reflections

Written in June, 1989, and never published anywhere until I scanned it today. There is also an MS-Word version available, and a PDF version as well.

My map of Cape Breton has been posted in the hallway and the line sketches of Quebec City are on the living room wall. I have sorted the papers and souvenirs into their respective piles, the mail has been answered, and it is now two weeks since my return. This is not a journal or a dairy, but a reflection, and if the spirit is sombre, it is because the image I see has been stripped of its gilt tinge, the colours are sharp and clear, and the forms are stark, too stark.

The train rolled through lush forest and farmland between Sackville, New Brunswick and Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia. The bar car was quiet: it was morning, and most travellers looked forward to a short trip. For me, it was two weeks into my vacation, and an escape from the frenzy of the conference I had just left. And the trees swept by, and Truro was warm and prosperous, and when the conductor called us to board, it was with a wistful wonder that I took my seat. Why is this land so poor?

She had taken her seat in Edmonton, and I parted from her with a warm hug in a darkened train at Ottawa Station. We wandered through some nameless town in Northern Ontario. She had been able to communicate with the predominately French community, and I was concerned about being left behind by the train's hasty departure. A man had been injured the day before; he had been caught under the train and his foot had been sliced off. It was the talk of the town. I understood the pain.

As the train streaked through the Ottawa Valley, whistle blaring at each darkened town it passed, I stood at the window between two cars, smoking a cigarette, and wondered why it felt as though I had taken this train before. The uneasiness grew. I recognized the towns, of course, for I had travelled by bus and car through the region. But never on a darkened train. We must have passed by the Scout camp where I had vacationed as a child. I didn't see it. But I remembered the train passing halfway up the hill at the far side of the lake, whistle blaring.

What had happened to her in Edmonton? She had been a student at Faculte St. Jean, it was her first year, and she was determined not to attend a second. She was in drama, and the two experiences she told me about were, first, having to do a strip tease and stand in her underwear with her grandmother in the audience, and second, of wearing an old Parisian gown with the whalebone girdle and low cut top. I asked her how it felt and she said she liked the tightness. I think she was running; her boyfriend was the director.

The place was Gowrie House, it was in Sydney Mines, and the proprietor worked as a schoolteacher in Louisburg. It was Sunday night when I arrived, and an elegant dinner was being served in three rooms of a restaurant on the main floor. I was hustled upstairs by this cultured gentleman. There was a professorial pair from Dalhousie staying at the bed and breakfast, and an older couple from somewhere in the States who were building a boathouse nearby in North Sydney. They were surprised to learn I taught logic, relieved to learn I was a graduate student. I remembered a philosophy professor I knew who was a communist and yearly would take several month vacations in Europe and the Caribbean. We talked about their travels over breakfast; they enjoyed Vancouver, and doesn't Edmonton have a very large mall?

Through New Brunswick the train rolled, through valleys of forest and over impossibly large rivers. I asked what town this was, and a man travelling to Campbelltown said it was Bathurst. I didn't notice, but now I know it is a seaport. We watched the final game of the Stanley Cup on a small portable screen. It was against regulations, but the conductor allowed it. The final few minutes were played as we left Campbelltown to traverse Gaspe and the screen faded. We could receive the game by radio in French, and while I heard it, it was second hand that I knew my Flames had won. A soft blush crept through me, a silent exaltation.

The train left Edmonton five hours late because of track construction near Hinton, and when it approached Winnipeg it was seven hours behind schedule. Two trains merge at Winnipeg: my own, and another from Calgary. If either train is late, the other must wait. The switching system broke down as we entered Winnipeg and a man ran before the train, checking the track. The train from Calgary had not waited seven hours. They had had a fire about a half hour out of Calgary and were themselves several hours delayed. They did not have a bar car of their own.

We walked on the dock at Trois Rivieres. The St. Lawrence was more like a lake. I had left her in Ottawa, and surprising her, had returned to visit her at home. She showed me an art bar, where patrons smoke pot in an open marquis at the back. She brought her own wine to the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate, but we split the tab. When she left, to hitch-hike to Cap-de-la-Madeline, she recommended another place, which turned out to be a cavern, a comfortable, soft and warm cavern. I wondered who these people were on a Friday Night in Trois Rivieres, a midnight after the day it rained, a wisp of fog in the air and the grass still wet.

The following day I left my bags at the train station when I ordered a ticket for Montreal. It threatened to rain as I walked through the town, and at one point the clouds burst. I sheltered in a narrow tunnel under the tracks, and melancholy, smoked the last of what I had. My spirits did improve, though I remained wistful. She had taught me something: and what an easy manner about her, a freshness and surprising naivety for someone who had hitch-hiked across the country. Yet I could feel her silent rage, and her puzzlement about my failing to press for advantage. And the town, too, seethed with rebellion, a silent desperation the only alternative to a quiet self-destruction.

Louisburg was nearly deserted, for it was a month before tourist season started and workers were at that point removing the twentieth century technology installed for the winter. There were five of us on the tour, two couples and myself. One of them, who I drove with briefly, was a Christian pair with uplifting music on their tape deck. When I walked back to the town to get a lift back to Gowrie, I smelled the fish plant, and when I waited on the lawn of the school for my ride, one of the children told his master that there was a wino near his car. Clifford told me that he always left his keys in the car in Louisburg, and I wondered how that was possible. In Sydney Mines, he said, he now had to lock the door. I told him of my home in Metcalfe, and how as I child I had never locked the door. My parents use a padlock now.

Albert Bouwers is the Mayor of Osgoode Township, within which Metcalfe is situated. He used to live next door, but has since built himself a large house in one of the town's many subdivisions. He owns land across the street, and plans are being completed for a hopping centre. Last fall there was a referendum concerning whether there should be a liquor store in the shopping centre. The results had never been released. When I was there in the fall, I went to an election meeting. Some senior citizens complained about the rent increases in their apartments and it became apparent that the Township inspector had passed faulty water supplies in a subdivision on Albert's other land.

A man on the train told me a story about Irving Oil. There was a recent graduate from Montreal who had come to work for one of their trucking companies. He was asked if he knew much about Irving and he replied, honestly, that he did not. The interviewer motioned toward a calendar with a picture of a truck on it. The truck, he said, belongs to the Irving subsidiary. It was manufactured by Irving and it was carrying produce for an Atlantic wholesaler, another Irving subsidiary. The truck had been manufactured by another Irving company, and the tires had been manufactured by yet another. All the land that could be seen in the photograph behind the truck belonged to Irving. The calendar was designed and printed by an Irving printshop, and the paper it was printed on was cut from Irving forests and processed at an Irving mill. I asked whether the man accepted the job.

I had only a few hours left in Quebec City and I was on my way from the upper city to the lower, where I would catch my train. I was thinking about a souvenir, for a pack of cigarettes and a postcard would not suffice. I chanced on an alley where some independent artists had set up. There was group of about ten of them. One of them wanted to sell me a small painting of the Chateau Frontenac by moonlight. When he offered the second line drawing I said he had sold me and bought the painting. Another artist had similar line drawings and had painted over the image in pastel watercolours. I almost bought one of those.

The man on the train was returning to his farm near Ottawa. He had just inspected some property in British Columbia, and if he could straighten out some murky details about the water rights, was set to buy the property. On his farm his youngest son had returned and was working the place. The day before, he said, he had been drinking with a group of young men in the bar car. He had bought them some drinks, and after a while, they started ordering for themselves and others without questioning whether he would pay. His sons, it seemed, had adopted a similar attitude, and he couldn't help wondering whether his youngest son was trying to earn a farm. 1 paid for my own beer, and when he insisted, allowed him to buy me one. And the man across the aisle bought Stephanie and I a beer. He thought we were lovers, but it was only two days out of Edmonton. And a man with no voice and no hearing wrote her a note asking if she would stay with him in Montreal.

There are two bars in Sackville. One is called Tantramarsh, and is the university bar. You have to have a pass to get in. The other is called the Golden Rail, and it is located near the tracks. We were at the Golden Rail and a young man talked with us for a while. Later, someone asked why it seemed that he was apologising for being a Maritime native. A few days later, a local band played for us at the university. The young man was there again, and he told me that his brother played bass. I asked him why he did not also play in the band and he said he had to work shiftwork at the factory. He kept asking me to comment on how good the band was; I said they sounded like Minglewood. I asked his friend, who was also watching the band, what he did, and he said he was unemployed. That's the Maritimes, I said, and immediately regretted it.

There was a woman on the train travelling to Edmonton with her young son Jason. She wore a tank top with nothing underneath, accompanied occasionally with an open nylon jacket. Another woman on the train complained that she had abused her child the previous evening. I had not seen this. Jason was a pest, and you could see that he wanted attention. His mother looked forward to visiting her sister. The other woman commented that it was just so she could go to the bar. Jason's mother was running from her husband, who she was sure was going to try to track her down. The other woman was distressed because she had thought she was going to bet in Edmonton a day earlier. I explained that the number beside Winnipeg in the schedule was the departure time, not the arrival time. She scolded the conductor. She was going to visit her daughter, whom she had not seen in four years. She wondered if they expected a gift. Several men eventually accompanied Jason's mother; I saw one of them waiting with her at Edmonton station.

Stephanie had wandered through the bar car several times that morning. I had spent the morning talking with a man from Ghana and with the farmer. He had smuggled some rye on board, and they laced their Coke. I was drinking coffee, for I had vowed not to drink before we got to Sault St. Marie. The train does not pass through Sault St. Marie, so I broke my vow around two o'clock. The black guy had run into another, in beads and dreadlocks, from Quebec. Later, the two of them shared a Sony Walkman. He snagged Stephanie, and told him that I was in love with her. He and she and I had talked the previous evening, and after she left, had talked about her. Later, he came back to me and said I must talk to her. I knew he was probably right, for I tend to be much to reticent. But later, Stephanie complained that the man had been rude.

I went to Amherst Sunday morning because I needed to go to the bank. Throughout the Maritimes the only banks one finds are Scotiabanks and the Royal. I walked from the train station to the mall and found the bank. I asked if I could cash a cheque for five hundred dollars. I must have looked honest, and I showed them ID. They asked whether I had a Green Card, and I said no, I didn't like the machines. I didn't mention that the machines had swallowed two of my cards without appeal. They cashed the cheque and said I should get a card for it's a long way to be away from home without any money. I agreed. I wondered how Amherst could support two shopping centres. And when I walked back to the station I walked on the tracks.

I was in a British pub in west Montreal watching the Canadians-Flyers game on the screen. Some regulars clustered by the bar and teased the bartender. She was so pleasant. I would have gone back there a week later, but I couldn't stand the thought of her being still there. As I drank my beer, some French guy asked if I wanted to play darts. We played, and I spoke English and he spoke French, and once in a while I would speak broken French and he would speak broken English. After three games I called it quits and he asked if I had any change so he could buy a pack of chips. I had seven cents, which wasn't enough, so I returned to the bar. A little while later I saw him eating some chips. Shortly after that, he left.

Mark and I were both graduate students. We had been in Tantramarsh, and when last call sounded I went quickly back to my room to get my beer before he arrived to sleep. I went up to the party on the fourth floor and there he was. We agreed that they had employed a clairvoyant to assign room partners. At the banquet on the last day, he left early, saying it was like being at a stranger's wedding. After a week of bitter fighting, the entire conference was singing songs and celebrating its own existence. A short while later, after the silly conference awards designed to designate peer status, I also left. I ran into Mark upstairs in the lobby and we went to Tantramarsh. The other graduate students had a meeting to discuss both my and Mark's complaints. The meeting was planned before the banquet, but the banquet had drawn a veil between ourselves and the student politicians. How can you just forget?

Tang was from China. After the first round of demonstrations in Beijing, Tang arranged an information session to discuss the events. It was poor competition for the party on the fourth floor. The conference later resolved to condemn the Beijing government and to stand in solidarity with the students of China. During the information session, another student from Hungary discussed the collapse of communism in general. On the second night we were walking toward the golden rail and someone commented that they were disappointed that Tang had missed the graduate student meeting. I explained that at that time Gorbachev was scheduled to speak at Tiananmen Square. She wondered why that was significant, and I explained that his arrival intensified the situation. Really, nobody was surprised by what happened, except for those delegates that had voted their support.

My brother Gord is an engineer and had an engineer's wedding. It was a large white wedding and I was asked to take photographs. I didn't wear a suit. There were four men who accompanied Gord and Lisa, his bride, now Mrs. Gordon Downes, had four bridesmaids. All eight had matching apparel, and Gord was dressed in regalia and splendour. The reception was at the Brockville Rowing Club, and my brother Bill and I were the only single people there. My mother asked if I would sit with the Dowsers, for they were the only family friends other than relatives and didn't want to feel alone. Lynn Dowser had had a stroke a few years earlier and wore one leather glove on his palsied hand. I took more pictures. And then, Bill and I went to a bar in the industrial park.

The sea breathed and the foghorn bayed from across the harbour. Seagulls screamed, skittering from their rock which jutted from the ocean as I approached the shore. The mist slightly parted, and I saw four lights shining, suspended in a sky of metallic blue, indistinguishable from the harbour water. Sunday, and I had just arrived at Gowrie. I sat carefully atop the seashore cliff and smoked a pipe. I wanted peace, but the chill wind blew in from the water and I shivered. A few days later, I saw a small boat checking the lobster traps below where I had sat.

I saw a bird in Sackville which had fallen from the sky. I picked it up; it was a swallow, and very weak. As I held it, a score of silvery insects crept in and out of its feathers. Poor bird, I thought, and lay it quietly under a bush. A few days later, I saw some bees moving silently from flower to flower in a Cape Breton park. Perhaps, I thought, instead of pity for the bird alone, I should also have felt happiness for the insects. I never did check on the bird again, and believe it died. The bees are probably dead now as well.

The train was not long out of Edmonton. We sat, about eight of us. For some reason, the children swarmed the car. Jason poked another child, and when the other child struck back, Jason cried. His mother told him that he should never hit somebody, and gave him a swat. The porter learned by accident that I am a philosopher and explained that he had graduate education in classical works. He discussed Cicero for awhile, and went to get a coffee. The man who had joined Jason's mother also studied philosophy, and spoke in earnest about somebody. They asked me when I was going to write my book, and I said I didn't know.

And when I returned home I saw my cats, who had been alone save for the occasional visit and feeding from a friend. They greeted me silently and showed me the landscaping they had completed over the month. I discovered via a note that Stewart was leaving for Calgary, and I went to get my hair cut and the hairdresser flirted with me as she trimmed my beard. It was a Thursday, and I went to Club Malibu with some friends. They were talking about something between the lines and they left early. I stood in Malibu with my beer; they hadn't noticed that I had been away a month. And, except for a windblown face, I didn't really look any different.

We always wonder what lies just beneath the surface. I was able to lift the cover and look, for people really want their flags to fly, if only they are not so scared. There is an anger in the land, an anger burning, and I don't know how much of that was my own projection, but it doesn't matter, for if I feel it then it is real, and the seething cannot be image only, and the quiet desperation must, in time, be heard.

And the next day I walked to campus and sat at a Board of Governor's meeting, and they worried about naming rooms in buildings and, in about ten minutes, spent about three million dollars. And later I went to a garden party in honour of the retiring president, and we drank shooters until they wouldn't let us have any more, and I wondered whether that was responsibility, and I wondered about the gravity of my role, and I wondered whether there really is any hope after all. And I thought about power and I thought about poverty and I thought about the human spirit crying in my country, and of human dignity crushed like flower beneath a tank.

And the next day in Beijing the students died.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Critical Thinking in the Classroom

Authored 2 March, 1993. Also available as an MS-Word version or a PDF version.


Critical thinking is the use of reason in reading and writing. It enables the reader to evaluate the material being read, to recognize argument patterns and to detect inappropriate reasoning. And it allows the writer to present his or her points in a logical and reasonable manner.

As such, critical thinking is not reserved for the domain of logic and philosophy classes alone. It is a skill which has application throughout all disciplines. Indeed, expertise in any discipline is impossible without knowledge and application of critical thinking.

The purpose of this essay is to introduce the instructor to critical thinking and to suggest means of applying it in the classroom. As such, it is not a teaching document; it does not pause and repeat nor stimulate learning with examples and exercises. Rather, its purpose is to provide an overview of the field and to suggest a common terminology. A list of references is provided for those desiring more detailed study.

This essay will not attempt to persuade the reader of the merits of teaching critical thinking in the classroom. That is assumed. Rather, it focuses on what critical reasoning is and how to apply it. This essay proceeds in three major sections. First, the three major types of reasoning are described. Second, errors of reasoning in these three major types of reasoning are described. Finally, third, methods of application to the classroom are suggested.

Some notes are necessary about the approach taken. First, the methods of creating and criticizing arguments are presented as 'tools' for a student (or anyone) to use to achieve a desired outcome. Second, and related to this, it is taken that the use of a tool is flagged with 'indicator words'. That is, there are certain characteristic ways of telling the reader that you are trying to achieve a particular outcome. Hence, words themselves are regarded as tools for the expressions of an idea.

Types of Reasoning

(i) Deductive Reasoning

Deductive reasoning is the oldest and most venerable of the types of reasoning. Examples of deductive reasoning include mathematics, categorial reasoning, set theory, and computer programming. Deductive reasoning is by its very nature abstract; for this reason, students find it the most difficult to master.

A deductive argument is formed from one or more premises and a conclusion. The conclusion is the opinion the author is attempting to prove is true. The premises are the reasons given in order to persuade the reader that the conclusion is true.

The premises and the conclusion of an argument are identified by indicator words. There are two types of indicator words: premise indicators, and conclusion indicators. Premise indicators always precede premises, while conclusions always precede conclusions. In general, the structure of deductive arguments is as follows:

(Using a premise indicator):

because and .
Since and , .

(Using a conclusion indicator):

and therefore .

Notice the use of not only the indicator words ('because', 'since' and 'therefore') but also the use of punctuation and conjunctions to indicate the structure of the argument. Good writing follows a clear argument structure, and hence, good writing uses grammatical elements to show clear argument structure.

In the absence of an indicator word (some people are sloppy writers), the reader is reminded that the conclusionis an opinion. Hence, the conclusion is usually 'hedged' in some way. By that, what is meant is that the conclusion is not stated directly, but rather, is qualified with expressions like, 'I think that" or 'It must be that', or the like. Compare, for example, the difference between "The sky is blue" and "The sky must be blue". The latter is clearly hedged, hence, it must be an opinion and therefore probably the conclusion of an argument.

Not all arguments are deductive arguments. Deductive arguments may be recognized by their characteristic forms. The form of an argument can be recognized by identifying keywords. Because deductive arguments constitute a particular sort of reasoning, they entail the use of a particular set of words. In particular, there are three types of key words to watch for.

1. Mathematical keywords: plus, minus, equals

2. Categorical keywords: is, all, some, no, every, any, only

3. Propositional keywords: both...and, either, ... or, if .. then, unless

These keywords are not used only to recognize deductive arguments. Knowledge of the role of these keywords also enables the writer to write clear, structured sentences. This will be discussed in more detail in section three.

(ii) Inductive Reasoning

The purpose of an inductive argument is to produce generalizations from matters of fact or experience. It is not as old as deductive argumentation, nor is it as well respected. Nonetheless, without inductive argumentation it would not be possible to live in the world at all.

Types of inductive reasoning include statistical generalizations, analogy, reasoning concerning cause and effect, and probability.

Like a deductive argument, an inductive argument is formed from one or more premises and a conclusion. And like a deductive argument, the purpose of an inductive argument is to persuade the reader that the conclusion is true, and the premises are given as reasons to believe that the conclusion is true. All that was said above of indicator words and hedging is also true of inductive arguments. Hence, the two can be distinguished only by their keywords.

Here are characteristic keywords of some inductive arguments:

1. Statistical keywords: most, many, five percent, usually, generally

2. Analogical keywords: is like, is similar to, like, as

3. Probabilistic keywords: the chances of, probably, likely

4. Causal keywords: causes, depends on, effect

Again, the use of these keywords tells the reader what sort of argument s being used. A reader can, for example, recognize an analogy much more clearly if the words 'like' or 'as' are used than if they are not.

(iii) Abductive Reasoning (Inference to the best explanation)

Abductive reasoning was recognized as such only in the late nineteenth century by Charles Sanders Peirce, though there are instances of it through antiquity. It is now the most common form of argument in the sciences, for it involves the postulation of theories which explain some event or regularity.

The form of an inference to the best explanation differs from that of deductive or inductive argument, though (confusingly) the same indicator words are used. In an abduction, the conclusion is some event or regularity which needs to be explained, while the premises are the theories or sets of conditions which do the explaining. That said, the word 'why' is used much more frequently in explanations, hence, the word 'why' can be used to distinguish abductions form other forms of argument.

The most common form of an inference to the best explanation is:

The reason why is because and .

Note again that the conclusion should be some fact or regularity, while the premise is typically a theory. Very often the conclusion which is being explained is also the conclusion of an inductive argument. A writer will use induction to show that some generalization is true, and then use abduction to explain why it is true.

Abductive arguments do not have characteristic keywords (other than ‘explains’ and ‘why’). The only way to distinguish between an inductive or deductive argument and an abduction is to determine whether the conclusion is a fact (in which case it's an abduction) or an opinion (in which case it's a deductive or inductive argument). It is important to watch for hedging words while making this distinction.

Errors of Reasoning

(i) Deductive Errors

There are two ways a deductive argument can fail: (i) the premises may be false, or (ii) the conclusion may not follow from the premises. Students often attempt a third method of evaluation: arguing directly against the conclusion. While this is allowed, it amounts to ignoring the argument in favour of the conclusion, and hence, is never decisive.

Whether or not the premises are true, if the conclusion follows from the premises, then the argument is valid. To say that an argument is valid is to say that the premises are appropriately related to the conclusion. The premises need not be true. To see this, consider the following argument: "If Mulroney is a Marxist, then he likes Castro, and he is a Marxist, hence, he likes Castro." As it happens, the premises are false. But suppose they were true. Then we can see clearly that the conclusion would have to be true as well; the premises support the conclusion.

In order to show that a deductive argument is invalid, it is necessary only to show that there is some way the premises could be true while the conclusion could be false. If this is possible, then we can see that the premises do not make the conclusion true. Consider the following example: "If the mill is polluting the river, then we can see dead fish, and we can see dead fish, therefore, the mill is polluting the river." Even if the premises actually are true, we can see that they do not support the conclusion, for it could be that something else is killing the fish, and that the mill is not polluting the river at all.

There are two major forms of invalid argument:

Denying the Antecedent. Any argument of the form "If A then B, and not A, therefore B" is invalid.

Affirming the Consequent. Any argument of the form: "If A then B, and B, therefore A" is invalid. The example of the mill (above) affirms the consequent.

The second way of criticizing a deductive argument is to show that the premises are false. Students are particularly hesitant to do this, however, it is often (all too often) accomplished with ease. Consider a categorical premise of the form "All A are B", for example, "All things which swim in the sea are fish." This is easily shown to be false by observing that there can be some A which is not B, for example, a dolphin swims in the sea, but is not a fish.

In general, premises are shown to be false by showing that their contradictories are true. Here are some common contradictions:

1. 'All A are B' contradicts 'Some A is not B'
2. 'No A are B' contradicts 'Some A is B'
3. 'If A then B' contradicts 'A and not B'
4. 'Either A or B' contradicts 'Not A and not B'
5. 'Both A and B' contradicts 'Not A'

An argument which is both valid and has true premises is called a sound argument. Sound arguments are also sometimes called cogent arguments.

(ii) Inductive Errors

All inductive arguments base their success on the similarity between the objects or events described in the premises and those described in the conclusion. This is most clear in the case of an analogy, and so we turn to the first error of inductive reasoning:

False Analogy. The two things being compared are not similar in a way which is relevant to the conclusion. For example, suppose someone argued, "An employee is like a nail. Just like a nail, an employee must be hit in the head in order to get him to work." This argument may be criticized by showing that employees are not like nails in that (i) incentives will not persuade a nail to work, but they will persuade employees to work, and (ii) a nail won't resent being hit, but an employee will.

Statistical generalizations are arguments which use some sort of sample to draw a conclusion about apopulation. For example, a pollster will collect a sample of opinions and draw conclusions about the population as a whole. In order for the sample to tell us anything useful about the population, the sample must be similar to the population. The two major inductive fallacies are cases where the sample may be dissimilar to the population:

Hasty Generalization. The sample is too small, and hence, we can't be sure that it is similar to the population.

Unrepresentative Sample. The sample can be shown to be in some way different from the population. For example, a survey taken in only one city is unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.

Unrepresentative samples are very common. Phone-in or write-in polls are classic examples of unrepresentative samples. So are testimonials. Many instructors value student opinions and observations in class. No doubt this makes the students feel good, but such information should not form the basis of instruction, for the individual experiences of one person constitute an unrepresentative sample.

There is a variety of things which can go wrong in causal reasoning. In order to say that A causes B, a minimum of two things must be true:

1. Generally, if A happens, then B happens
2. Generally, if A does not happen, then B does not happen
In addition, many theorists argue that there should be a third condition:
3. There must be a law of nature connecting A and B

The most common causal fallacy occurs when only the first condition is true and yet a causal relation is assumed to hold:

Post Hoc Ergo Prompter Hoc (After this therefore because of this). This fallacy consists in assuming that because one thing follows the other, the one thing is caused by the other.

Good inductive arguments are called strong arguments. Bad inductive arguments are called weak inductive arguments.

(iii) Abductive Errors

There are two major ways an inference to the best explanation can go wrong: either (i) the fact to be explained is not a fact at all, or (ii) the theory which does the explaining is inadequate. Let us consider these in turn.

The fact to be explained may be false because of:

Non-support. For example, Jenny may wonder why John knows so much about physics. This 'fact' is false because of non-support if John knows nothing about physics.

Subverted Support. The argument which supports the 'fact' is not a good argument. For example, if a generalization such as "Edmontonians are cheap" was formed on the basis of one person's experience, then it is supported by an unrepresentative sample. Pointing out that this putative fact is not well supported is to subvert support.

There are also two ways a theory can be inadequate:

Untestibility. Theories which cannot be tested are not good theories. Theories are tested by being used to make a prediction. If a theory cannot be used to make a prediction, then it is a poor theory. For example, if someone theorized that "Coffee keeps you awake because it has wakening properties" then this theory could be criticized because we cannot use it to predict what other things will keep us awake.

Better Alternative. If another theory can explain the same phenomenon and is a better theory, then the new theory can be used to criticize the old. There are two major criteria for the betterness of a theory: (1) the theory has a wider scope, that is, it applies to more things; and (2) the theory is simpler.

(iv) Informal Fallacies

There is also a range of error which can be committed in any type of argument. These are grouped under the heading of 'informal fallacies' ("fallacy" is a ten-dollar word for "error of reasoning") .

The first grouping is Fallacies of Relevance. These are fallacies because they change the subject in some way. The following are major fallacies of relevance:

Attacking the Person. Authors commit this fallacy when they argue that because their opponent is a certain type of person, then their opponent is wrong. Students often argue that this form of argument is legitimate. For example, they argue that if a person has an interest in the outcome of an argument (say, a developer argues that some land should be rezoned) that a valid criticism may be made. This assumption is wrong.

Appeal to Force. In this fallacy, the reader is advised that some bad consequence will occur if the conclusion is not believed.

Appeal to Pity. In this fallacy, the reader is appealed to for support because the writer is in some bad state. For example, if a politician tells you how hard he worked on a piece of legislation, he is appealing to pity.

Prejudicial Language. A writer commits this fallacy when some moral value is attached to believing or not believing a conclusion. For example, "Clear thinkers agree that murder is bad" is a fallacy because it implies that people who disagree are not clear thinkers.

Appeal to Popularity. This fallacy is committed when it is argued that because most people believe a conclusion, then the conclusion is true. History is replete with examples where the majority was wrong.

The second grouping is Fallacies of Distraction. These are fallacies because while the premises in question appear to be true at first glance, closer examination shows them to be false.

False Dilemma. In this fallacy, the reader is presented with two options, and since one is unacceptable, we are forced to choose the second. The fallacy occurs when more than two options actually exist.

Argument from Ignorance. This fallacy is by far and away a student favourite. In this fallacy it is argued that because some proposition has not been proven to be true, it is therefore false.

Slippery Slope. The writer argues that if some proposition is believed, a chain of consequences will follow, leading to some unacceptable conclusion. The fallacy occurs when there is no reason to believe the consequences will actually occur.

Complex Question. This fallacy occurs when two separate points are presented as a single point. This fallacy is committed a lot on surveys, where a reader may be asked, for example, "Do you support reducing the deficit and cutting social programs?"

Begging the Question. Very often, this is the only way students know how to argue. Instead of offering support for a conclusion, the arguer instead restates the conclusion in a slightly different manner. Obviously, when the conclusion is simply restated, no support has been given for the conclusion.

The third grouping concerns Fallacies of Authority. Students tend to be very trusting of authority, even when the authority is inappropriate.

Unqualified Authority. This occurs when an authority is quoted outside his or her field of expertise. Celebrity endorsements fall within this category.

Disagreement. Even when an authority is an expert in the field, it may be that experts in the field disagree on the point in question. In such a case, an appeal to an authority is fallacious, since it is possible to quote an equally qualified authority who holds the opposite view.

Unnamed Authority. This fallacy is committed when an authority is implied but not named. This fallacy may be detected by the use of phrases such as "experts agree..." or "it is said that...". This is a fallacy because there is no way to know that the authority is an expert.

The fallacies listed in this section constitute only a partial list; they were chosen because they are committed the most frequently and because they are most often believed by students.

Applications in the Classroom

Critical reasoning has many more applications in the classroom than merely the correcting of faulty arguments. Critical thinking concerns the nature of argumentation itself, and all branches of knowledge involve some form of argument. This section will describe a number of applications of critical reasoning in the classroom.

(i) Writing

Knowledge of logical structures improves a student's writing in a direct and dramatic fashion. When logical structures are understood, the construction of a sentence is understood as an application of a particular logical structure. The following is a brief example of this process.

Simple sentences using categorical form. The structure of a categorical proposition, 'All A are B', mirrors the structure of a simple sentence. The 'A' in question is the subject of the sentence, while the 'B' is the predicate. This is useful because it helps correct problems with noun-verb agreement. Clearly identifying the subject and the predicate reminds the student that they work as a pair.

Another application of categorical form involves the use of subordinate clauses. The subject-predicate form clearly illustrates to the student the idea that subordinate clauses modify the subject (or predicate) they are attached to. Showing the student a sentence of the form:

"All men are mortal"

clarifies the form of:

"All men who are kings are mortal."

Complex sentences using logical operators. Complex sentences are formed out of simple sentences using logical operators. Consider, for example, how a complex sentence may be constructed from the simple sentences "All men are mortal" and "Socrates is a man".

If all men are mortal then Socrates is a man.
Either all men are mortal or Socrates is a man.
All men are mortal and Socrates is a man.

Even more complex sentences or paragraphs using indicator words. Using simple and complex sentences as described above, the structure of paragraphs can be detailed to students. We identify the premises and conclusion of an argument as a set of sentences. Then these sentences are assembled into a paragraph using indicator words.

If all men are mortal then Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is a man.

All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

More complex paragraphs are constructed from more complex arguments. Consider the following:

All men are mortal and Socrates is a man. Thus, Socrates is mortal. All things which are mortal eventually die. Therefore, Socrates will eventually die.

(ii) Abstraction

Knowledge in many disciplines is abstract knowledge. This is most clearly the case in mathematics, where notation such as "x+y=z" is abstract, but it is also true in many other cases. For example, in geography, students may be taught that a river meanders in a particular way. This is abstract because we are not talking about any particular river. Or in music, students are taught to read sheet music. This is abstract because sheet music is not generally written for a particular music.

Critical thinking forces a student to reason abstractly because sentences and arguments are thought of as abstract structures. The long paragraph just above should be recognized by the student as an instance of:

All A are B and S is A. Thus, S is M. All M are D. Therefore, S is D.

The benefits of abstract thought should be clear. Lessons learned in one domain are more easily applied in another domain when abstract features of the two domains are identified.

How might this be applied in a classroom? In essence, it involves imparting to the student not merely knowledge of particular matters of fact, but also the abstract form of whatever knowledge is being taught. For example, the proposition that "Rome fell because of a lack of morality" is an instance of the more general "Civilizations fall because of immorality". Students may be shown this, and also shown that the same pattern occurs in "Sodom and Gomorrah fell because of immorality" and "This civilization will fall because of immorality".

(iii) Reading

Students often misunderstand what they are reading. Often this is because they do not know what to look for in a piece of writing. This is understandable; there are many ways to go wrong when reading even a short paragraph.

For example, students often misunderstand a particular sentence. One common mistake occurs, for example, when a student interprets "Not all men are mortal" as meaning "No men are mortal". Knowing that the contradictory of "All A are B" is "Some A are not B" would allow the student to understand that "Not all men are mortal" means "Some men are not mortal".

Students often believe that information contained in a subordinate clause is the main point of a sentence. Making the structure of categorical propositions clear corrects this error.

Students frequently miss the main point of a paragraph as a whole. Pointing to indicator words makes conclusions clear, and the conclusion is a main point of a paragraph. If a student learns to look for conclusions, misunderstandings of this sort can be reduced.

Students should be reminded on a regular basis how to extract information from a text. From time to time, it is useful to identify a key paragraph in a piece of writing and to provide an analysis of it, showing the student how to identify what each sentence says and showing the student how to identify the author's main point. Consider, for example, the following paragraph:
A country, after all, is not something you build as the pharaohs built the pyramids, and then leave standing there to defy eternity. A country is something that is built every day out of certain basic shared values. And so it is in the hands of every Canadian to determine how well and wisely we shall build the country in the future. (Pierre Trudeau, Memoirs, p. 366)
The use of the indicator word "so" clearly shows that the last sentence is the conclusion. There are no logical operators in the last sentence, hence, it is a simple sentence of the form "Every Canadian should determine...". The student should also note the use of an analogy in the first sentence. And notice the reasoning, in very abstract form: "A country cannot be left unattended, therefore, all people must attend to the country'.

(iv) Critical Evaluation

This is the clearest application of critical thinking in the classroom. Essentially, it involves questioning the truth of premises and the validity of arguments, in other words, not taking the written (and spoken) word as Gospel. Students (and especially those coming straight from high school, where everything is Gospel) find this difficult to do.

A criticism of a point of view is, like everything else in academia, a form of argument. The conclusion is always that some argument has committed a logical error. The premises are the reasons for believing that the error occurred. The form of all critical evaluations is as follows:

The argument does such-and-such, and
Such-and-such is a fallacy,
Thus, the argument is a fallacy.

(Very often the second premise is left implicit.)

Students need to be shown that all sources, including their textbooks and their instructors (not to mention the media and their friends) can commit errors of reasoning. The best means to show them this is to critically evaluate any materials used for instruction. My own experience is that this can be very confusing for a student (one student commented, "I've never seen an instructor criticize the text before).

It is important, therefore, to state the criticism and the reason for the criticism clearly. It is also important to state the intent of posing such criticisms, specifically, that the student should not accept everything as being true, and that the student is expected to perform a similar sort of evaluation on any material. It is especially useful to encourage students to criticize the instructor, and to occasionally concede some points. Even when there is a response to be made, much more progress is made when a good criticism is acknowledged as such.

Finally, students should be required to stand the test of good reasoning. Comments in papers or in class which commit logical errors should be identified as errors in reasoning. This requires some tact. The approach should not be that the student is wrong, but rather, that the student's reasoning is flawed.

Suggested Readings

Barker, Stephen F. The Elements of Logic. McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Bergmann, Merrie, Moor, Fames, and Nelson, Jack. The Logic Book. Random House, 1980.

Cedarblom, Jerry, and Paulsen, David. Critical Reasoning. Third Edition. Wadsworth, 1991.

Copi, Irving M. and Cohen, Carl. Introduction to Logic. Second Edition. Macmillan, 1990.

Davis, Wayne. An Introduction to Logic. Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Huff, Darrell. How to Lie With Statistics. Norton, 1954.

Kelly, David. The Art of Reasoning. W.W. Norton, 1988.

Mayfield, Marlys. Thinking For Yourself. Wadsworth, 1987.

Pospesel, Howard. Introduction to Logic: Propositional Logic. Second Edition. Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Purtill, Richard. Logic for Philosophers. Harper and Row, 1971.

Quine, W.V.O. Methods of Logic. Fourth Edition. Harvard University Press, 1982.

Salmon, Merrilee. Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Salmon, Wesley. Logic. Third Edition. Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Skyrms, Brian. Choice and Chance: An Introduction to Inductive Logic. University of Michigan, 1966.

Thomason, Richmond. Symbolic Logic: An Introduction. Collier-Macmillan, 1970.

Yanal, Robert. Basic Logic. West Publishing, 1988.