The Study Dude – Thinking Skills

How to Write Like a Top Student

There is nothing more that The Study Dude wants for you than to discern when an argument or point-of-view sucks.

Well, in these articles, as The Study Dude, I’ll try to give you the study tips you need to help make your learning easier. I’ll also give you straight and honest opinions and personal anecdotes?even the embarrassing ones that you wouldn’t ever dare read about from any other study tip guru.

This week’s article further examines a book called Thinking Skills: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving by John Butterworth and Geoff Thwaites. Butterworth and Thwaites make critical thinking and problem solving friendly topics. Their book serves as a cornerstone for a variety of exams on critical thinking. In Canada, if you want to do well on the GMAT, then a read of Butterworth and Thwaites will help you to recognize flawed arguments and solve math or word problems.

Learn to Identify Assumptions
Yahoo! News oozes with assumptions. The online forum and many other hackneyed newspapers claimed that a pillar of the community, Tom Flanagan, for instance, had devious inklings when he spoke out against laws criminalizing the possession of child pornography. The assumptions that abounded in the papers stood completely unfounded and permanently scarred the reputation of Flanagan, a leader in both Alberta’s and Canada’s heritages. Flanagan wrote a book called Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age about this present-age internet brutality.
The mainstream news today reminds me of the crowds jeering in front of the noosed persecuted in days old, clamouring for the kill. No one dared utter a word to contend the prevailing assumptions for fear of backlash. The innocent were hung in a heartbeat. No-one spoke out against the barbaric practices?either then or now.

As for logic, I just made some weak assumptions myself: for one, I made a strong claim than no one speaks out against injustice. Clearly, this assumption isn’t true. Advocates speak about injustice at all times, and people came to the defence of Flanagan during the media upheaval. You just took your first step into identifying assumptions.

Assumptions of all kinds pose dangers, so to tread carefully, Butterworth and Thwaites provide insights to help you identify assumptions:

– We often believe things to be true on the sole basis of us not having reason to believe otherwise. Be wary of such occurrences.
– If someone makes a claim and doesn’t support it with facts, then his or her argument merely makes an assumption.
– “Another way to think of implicit assumptions [where implicit is an assumption not stated] is as missing, or hidden, premises” where “premises” means the same thing as reasons.
– If an assumption fills in the blank of an unstated reason in an argument, then treat that assumption as a premise for the argument.
– Crafty arguers might leave out an assumption (not state it) because, by stating it, the assumption would weaken the argument. Be wary of such occurrences.
– Sometimes arguments contain implicit assumptions that are mere opinion.
– Some assumptions we naturally accept, such as Jesus is Lord for Christians, but these assumptions can often find themselves challenged, say by atheists. Other commonplace assumptions, such as we should always pay for restaurant meals, can be challenged in certain circumstances, such as considering the persecution of a homeless man who ate and run while on the verge of dying from starvation. Just because we accept an assumption as fact, doesn’t mean we can’t challenge the assumption.

Learn to Determine Flawed and Fallacious Arguments
When advocates wave their flags and rant their chants, chances are they make some fallacious or flawed arguments to support their position. Extremism oftentimes comes with a flavour of skewed reasoning. One time, for instance, in a classroom presentation by a fellow student, this student meandered back and forth in front of the class and expressed strong loathing for the Conservative party. Although I didn’t at that time identify with the Conservative party, his tirade amused me. He called the Conservatives predators, crooks, you name it, all the while failing to support his reasoning with any logical backing. During most of the semester, this fellow sat beside me, and I enjoyed his quixotic company until he dropped out in favour of entering politics.

I even ventured into some stints with advocacy. I spoke out against the invasion of Iraq and the injustices toward the Moslem culture by a government enamoured with Iraq’s oil reserves. We ended up marching a procession through downtown with hopes of raising awareness. During the march, a particular march leader sung words like “Drop bombs on Bush” and made other comments about killing?all of which the audience parroted, including me, reluctantly.

My chest was heavy and I felt queasy, restless. These comments were the antithesis of what I thought the movement would stand for: namely, that peace should prevail. By spreading hatred back to the aggressor, I felt we had failed in conveying the heart of a peace-seeking movement. Before the protest, talks even prevailed over whether to have people dress up to look bloodied with missing limbs. I spoke against such a move as I feared that violence would ensue and innocent marchers would get injured. So, the blood and gore idea was dropped from further discussions. After that experience, I never entered another march again. The assumption was flawed that peace-seeking laid at the heart of the march. Peace seekers don’t advocate revenge. I think the overall intention had merit, but the actual event needed some revision.

Butterworth and Thwaites outline some practical advice on how to recognize a flawed argument:
– a valid argument has true reasons and a true conclusion that naturally follows from the reasons.
– an unsound argument has one or more reasons that are false and/or the conclusion doesn’t follow from the reasons.
– If the conclusion doesn’t follow from the reasons, the argument can be labelled as having “flaws in the reasoning.”
– One major fallacy consists of making a general sweeping conclusion based on one or limited examples. For instance, if I noted that I passed my driver’s exam with flying colors without ever driving a car and concluded that most people would pass driver’s exam with flying colors if they never drove before testing, I would be committing a flawed argument.
– Another major fallacy consists of making a conclusion based on an anecdotal premise. Anecdotes are true stories. The above argument commits a fallacy using an anecdote (a story about my driver’s test success without prior driving experience).
– “For an argument to be sound the reasons must outweigh [be stronger than] the conclusion” (p. 73). If the conclusion sounds stronger than the reasons, the argument likely sucks.
– Another fallacy consists of taking the past and assuming the future will take the exact same direction. For instance, if it never snowed on the summer solstice in Canada, you can’t assume that it will never snow on the summer solstice.
– Another fallacy involves assuming one thing caused another just because one thing is mentioned first and the other mentioned immediately after the first. Correlations (which means two or more things are related but not necessarily causal) makes for a better assumption than causality.

Learn the Basics of Problem Solving
I solve math problems like a professional. At least, I did when I entered the math program at a university. I scored the highest mark in seven out of nine math classes, even taking home a final grade of 100.5% in the third level of university Calculus (with the extra 0.5% due to bonus questions). So, does that make me a problem solver?

No. I came down with a bad bout of anxiety that, when active, prevents me from solving even the most basic math problem. Plus, my inability to handle conflict effectively leaves me wondering if there must be more to problem solving than coming up with a math-related solution. Sure, I could figure out quadruple integration with no sweat, but to figure out how to fend off a fellow employee wanting to sell Avon is another ball of wax. Besides, I’ve forgotten every last morsel of math that sustained me during the undergraduate years. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

In spite of this, the headspace for solving mathematical problems really stimulates me to this day. While reading Butterworth and Thwaite’s math-related word problems, I went into that inexplicable zone?that mode of thought where you partly leave the human realm and enter something more intangible, more abstract. When I’d go into deep thought on math problems, the slightest interruption would quash this magical train of thought, so otherwise removed from everyday life.

So, let’s move onto the nitty-gritty of problem solving, as relayed in Butterworth and Thwaite’s book:
– Something as simple as brewing a pot of coffee takes considerable problem solving when you really think about it.
– Problem solving can occur through trial and error or through finding a method, or through both means.
– The ways of solving a problem include (1) identifying the data you need, (2) combining seemingly unrelated data to create new possibilities, and (3) associating new problems with ones we’ve experience and figured out in the past.

In next week’s article we’ll get to the heart of problem solving.

So, there’s nothing to fear. The Study Dude is determined to make right for you all the wrongs I made in grad school?one A+ at a time.

Butterworth, John & Thwaites, Geoff. (2014). Thinking Skills: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.