Critical thinking

How to Miss the Point: A Guide to Dimwitted Discourse

People have valued reasoned, fair disagreements and good listening skills for far too long. It is high time we dispense with those boring and outdated formalities! After all, why respect the laws of logic when you can enjoy the adventure of following your own passions? When you get the point, you can only either agree or disagree. How boring! On the other hand, when you miss the point, you open up a fallacy-filled wonderland where conversation and emotions are set free to frolic! If you wish to dispense with the authoritarian laws of logic (which care nothing about you!) and transcend the boundaries of social courtesy, then here are some suggestions for you to try on your entirely subjective journey. These primarily apply to written arguments, but can also apply to listening to a spoken argument.

1. Foster the conviction that all with whom you disagree are personally attacking you.

Even if the individual doesn’t know you, your ideas are your identity. Never mind the fact that this introduces all sorts of strange problems for understanding personal identity. That stuff is not important. What is important is that your very person, and all you hold dear, are being assaulted.

2. Don’t accept the author or speaker’s own definitions of his terms.

For instance, if someone is using the term “idealist” to mean a person who has lofty goals, you could show off your philosophical prowess and point out that he has gotten philosophical idealism (something else entirely) all wrong. It would also be fun to attack a Lutheran who believes in Christian orthodoxy  (small “o”) for being a closet Orthodox Christian!

3. Embrace category confusion.

Here is a time-tested example: If the argument is about economics, you may wish to respond by claiming that the author is just racist. You get bonus points here, as this tactic also functions as an ad hominem and as a red herring fallacy (look them up if you are curious).

4. Ignore all qualifiers. 

This most often takes the form of responding with a counterexample to an admitted generalization. Example: Your interlocutor is evaluating the drawbacks to social media, and then says “interactions on social media tend to encourage more rudeness than would be likely in person.” You can fire back a response like this: “I know a nice person who is on Facebook! See there? You’re wrong.” Or, “Uncle Joe uses Facebook to raise money for homeless puppies,” etc. You don’t want your counterexample to actually work. So, avoid using the skill in situations where the author has clearly made a universal statement such as, “There are no black swans.” Then, those who are still slaves to logic could refute the universal statement by saying– truthfully– that “Uncle Joe has a black swan.”

5. Skip to the end. 

By doing this, you don’t get the argument at all, and you will miss the author’s definition of terms as well as all qualifications.

6. Read halfway through and stop reading. 

Sometimes, an author begins by surveying a given topic, or by introducing an argument with which she will then disagree. If you stop reading halfway through, you can respond as if the survey or the dissenting argument were actually the view of the author!

7. Just read the title and no further. 

This one is catching on all over the world. Make sure to leave a comment if it is a blog or a Facebook post. All of this can be accomplished in under a minute.

8. Partially attend to something else while reading or listening. 

This is a sure way to miss important things to the author or speaker and only catch words and phrases that are important to you.

9. Convince yourself that evaluation of or criticism of something is reducible to hatred.

Assume that if the arguer has negative things to say about a person or thing, then the arguer is actually displaying a deep-seated, concentrated hatred of that person or thing. For instance, all who criticize technology clearly hate technology and are hypocrites for using it at all.

10. Confuse descriptive with prescriptive statements. 

If I read an article reporting that “People who smoke marijuana enjoy the experience,” this is describing a state of affairs in the world (a descriptive statement). If I want to miss the point, I can respond as though it was a prescriptive statement. In other words, I can act shocked that the author would dare suggest that we should smoke marijuana (which would have been a prescriptive statement, had the author actually said that).

11. Ignore quotation marks, italics, or indented quotations, and attribute them to the quoting author.

By doing this, one can make the author appear to say all sorts of crazy things.

12. Remember that no one has the right to criticize things you like. 

Decide right now that all criticisms of anything you like are immediately invalid. After all, we know that things and people that we like are perfect.

13. Misunderstand or fail to detect sarcasm. 

To spin it positively, be rigidly serious all the time, insist on taking yourself very seriously, and you will discover all sorts of wild statements that are ready for your attack.

14. Insist on seeing your pet issue as a fundamental component of every argument you read.

If you are into women’s issues, for example, cry foul at anything in the argument that can conceivably (or even inconceivably) be construed as a sexist attack (assuming, of course, that the argument itself is not about women’s rights– then you must pick another point-missing tactic).

15. Don’t look up words you don’t understand. 

Just react to them upon your first, confused reading.

16. Present your response when maximally angry.

You will be amazed at your own propensity for the creative use of fallacies, misspellings, and overall murky thinking when overcome by emotion. Things can get wild if you take this advice. You may even regret it later, making the fun last as long as possible. This can quickly turn as serious as a porcupine in a balloon factory.

17. Avoid paragraphed and correctly punctuated responses.

If you are going to respond online, it is fun to see how crazy you can make your chosen target by posting responses that are almost as long as War and Peace. The more run-on sentences the better; when you omit careful punctuation and paragraphs, it tends to stun the opponent. If you are lucky, the bewildered adversary may actually try to respond to your mass of verbal chaos. Watch him squirm, and enjoy.

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Ways to Be a Better Thinker in the New Year

Some people are born smarter than others, but not everyone who has the capacity to think well does so. Moreover, naturally intelligent people may be riddled with intellectual vice (such as sloth, misguided curiosity, etc.), a problem that tempts people at all levels of intellectual gifting. Simply having natural intelligence helps, but this is not sufficient for being a sound and wise thinker. An individual could be a gifted memorizer thus a straight-A student, and yet fail to develop a true love of learning because of hours squandered away every night surfing the internet. Being an intellectually virtuous thinker requires deliberately cultivated habits. As you behave, so you will think. The mind is plastic, not static, and our intellectual habits will shape our minds– for better or worse. Here are just a few humble suggestions for building a more robust thought-life, in no particular order.

1. Write down new words, ideas that interest you, or things other people say which strike you as interesting. Keep a note pad and pen where you can easily access them, and record these things immediately. When you get the chance, use the notepad to remind yourself of these recent thoughts, then buy a book on the subject, discuss the idea with friends, or determine to use the new word sometime that day.

2. Engage in concentration training. For instance, resolve to read for 30 minutes each day without checking Facebook, your email, or getting up for a snack. When this is no longer a problem (and, in the digital age, it will not be easy), then increase to 45 minutes, then an hour.

3. Be a good listener. You will find that shutting up and letting others do the talking will give you much to think about and will help heighten your sensitivity.

4. Spend the majority of your time around people you find to be wise and articulate. Iron sharpens iron.

5. Read as often as possible, but don’t just read anything. Spending the majority of your time in poorly written or poorly reasoned books can easily poison your sensibilities. If you have limited time to read, then stick with books you know will be edifying, such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J. Gresham Machen, Os Guinness, David Wells, etc. If you must read an inferior text, then detoxify as soon as possible with a truly excellent book.

6. Edit your words in your mind before they exit your mouth. Always speak in a manner that would not haunt you if it were transcribed.

7. If you are going to write an email, or post something on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or the like, think about it, check for errors, and gauge its appropriateness before posting. Adopt a “waiting period” policy for online posting.

8. Be suspicious of anything which purports to be a new idea. Often, it is something that has been already beaten to death and addressed by brilliant people in ages past.

9. Embrace marginalia. Read with a pen, and write down summaries, elaborations, and questions in the margin. It will help more of your reading “stick.”

10. Learn to be comfortable with silence, even when talking to other people. The best thinking and deepest conversations occur when there is room for pausing, thinking, and listening.

11. Study logic, grammar, and rhetoric. It will help you to be more persuasive, and it will also keep you from being as easily swayed by the words and antics of others.

There are so many more, but this is at least a start.