If you haven’t seen it, you really should check out the Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. It’s about argumentative fallacies, and as the title implies it includes some lovely drawings to illustrate some key fallacies.
According to the preface, “This book is aimed at newcomers to the field of logical reasoning, particularly those who, to borrow a phrase from Pascal, are so made that they understand best through visuals.”
You can buy the book on Amazon but you can peruse it for free on the book’s website at the link above.
This piece from Forbes reports on the results of an employer survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE): The College Degrees And Skills Employers Most Want In 2015. One of the key questions NACE asks concerns the skills employers most value in new hires.
Topping the list are competency in:
- Critical thinking / problem solving
- Professionalism / work ethic
- Oral / Written Communications
The survey also notes that the employers surveyed are mostly looking for grads from engineering and business programs. Humanities grads are less desirable. But, interestingly, humanities programs (like philosophy and English) are traditionally thought of as the places to learn many of the ‘most-desired’ skills listed above.
The lesson for business students? Majoring in business is great, but make sure to take some courses that give you the valuable skills that typically come from studying the humanities — courses in critical thinking, ethics, and so on.
One of the things I point out to my students frequently is that business is a collaborative activity, and collaboration requires that we agree on objectives and methods. That can mean convincing your team-mates, your subordinates, or even your boss of the best course of action. That means you need to understand the mechanics of using argumentation and how to use it effectively for persuasion. That, in turn, requires critical thinking.
With regard to bosses, see this useful piece from Harvard Business Review: Getting the Boss to Buy In
It focuses on the notion of “issue selling” — in particular, selling your boss on a new idea.
Issue sellers who accomplish their goals, we found, look for the best ways, venues, and times to voice their ideas and concerns—using rhetorical skill, political sensitivity, and interpersonal connections to move the right leaders to action….
The article isn’t cast in terms of critical thinking, but the connection is there. Students of critical thinking should read this article and ask which of Susan Ashford and James Detert’s bits of advice require the application of the core skills of critical thinking.
Here’s a useful little piece on “What Actions or Behaviors Are Indicative of a Critical Thinker?”
Summarizing very briefly, the 4 key characteristics listed are:
- Clarifies Through Debate
- Asks Questions
- Gathers and Tests Information
- Reflects with Metacognition [i.e., thinking about thinking]
So, the test for the student of business: how specifically does each of these apply in the world of commerce?
Critical thinking involves a set of skills that can be applied to literally any topic. This includes ethics, which many people wrongly take to be a matter of pure opinion or maybe feeling. Critical thinking actually plays a good role in clear ethical thinking. Ethics is hard sometimes, and it’s easy to fall prey to bad arguments. To see what I mean, take a look at this chapter I wrote for a business ethics textbook: Critical Thinking for Business Ethics
Here’s the introduction:
This chapter will explore the application of critical thinking skills to the study of business ethics. We will begin by asking what critical thinking is. Students will learn that critical think- ing is a systematic approach to evaluating and formulating good arguments in defence of specific beliefs or claims. Next, we will ask why critical thinking is essential to ethics. This involves illustrating how mistaken ethical beliefs can be rooted in either (a) faulty premises or (b) faulty logic. Faulty premises will be further subdivided into unacceptable factual foundations and unacceptable ethical principles.
We will then provide students with a handful of key critical thinking skills that they can apply to analyzing and resolving ethical challenges. First, students will learn about argument structure and the key components of arguments, namely premises and conclusions. Next, students will learn about the ingredients of good ethical arguments, and will be given tools for examining both the acceptability of premises and the relevance of particular premises to specific conclusions. Finally, the chapter will include a brief discussion of various well-known pitfalls in ethical reasoning, including logical fallacies (such as the argument from tradition, false dilemma, and the argument from popularity) as well as cognitive biases (such as the framing effect).
Here’s an interesting bit of research that points to the value of the kind of critical thinking that focuses on the offering of reasons.
This is Victoria Brescoll, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior, Yale School of Management, commenting on her research on gender roles:
“We found that if people inferred that a woman had an intention to get power, or if she explicitly said that she was looking for a position of power, they were less likely to vote her into office. But people were more likely to vote for a man when he explicitly expressed or they inferred that he had that intention.
We think that it’s entirely driven by expectations for how men and women are supposed to act. A strong desire for power on the part of women is very much violating a gender stereotype that women should be modest and play more of a backseat role.
When you actually ask people if women should be able to express anger at work, they say it is okay. If you ask people if they would vote for a woman who says she wants power, they’ll say yes, I wouldn’t discriminate. But when we randomly assign people to view one of the scenarios, they will show the bias against the people enacting counter-stereotypical behavior.
The simplest way that women can express anger while avoiding this bias, at least according to my research, is to offer an explicit reason, so that somebody can’t blame their anger on who they are as a person. It’s not offering an excuse, but a context. This is a great thing for women to do.”
Of course, every critical thinker needs to be aware of the reasons behind his or her opinions, actions, or attitudes. But this suggests an interesting additional reason for emphasizing that.
Here’s a worthwhile rumination On the Importance of Drawing. Its point is that there are times when you can really only understand a thing well if you draw it. Unlike taking a picture, drawing something forces you to focus on its details.
This bears directly on a key still taught in many critical thinking courses, namely argument diagramming.
While the article linked is about the role of drawing in really seeing beauty, I think it applies well to critical thinking, too. Consider the challenge in really understanding the point of an argument, seeing its elements clearly, and the role drawing a diagram of it might play. And now read this paragraph:
So if drawing had value even when it was practised by people with no talent, it was… because drawing can teach us to see: to notice properly rather than gaze absentmindedly. In the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts.