How can we know what to believe when the facts are confusing and experts disagree? As you learn about environmental science-in this book and elsewhere-you will find many issues about which the data are indecisive, leading reasonable people to disagree on how they should be interpreted. How can we choose between competing claims? Is it simply a matter of what feels good at any particular moment, or are there objective ways to evaluate arguments? Critical thinking skills can help us form a rational basis for deciding what to believe and do. These skills foster reflective and systematic analysis to help us bring order out of chaos, discover hidden ideas and meanings, develop strategies for evaluating reasons and conclusions in arguments, and avoid jumping to conclusions. Developing rational analytic skills is an important part of your education and will give you useful tools for life.

Certain attitudes, tendencies and dispositions are essential for critical or reflective thinking. Among these are;

· Skepticism and independence. Question authority. Don’t believe everything you hear or read, including this book. Even the experts can be wrong.

· Open-mindedness and flexibility. Be willing to consider differing points of view and entertain alternative explanations.

· Accuracy and orderliness. Strive for as much precision as the subject permits or warrants. Deal systematically with parts of a complex whole.

· Persistence and relevance. Stick to the main point and avoid allowing diversions or personal biases to lead you astray.

· Contextual sensitivity and empathy. Consider the total situation, feelings, level of knowledge, and sophistication of others as you study situations. Try and put yourself in another person’s place to understand his or her position.

· Decisiveness and courage. Draw conclusions and take a stand when the evidence warrants doing so.

· Humility. Realize that you may be wrong and that you may have to reconsider in the future.

Critical thinking is sometimes called metacognition or “thinking about thinking.” It is not critical in the sense of finding fault but rather is an attempt to rationally plan how to think about a problem. It requires a self-conscious monitoring of the process while you are doing it and an evaluation of how your strategy worked and what you learned when you have finished. Assembling, understanding, and evaluating data are important steps, but critical thinking looks beyond simple facts to ask what reasons underlie and argument as well as what implications flow from a set of claims. These are some steps in critical thinking.

· Identify and evaluate premises and conclusions in an argument. What is the basis for the claims made? What evidence is presented to support these claims, and what conclusions are drawn from this evidence? If the premises and evidence are correct, does it follow that the conclusions are necessarily true?

· Acknowledge and clarify uncertainties, vagueness, equivocation, and contradictions. Do the terms used have more than one meaning? If so, are all participants in the argument using the same meaning? Are ambiguity or equivocation deliberate? Can all the claims be true simultaneously?

· Distinguish between fact and values. Can the claims be tested? (If so, these are statements of fact and should be verifiable by gathered evidence.) Are claims or appeals being made about what we ought to do? (If so, these are value statements and probably cannot be verified objectively.) For example, clams of what we ought to do to be moral or righteous or to respect nature are generally value statements.

· Recognize and interpret assumptions. Given the backgrounds and views of the protagonists and this argument, what underlying reasons might there be for the premises, evidence, or conclusions presented? Does anyone have an ax to grind or a personal agenda concerning this issue? What do they think I know, need, want, believe? Is a subtext based on race, gender, ethnicity, economics, or some belief system distorting this discussion?

· Determine the reliability or unreliability of a source. What makes the experts qualified in this issue? What special knowledge or information do they have? What evidence do they present? How can we determine whether the information offered is accurate, true, or even plausible?

· Recognize and understand conceptual frameworks. What are the basic beliefs, attitudes, and values that this person, group, or society holds? What dominating philosophy or ethics control their outlook and actions? How do these beliefs and values affect the way people view themselves and the world around them? If there are conflicting or contradictory beliefs and values, how can these differences be resolved?

In logic, an argument is made up of one or more introductory statements, called the premises, and a conclusion that supposedly follows from the premises. It is useful to distinguish between these kinds of statements. Premises usually claim to be based on facts; conclusions are usually opinions and values drawn form or used to interpret those facts. Words that often introduce a premise include as, because, assume that, given that, since, whereas, and we all know that. Words that often indicate a conclusion or statement of opinion or values include and so, thus, therefore, it follows that, consequently, the evidence shows, we can conclude that. Remember, even if the facts in a premise are correct, the conclusions, drawn from them may not be.

As you go through this book, you will have many opportunities to practice these critical thinking skills. Try to distinguish between statements of fact and opinion. Ask yourself if the premises support the conclusions drawn from them. Although I will try to present controversies fairly and evenhandedly, I, like everyone, have biases and values-some that I may not even recognize-that affect how I present arguments. Watch for areas in which you must think for yourself and use your critical thinking skills.


The Critical Thinking Process we will use to assess our readings follows these five steps:

1. Identify & Restate the Claim

2. Identify Evidence Relevant to the Claim

3. Evaluate the Quality of the Evidence using the Intellectual Standards

4. Evaluate the Validity of the Claim based on the information in steps 1 through 3.

5. Summarize using the information in steps 1 through 4 and what you know otherwise (ie., write what you really think about it)

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