Clearer Thinking

ClearerThinking.org offers free online courses to help you sharpen your critical thinking and reasoning skills so that you can make better and more informed decisions in everyday life situations (like for instance, a GP essay?).

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20 Talks That Could…Change Your Life?

Simply seeing and listening is a relatively passive form of experience but every once in awhile someone comes along and just blows us away with the simple power of presentation.

These 20 talks chosen by The Guardian cover a range of relevant issues from morality and education to body language and nutrition. These are souls on a mission and we may not or may not agree with them, but they truly put pebbles in our shoes and force us to respond. 

Sticking to your guns, losing your mind

Watch this video. More than enough logical fallacies to go around. Ad hominem? Appeal to force? Red herrings? False analogies and comparisons?

And perhaps even more fundamentally annoying isn’t so much what this guy says, but how he says/shouts them – how he basically conducts himself as someone who is uninterested in engaging in a civil debate.

Find out more about the myriad issues that surround the gun control debate here. In the words of risk consultant David Ropeik, the “fight isn’t about guns or safety…it is a much more profound and ancient conflict over how society should work, and who decides”.

Singapore to blame for … what?

Sorry have been rather quiet lately. Anyway just thought I’d draw your attention to this deliberately provocative article on how Singapore is apparently to blame for the Israel-Arab war. Yes, connect the dots across all manner of time, space and sense to. Yes a well-written piece by an esteemed Political Science lecturer from Yale University. Should be credible right? Well read it for yourself, and maybe read this fitting response as well.

With all due respect, I think Sleeper has made a bold observation, but I think are some learning points we can hope to take away from this:

1. If you have a thesis statement, make sure you, well, address it (did Sleeper ever explain why Singapore was to be responsible?)

2. Just because A and B are share some similarities, don’t attribute blame to B for what A is responsible for. I think it is perfectly reasonable to compare countries for the purposes of analysis or to find correlations for further study but to so haphazardly attribute cause-and-effect is bewildering. Singapore is quite similar to Hong Kong too. Did we have a hand in their protests against the mainland?

3. Bringing in Yale-NUS, referring to the ‘dictatorship’ of Lee Kuan Yew. Red Herring anyone? If you want to discuss reasons for something, try to keep your discussion on that something maybe?

4. And here I have to to echo the thoughts of the local blogger who wrote the response above:

I’ve got a more important request to make of you (and others of your ilk): stop writing about us like bizarre science fiction. For all our illiberalism & paradoxes & illogicality, we exist. I know we do not fit neatly into your narrative of how the world should be, but we exist nonetheless. And you know what? Our existence does not undermine your democracy or your education system or peace in the Middle East — for the simple reason that we do not exist for you. We do not exist for your country, or for your university, or for your ideals of democracy. In fact, we do not exist for “democracy” at all; we exist for real actual people, we exist for ourselves and that means that our struggles (for democracy/freedom or otherwise) are ours and ours alone.

Can understand why observers the world over might find Singapore an interesting case study for this or that or struggle to place us on some spectrum of left-right, liberal-conservative or democracy-dictatorship planes. And I think while we might proclaim how misguided or inaccurate outsiders are in their analysis of our society (for one, I do not feel like a disciplined ‘Han’ Chinese oozing with wealth and status over my peers from minority groups…), I think we should also be careful about how we are also equally guilty at times of viewing other countries/societies in so simplistic a lens as well. 

Think about your recent GP essays and how you might have conveniently boxed in certain countries as neat ‘examples’ for the purpose of your arguments? Perhaps, as a starting point that’s alright but we need to move beyond and appreciate the complexities and the grey areas surrounding these places – that they are also real people dealing with real issues in a real world.

Perhaps, that might help us to avoid blaming Israel for the next MRT breakdown in future.

Chocolates and Nobel Prizes

A follow on from my previous post on correlation and causalities. A recent study looking the correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel Prizes was published with the very intention to warn people of the danger of believing false causalities.

From Popular Science,

But Messerli himself calls the result “a complete nonsense correlation.” While there could be some kind of indirect correlation–chocolate is a luxury good after all, so one could assume that countries rich in chocolate are also rich in other things, like health care, education, and other factors that might influence a person’s chance of rising to Nobel status–there is no real established reason to believe that overall chocolate consumption (even dark chocolate, which has been shown in some studies to benefit the brain) generates Nobel laureates at an increased rate. Even the perceived link to wealth is incidental rather than causal. As a stand-alone finding, it is meaningless.

Difference between Correlation and Causation

While observing correlation may be a good starting point to investigate possible causation, it does not automatically mean there definitely is causation. This is important to know because much of the rhetoric we hear every day from the media, politicians and other agents of influence exploit this misunderstanding to further their agenda.

Check out this learnist board for a host of simple explanations and useful infographics  posters and articles discussing the difference between correlation and causation.

To minimize such errors in your arguments, it might be useful for you to consider the involvement of mediating variables in your points rather than to simply lay down simplistic causations in your essays (e.g. more video games = more violence; more social media users = more friends). When comparing a writer that suggests correlations that may imply causation versus a writer that simply assumes a causation, the former obviously will come across as more objective, balanced and mature. Compare the two arguments below:

1. Violent video games are harmful for children because they provoke aggressive behavior in them.

2. Violent video games may be harmful for children because they may increase the risk of aggressive behavior in them, especially if they have been influenced by violence in other sources like the media or even their own social environment.

Both arguments try to suggest a relationship between the two, but the second one is more moderated in acknowledging that the causation is not so straightforward  I know the example is pretty simplistic (sorry!) given the huge amount of research in this area but basically, you get the point right?

Begging the Question

The phrase ‘begging the question’ is often used incorrectly in the media or in common utterance. What people often mean when they use the phrase ‘begs the question’ is ‘raises the question’. E.g. Given how obesity rates have been climbing despite the soda ban, this raises the question about the effectiveness of the law. 

‘Begging the question’ is actually a logical fallacy, a form of circular reasoning where basically the premise and conclusion are the same. Consider the video below:

Why did you find it funny or incredulous? Because the teacher’s conclusion (‘drugs are bad’) is the same as the premise (‘because they are bad for you’).

Have you ever heard your friends sometimes remark – often without having thought it through – how someone is good looking because they were handsome/pretty? Or how violent video games are harmful because they contained violence? Or how sometimes choices are presented in a very tautological way e.g. You can either wear black, or not wear black.

You know something is missing in the argument, and that’s often when it ‘begs the question’. Similarly, in your own essay arguments, do your premises (reasons) often merely repeat what the your argument is saying. This can often be quite subtle but still illogical nonetheless. E.g. The media is harmful because it is not good; capital punishment is immoral because it is evil.

So, look at your own essay and AQ arguments to examine if you often commit such errors in writing as well. Make sure your arguments have reasons that are not dependent on the argument being true in the first place.