In the pre-dawn half-light a man in a white van drove slowly through our neighborhood. His kid jumped out and stole the Obama/Biden sign from my neighbor's lawn. I shudder to think what his teenager learned by that act about integrity and respect for free speech.
In the economy and in the political realm, we are in a crisis of integrity. Some of us don't trust either of the candidates to serve our national interests or to respect our parochial interests. Our banks don't trust each other to repay loans. We don't trust the financial community and fear for our pensions. We don't trust corporate CEOs not to rip off shareholders. And we don't trust each other to make the right choice for president.
How do we discern whom to trust?
My ninety-something step-mother, says, "I don't listen to [the politicians], it's an emotional decision."- She will vote according to her life-long beliefs, if she votes at all. She doesn't trust any of the politicians as individuals, but holds that Republican orthodoxy will prevail and be best for the nation. It's like a religion for her; and she won't change to another "faith"- just because she doesn't like the current preacher.
A dear friend of mine, also a conservative Republican, follows the news and talks politics. But he has little tolerance for ambiguity. He focuses on those sources of information that confirm his beliefs, and summarily rejects dissonant information as "biased media."- He credits only the data that builds his case. As a consequence he feels confirmed and even righteous about supporting the GOP ticket.
I have yet another friend, also a Republican, who is on the fence. He is critical of the Bush years but says they don't represent the core values of the party. He's a moderate with a strong social conscience and feels that the national GOP has deserted those like him in their thirst for support from right-wing groups. He'll probably reflexively punch all the Republican levers, but before he leaves the voting booth he'll switch his presidential vote to Obama as a protest against Bush.
Don't get me wrong, granddaughter, I could easily list Democrat friends who are just as ardently true-believers on the progressive/liberal side. One of them calls the GOP "regressive liars and traitors."-
The question here is how are they thinking? They are each acting on beliefs, without honestly examining the basis for the belief. Everything these folks are pondering is colored by these unconscious beliefs--the orthodoxy they have internalized.
What is Critical Thinking?
Granddaughter, to understand critical thinking and to do it, you must make some distinctions about the words you are hearing and the images you are seeing. Let's start with the assertions. Anyone that seeks to influence your opinion will assert something. The assertion may be unsubstantiated opinion, or it may be a verifiable fact that can be checked objectively. It may also be a characterization, a word or phrase (like jerk or bozo) meant to alter your perception, but not verifiable. Here are some examples
Obama is a constitutional lawyer. (verifiable fact)
Obama is an honorable man. (an assessment, subject to wide agreement, but not a fact.)
Obama is an elitist. (characterization, not verifiable, also an assessment, but a charged word meant to alter or prejudice your perception.)
People can build a case for an opinion, giving facts that support it, interpreting those facts, making assessments, citing others who agree, claiming professional expertise, characterizing the object of the opinion, and so on. But in the end the listener forms a personal opinion. Editorial endorsements are opinions. Editors usually take pains to ground the opinion in fact. You can go a long way toward finding the truth by simply identifying the factual evidence and checking it. Each of the major networks had a team doing just this during and after the Presidential debates.
Evaluating the words that characterize a candidate or his actions is also revealing. Is the characterization fair, or is it a smear? The Democrats say McCain is impulsive and erratic--a characterization. They may point to behaviors that they interpret as impulsive or erratic, but it is still an assertion of opinion, not a fact. Critical thinking recognizes the difference between characterization and fact.
An implication is a veiled assertion, not specifically stated; it's a generalization one might easily make from what is stated. We infer or conclude something that the speaker stops short of actually saying. "Who is Barak Hussein Obama?"- The use of Obama's middle name, a name that evokes the late dictator, and a common name in Muslim countries, implies a sinister allegiance to our enemies in the war on terror. It's laughable when the implication of the rhetorical question is spelled out this way, but it conveys a very negative characterization when vaguely implied.