Listening to others

Critical thinking

by Andrew Teller

The press keeps providing a steady flow of dubious claims concerning this or that element of the nuclear debate. The forthcoming anniversary of the Chernobyl accident won’t do anything to improve this situation. Critics of nuclear energy continue to pile up arguments, old and new (mostly old), justifying their position. This is all well and fine: it is only normal to speak up for what one believes is right. I want to be allowed to enjoy this freedom, so I cannot possibly deny it to anybody else, were it to someone I disagree with. What worries me is the methodology used by so many of the protagonists for and against nuclear energy (mostly against). The reason for my concern is of course that a conclusion can only be as good as the reasoning that produced it. The numerous flaws that can impair reasoning are well known:

  • selective (i.e. biased) use of arguments,

  • factual mistakes that are nevertheless indispensable to the conclusion submitted,

  • failure to take account of the relevant orders of magnitude when dealing with quantifiable matters,

  • failing to address obvious objections,

  • preaching sound reasoning methodology but not applying it to one’s own demonstration,

  • taking for granted what should actually be demonstrated,

  • failing to heed the rules of logic, etc.

We are all liable to fall prey to such pitfalls, but it appears that all are not equally liable to do so. Research in the area of cognitive science enables to shed useful light on the mechanisms presiding the generation of arguments in support of one’s opinion. One very important finding is that emotion is an essential ingredient of efficient reasoning. People deprived from emotions (e.g. due to brain damage) do not reason well. They would keep pondering the elements of the issue without ever feeling a need to reach a conclusion. The other side of the coin is that emotions will affect the decision process well beyond the legitimate urge to make up one’s mind. We all know by experience that we recognise instantaneously the impact of any piece of news on the opinion we currently hold. Our desire to maintain our opinion will push us to treat this piece of news accordingly. If it confirms our position, it can be accepted without the minimum amount of scrutiny required. If it goes against it, we will have to make heroic efforts not to dismiss it on spurious grounds. This is what makes all of us, not dispassionate discoverers of truths, but “motivated reasoners”. Motivated reasoning can be further described through taking account of the strength of its two main components. Combining the strength of the directional goals and with that of the accuracy goals lead to a double entry table. We so obtain four categories represented in the table below1


Weak Accuracy Goals

Strong Accuracy Goals

Strong Directional Goals

Partisan Reasoner

  • seeks to justify a preferred conclusion
  • confirmation or disconfirmation biases in information processing
  • disconfirming evidence may polarise attitudes

Intuitive Scientist

  • seeks an accurate conclusion
  • optimising, within subjective limits
  • even-handed with evidence
  • actively adjusts for bias
  • updates beliefs through a Bayesian-like process

Weak Directional Goals

Low Motivation

  • apathetic
  • heuristic
  • possibly no processing

Classical Rationality
(normative ideal)

  • Enlightenment man
  • reasoning as dispassionate calculation

It must be added that, by natural inclination or by training, different people fall into different categories. Given what this e-Bulletin stands for, the reader might expect me to assert now that the anti-nuclear are Partisan Reasoners and that the pro-nuclear are close to the ideal of classical rationality. Wrong: I am quite prepared to admit that the latter are Intuitive Scientists, which is still better than being a Partisan Reasoner. Given the topic of this article, the reader might also expect me to explain why it is not the other way round: the anti-nuclear as Intuitive Scientists and the pro-nuclear as Partisan Reasoners. I could engage in a full-fledged, and therefore lengthy, demonstration of my assertion, but there is a simpler way of meeting the reader’s expectation. It consists in not attempting to do so at all. My advice to those who would question my appraisal is: see for yourself. Read the newspapers, read articles written by opponents of nuclear energy, scour the Internet for arguments in favour of it. Then try to identify instances of the failings listed above. Try also to see where in the above table the authors of the material read fit best. But above all, get acquainted with critical thinking. Type these words in the input box of your favourite search engine if you are not familiar with the concept yet. You will find a wealth of information on how to reason without falling in any of the pitfalls mentioned earlier. It will also teach you how to identify the traps motivated reasoners of all shapes and sizes are laying for you. If I had to emphasise one single characteristic of critical thinking, I would point out that it advocates self-regulation. Critical thinkers define self-regulation as monitoring one’s own cognitive activities, the elements used in those activities and the results deduced from them. This implies practicing self-examination and self-correction2. Critical thinking is therefore about being alert to one’s own potential failings in order to better avoid them. This is a demanding exercise. The stronger the directional goal of the reasoner will be, the weaker will be the incentive to practice a discipline that is likely to stand in the way of the reasoner’s objectives.

It has become fashionable nowadays to underline the environmental dangers threatening us. The fashion has not yet been extended to calling for the compulsory use on all sides of the cognitive tools needed to rise to the challenge. The practice is actually quite the reverse: those who by trade or by natural inclination are more likely to apply sound rules of reasoning are being dismissed as a lobby motivated by vested interests. Critical thinking, not to speak of plain common sense, indicates that an argument should be accepted or dismissed on the basis of its strength or weakness, not according to the affiliation of its author

1 Three Steps toward a Theory of Motivated Political Reasoning, Milton Lodge and Charles Taber, in Elements of Reason, Cognition, Choice and the Bounds of Rationality, Edited by Arthur Lupia, Mathew D. McCubbins and Samuel L. Popkin, Cambridge University Press, 2000.

2 See “Critical Thinking: What it is and Why it Counts” by Peter A. Falcione (can be downloaded from the Internet).

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