Critical thinking failures in published works

lathechuck's picture

I've been watching for examples of poor critical thinking, and here are a couple of items to share, found in an article by Janet Lee, in Consumer Reports, via the Washington Post (August 23, 2022). Article title: "4 questions to ask about organic food".

"Is it healthier?" includes the following: "Bringing produce, whether conventional or organic, from a distance can have a bad effect on nutrients... And the United States imports organic food from many countries -- almost 100 in 2021...". Notice how the category of "produce" is subtly implied to be synonymous with "food". But of course "food" includes many items, such as grains, dry beans, dry pasta, canned meats, oils, and canned foods, some of which are highly stable and not eaten fresh whether produced locally or imported. Does this statement imply that organic produce is more likely to lose nutrients because it's more likely to be imported? Not if you parse it carefully. Then, what IS the point of juxtaposing these two factual statements?

"Does it have fewer pesticides? Yes. A small study ... revealed that people who switched from a conventional diet to an organic one had lower levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine. And, ... agricultural pesticide exposure has been associated with asthma, bronchitis, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, and certain cancers." What's missing here? There's no connection between the quantitative levels of pesticide acquired from food, and that acquired in other ways, such as by spending your workday mixing the pesticides and spraying it on the fields (where the level of exposure could be thousands of times higher). It goes on to say "Some research also suggests that children with greater exposure to certain pesticides are more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and that synthetic pesticides may disrupt endocrine systems...". Again, there's no quantification of the "greater exposure", and no assertion that these levels of exposure result from prepared food (and not, for example, attending a school next to a sprayed field, or being cared for in the field by a working mother).

"Is it bad for the environment? Yes. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can damage soil and pollute water. ... Nitrogen-based fertilizer ... is a major contributor to air and water pollution." What's missing here? There's no discussion of the potential for organic fertilizer to be washed out of the field into the water, too. A horse-owner of my acquaintance described the "nutrient management plan" that her farm needed to file with the county government, to ensure that the manure produced on her farm (which would be fine organic fertilizer) did not contribute to pollution. Maybe it's more likely to pollute with chemical fertilizers, but there's no comparison in this article. (And look again at the question: "Is _it_ bad for the environment?" The topic of the piece is "organic food", but in this question, the pronoun resolves to "conventional production"... I think.)

Now, I'm not arguing for or against organic food production. (I grow organically for home use, and buy organic food much of the time, in fact.) But today's point is to examine the rhetoric around this issue, and try to distinguish testable statements of fact from illogical constructs.

What was the fourth 'question to ask" ?

ClareBroommaker's picture
mountainmoma's picture

When your dog is sick, you would likely give antibiotics, so if a cow is sick or a chicken, would you advocate not treating it ? Letting it suffer ? My daughter is a large animal vet, she is realy bothered by the organic standards in CA that say the animal can never be given antibiotics and stay as an organic milk producer. Here is the facts, all CA milk, organic or not, is tested for antibiotic residue. No antibiotics in the milk supply in CA is allowed, organic or not. Milk is put into very large vats, and a sample from the vat is taken, if there is any indication of antibiotics this whole huge amount has to be poured out, thrown out. So, antibiotics leave the system of the animal, just like for a human or a dog after a time, then that milk is used. Because no-one wants the huge financial hit of throwing out a huge vat of milk, the dairies are very careful to have a very long withdrawl time before the milk is put back into the production que.

SO, what happens to organic dairy cows that get sick ? They either suffer thru it and get better, but most of the time are treated with the antibiotics and sold to a non-organic milk producer. So it is not true that less antibiotics are used, the cows are just transferred to the non-organic line.

Her favorite local dairy, very expensive milk sold in a few places, hard to find, feeds all organic feed to their dairy cows but refuses to get organic certified as they like their cows and want to be free to treat them if they get sick.

Just food for thought.

I am pretty sure we have standards for hormones and antibiotics in meat too, allowable use and amounts. I would not trust meat from out of the country

I have been waiting for other people to comment while I thought about my own approach to the issue you raise: poor critical thinking in print/public discourse.

Since few others have stepped up to the plate, I thought I might as well weigh in. You see that I am mixing baseball and boxing/jockeying sports metaphors there. That is clumsy rhetoric, but not especially harmful in this instance.

However, that is one thing to critically watch out for: mushy metaphors. Both in oratory and in print, watch out for metaphors. This rhetorical device can be misused.

Properly applied, metaphors help to clarify a complex line of reasoning. But they can be used to conceal fantastic leaps of illogical sophistry. A metaphor may be badly garbled, over-extended, or even totally inappropriate to the subject matter. This can confuse the mind, misdirect attention, or conceal important facts which are missing from the argument. Familiar, homely examples may be used to trick readers into feeling safe and warmly welcomed into the fold of the speaker’s partisan believers. Soothing emotional appeals are meant to induce readers’ ready consent to whatever stretch of muddled thinking the speaker wants to put over on us.

*Who’s On First*
I usually apply feminist power analysis to any text by reversing the roles it describes, especially if there is a sharp distinction along lines of gender or broad assumptions of disparity in the ability to take action. Assume that the author of the text is trying to dominate you, control your mind, limit your options, steal your time, money, autonomy, and independent agency. Assume that every text is an enemy action. Why treat a text with this extreme degree of hostility? Because it reveals a surprising amount of unconscious arrogance and ignorant assumptions about the nature of reality.

It may uncover other instances of binary thinking which I then automatically rip apart and alter by inserting a third, fourth or many other options into the syllogistic equations. This is sort of like putting darts into the fabric of the argument—it is more apt to follow the curves of reality. Then I can decide if I like the fit well enough to buy the argument. (Yes, I use metaphors a lot.)

Here are some other Faultlines along which one can hammer a text for deeper analysis.

*Pre-Framing the Space of Argument*
My strong oppositional streak bristles up at the whole premise of this article and my suspicions are roused by the presumption of the author. Even the name of the magazine irritates me. It pre-supposes that I am not a Citizen to whom they are providing factual information upon which I will make my own decisions. They do not call it Citizen Reports. No, they put me in the mode of a Spender, an Eater, a devourer of substances. A Consumer. They are most interested in the size of my wallet, not the good of my nation or the extent of my responsibilities.

In high school debate class, we used to collect newspaper clippings and learn how to use them to support our point as items of record. It would not matter if the reasoning in the article was valid or even true, so long as it sounded convincing enough to sway the audience. This is how debates are routinely conducted in politics and how many large scale financial decisions are made: by persuasive rhetoric. Truth flies out the Overton window. Whoever controls the terms of discussion has already won the debate.

*Assumption of authority*
I also reject out of hand the Author’s assumption that she is the Authority and I am the Worm. So far as I can tell, in her imagination I appear to be a mere, lowly, helpless creature, pitifully lost in the wilderness of Information Woods and she is here to solve my problems, take me by the tiny hand and tenderly lead me out of my perplexity. “Here ya go, Stupid Folks! I have thoroughly investigated the matter and boiled it all down for you into these simple, easy-to-follow steps. It’s fool-proof, even for the likes of you numbskulls. Trust me and you can’t go wrong.” I resent the attitude and pour a shakerful of salt over the information provided in sheer self-defense. (Here I use strong-flavored, emotionally affective language to undermine the Author’s assumption of authority in the readers’ minds. I bet it worked, too! Temporarily, at least.)

*“Define Your Terms!”*
That is the SJC Battle Cry. I habitually scream it before going into philosophical battle. (Metaphorically, of course.)

The article seems to assume that the definition of Organic is what the State tells us ‘organic’ means. It does not define its terms in any clear stated manner. And we all know, nowadays, that long-standing definitions of commonly used words and once-meaningful legal terminology can be changed practically overnight, simply to better suit the hidden aims of business interests.

What EXACTLY do you mean by the word ‘organic’ here? A genetically modified, stem grafted, cloned and hydroponically grown, frankenfeed tomato is organic in the sense that it is not made out of metal or plastic.

What do you MEAN is organic foodstuff healthier? Do you mean free of bugs? Quicker to spoil because it has no anti-fungal chemicals applied? Do you mean health-promoting when ingested by a human being or pet animal? When used as feed for animals intended for slaughter?

This can bog down an argument PDQ, and in some political quaqmires we may never get out of the swamp. So an upfront exchange of differing definitions can be used in place of consensus. We simply keep in mind that the other fellows do not agree with our definitions and adjust our arguments accordingly as need arises.

*Over-simplifying Complexity*
But as MM’s post shows, there are far more issues to be examined than this oversimplified bullet-pointilism can possibly convey. The hidden costs to small businesses in particular are glided over by the rigidities of abstraction and inflexible rules of certification. So my heavy dose of applied saltshaker is already justified because the author has filtered out facts inconvenient to her primary purpose of condensing information. But this reductive attitude amounts to falsification that impairs my ability to make an informed and just decision. (Here I re-assert my previous points of being a concerned citizen, a responsible adult, and a capable reasoner on my own account. I also introduce three new concepts to the argument: social class, economic power disparity, and irresponsible neglect by omission of critically important information.)

So you see, my initial critical thinking style is a wild mix of slash, cut, apply high explosives, and burn. But there is more to critical thinking than the destructive mode. It is also important to use the softer approaches of acceptance and synthesizing modes.

It is possible – and, unfortunately, may be advisable – to approach every text as an enemy deception. Even if it comes from a trusted source, such a one may be the dupe of an enemy.

Taking this hard-line attitude can quickly reveal hidden motives, power-relationships, and unconscious assumptions that undermine the validity of the information. Now, in common discourse among peers, there is no need to go this far. One does not use a surgeon’s scalpel as a butter knife. But any written text, removed from physical signifiers such as pitch and tone of voice, body language, irony, and so forth, can be subjected to this harsh X-ray treatment with some beneficial effects.

Some time or other, try out this technique on a piece of your own writing. See how amazing it is for clarifying what you mean to say as opposed to what you actually say! How it exposes words that can be taken in the wrong way from what you intended, and can be used to feed a reader’s prejudices instead of winning them over.

It also forces you, the writer, to examine your own hidden motives and unconscious assumptions. Why are we inclined to believe or not believe what someone says to us? Are we swayed by the trappings of authority? By impressive-sounding titles? By good looks of the person in the photo?

When applied to our own writing, a hostility analysis shows us that what we think we said may not be what a reader receives. We see how each sentence could be misinterpreted, twisted out of context, or colored by prejudice – ours and another’s.

*A softer approach*
Yet, in order to winnow facts from fluff, it is also useful to take the opposite stance: to assume that a text is written in good faith and is meant to be helpful or neutrally informative.

I think of this as using different magnifications and color filters when looking through a microscope. Or using telescopic lenses by day and infrared scopes at night for viewing a landscape. An attitude of trust with suspended judgment is another way of unfolding what writing conveys

After engaging with the text in a hostile manner, we make a conscious decision to provisionally accept what is written to be quite true and a genuine attempt to help us find the truth. We dissolve our ego barriers and let in new information. We are already emotionally primed to spot flaws in reasoning; now we give ourselves permission to use soft-focus to spot jewels in the muck, so to speak. We are looking for statements that resonate with the tones of truth. We are seeking common ground on which to build consensus.

This is where discussion in person can become intellectually fruitful and exciting to experience. When conning over a text alone in one’s room, it may not be so thrilling, but it can allow us to expand our mental range and deepen our understanding of an issue. And that can be reward enough for one day.

True critical thinking has both a Solve and a Coagulae aspect. The Alchemy of the Coagulae phase can sometimes turn lead into the purest gold.