Teaching Critical Thinking


One of the required skills for business success is critical thinking and for a person to become truly proficient at the skill of critical thinking they must have a firm understanding of logical fallacies.  In short, logical fallacies are the many little spins, tricks, and smoke screens used by some people to make their argument stronger and credible.  While there are many logical fallacies that exist, this article will only take a closer look at three fallacies that are frequently used.  They are referred to here as Appeal to Ignorance, Appeal to Authority, and Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.  All three of these fallacies are significant to critical thinking because they represent misleading notions and subsequently any decisions based on them could have negative effects.

Appeal to Ignorance is arguing on the basis of what is known and can be proven.  In short, if you can’t prove that something is true then it must be false and vice versa.  This logical fallacy actually received a lot of press during the early stages of the war in Iraq.  President Bush justified the invasion of Iraq because Iraq was believed to have weapons of mass destruction that were illegal and could end up in the hands of terrorists not unlike the people responsible for the World Trade Center attack on 9/11/2001.  The argument here was that since we had not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq then there must not be any.  This very fallacy was the object of an article in the National Review on 6/30/2003.   

Those individuals with critical thinking skills, however, identified this as a logical fallacy and put the argument in proper context.  After all, just because weapons of mass destruction were never found doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any.  All it really means is that if there were weapons of mass destruction then the United States was unable to find them.  Some bombs go years or even decades without being found even when they aren’t being hidden.

Another logical fallacy that is used frequently is Appeal to Authority.  This fallacy tries to win over a listener by leveraging the input of an expert.  Frequently the expert turns out to be someone who is speaking out of their field of expertise like sports stars who sell cars or other products.  There are many individuals selling themselves as so called experts these days and many of them actually do have valid credentials.  However, even experts can be wrong and people should be encouraged to use critical thinking skills in evaluating what any expert has to say.  In addition, depending on the situation, a person should seek the opinion of two or more experts in an attempt to build concurrence and validate any findings.

One situation where appeal to authority could become a logical fallacy is in the case of property appraisals.  An April 1996 Appraisal Journal article discusses the fact that while appraisers write many reports some people feel that their training is sufficiently lacking in the areas of logic and critical thinking.  Often logical fallacies can be found in the reports provided by appraisers possibly making the reports themselves fallacies and certainly making an appeal to the writer, or expert in this case, a logical fallacy.  In fact, anytime that an expert is making a judgment outside their field of expertise or without thorough and accurate information then appealing to the expert’s decision becomes a logical fallacy.

Maybe some individuals inherently believe in most people or maybe most people in the world today really prefer to be led rather than leading, but whatever the case may be appealing to a so called expert is very common in this day and age and many people make a good living because of it.  However, the argument can be made that if more people actually questioned authority and experts in general than many societal problems that exist today wouldn’t be a problem at all.  If anything, this should be a lesson to the experts themselves to check their facts before making statements that could potentially mislead others.

The third logical fallacy that we will take a look at in this article is Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc or “after this, therefore because of this."  This is the false belief that just because two events happen together that one was caused by the other.  As with the other two fallacies there are many examples in the world to choose from if a person looks closely.  One such example was in a 2003 Forbes magazine article titled “Is Yale a Waste of Money?”  Although the article only consisted of half a page and one graph it did draw attention to the logical fallacy that students who graduate from Ivy League schools make more money than those who don’t.  Data can be shown that supports the fact that the reason these students typically make more money is due more to their inherent abilities than because of where they went to school.

This can be seen in the likes of people like Michael Dell who actually dropped out of college and went on to become a billionaire.  One could make the argument that Michael Dell represents that there is an exception to every rule and most corporations are going to pay more attention to the Ivy League graduates because they have a better possibility of success with that person as an employee, but that person had to have above average abilities before graduating or they never would have been accepted by the college in the first place.  At the end of the day most college graduates in the United States workforce will admit that a degree may get you in the door, but it won’t keep you employed if you don’t know what you are doing and don’t perform accordingly.

Another example of this logical fallacy can be found in a 2000 Townsend Letter for Doctors  & Patients article that discusses heart disease.  The article talks about the false assumption that cholesterol is what causes heart disease when in fact it is plaque build-ups in the arteries that actually causes heart disease.  As mentioned above, many people would believe such a fallacy based on whether or not they heard it from someone they considered to be an expert.  Yet this is just another example of why critical thinking is so important in the world today.

While there will always be decisions that are made without having enough information at hand, people today should try to dig as deep as possible into the information that is available before making any critical decisions.  Understanding and exposing any fallacies in the information available is a key in the critical thinking process and critical thinking is key to business success.

Your path to business success.

Categories : Business Skills


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