Everyone thinks. It is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

When I took the PHIL105: Critical Thinking course as an elective at the University of Auckland, I almost couldn’t stand how boring it was. To me, much of the issues being discussed seemed to be nitpicky and inconsequential. But there was something that kept me going to those classes, boring as they were, and before long I began to see the virtue of the things being discussed.

We humans are imperfect. Our brains especially, a marvel as it is, is imperfect. Without realising or acknowledging the imperfections in our thinking, we stand almost no chance in defending ourselves against those imperfections. And that, I realised, was what kept me going to all those classes. I was intrigued to learn about these imperfections, especially since they are so central to the core of our very being. Their consequences are very real and far-reaching, yet subtle, which is what makes them so difficult to combat.

Much has been studied in the field of critical thinking, and as far as academic fields go, it has quite matured. To learn about all those imperfections and how to systematically cultivate excellence in thought go far beyond what this post can provide. I would instead briefly describe two of arguably the most widespread imperfections in our thinking: the ad-hominem fallacy and confirmation bias.

Ad-hominem fallacy

A fallacy is an error in reasoning. It occurs when a conclusion is accepted even when the claims (or premises, in critical thinking lingo) in support of that conclusion do not provide definitive or adequate support of that conclusion. I bet you can begin to see why those critical thinking classes that I went to were boring, but stay with me.

Many types of fallacies have been identified and described: ad-hominem, slippery slope, appeal to emotion, and appeal to authority, just to name a few. Ad-hominem fallacy is an error in reasoning where a conclusion is accepted or rejected based solely on the person conveying the claims and the conclusion. Generally, it goes like this: because someone is so and so, therefore what he said must be wrong/right.

This is erroneous because the characteristics, actions, or circumstances of the person who makes the claims and conclusion have no bearing on the truth of the claims and conclusion, except if it is a testimony. This is a mistake we do all the time. Consider:

Person A: “Based on the reports by independent election watch personnel and candidate agents, the election is free and fair.”

Person B: “Of course you would say that, you won the election!”

In the example above, person B is rejecting the conclusion proposed by Person A, solely on the fact that Person A won the election. This is a straightforward ad-hominem fallacy – the fact that Person A won the election has no bearing on the truth of whether or not the election is free and fair.

The truth of the conclusion – whether it is to be accepted or rejected – should be weighed entirely on the merits of the claims or premises made in support of the conclusion. What everyone needs to decide is whether or not the provided claims are plausible, and lend enough support to believe in the conclusion.

But as we’ll see in the next imperfection, even making that decision is fraught with difficulties.

Confirmation bias

The human brain has a tendency to favour information that confirms their existing beliefs. If you approach an issue with a pre-existing belief, you are much more likely to seek out and accept information that confirms your belief rather than falsify it. You will also tend to accept a conclusion with much less scrutiny if it affirms your belief.

There are many reasons for this. One of them is people often weigh the costs of being wrong into their decision making. These costs of being wrong may be financial, but it can more often than not be emotional. Having to admit one is wrong is difficult for anyone for example, especially when one has previously made countless strongly-worded allegations and statements regarding the issue.

Another reason can be plain-old wishful thinking – we want to believe in things that would benefit us.

Our limited capacity in processing information can also be the reason. Because of the huge amount of information on any given topic these days and age, we have to be selective in our sources. Oftentimes those selections tend to be biased towards sources that are friendly to our beliefs.

A speck in the sky

What I have described above is but a sliver of what is discussed in any critical thinking course. There are more than 40 types of fallacies alone, some of which are related to each other. That is the reason why thinking is not easy – it takes time and effort to carefully deliberate on something, especially if it is as big as choosing a government, for example. An emotionally-charged mind is even more vulnerable to committing these fallacies.

Which is why it is so important for everyone to at least know about these types of fallacies. Just being aware of them makes us cautious of them, and that will contribute to better quality of thought. Ultimately, the way we think is a habit, and it is never too early to cultivate a better thinking habit. It is way overdue, in fact, for most of us. Especially in these challenging days and age.