Critical Thinking in College and Life

Being a college graduate and a citizen will lead to many future opportunities to think critically about matters that affect the quality of life for you and your family. Answers are often not clear-cut but rather can be loaded with ambiguity and contention. Taking a position on behalf of you and your family will require careful, critical thinking.

For instance, what should we do about the growing problem of childhood and adult obesity? Should we tackle this problem as a society because reducing the rates of obesity would benefit society as a whole? How could you approach this public health crisis in your community?

Let’s assume that you and some neighbors decide to petition the school board to place on its next agenda a decision to ban soft drinks in the public schools. In response to your request, you are granted permission to speak at the next school board meeting. Your team collaborates to identify the questions that you need to explore:

  1. What is the current obesity rate of adults in this community?

  2. What is the current obesity rate of school-age children in this community, and how does it compare with the rate twenty years ago?

  3. What health interventions are currently in place in schools to offset the potential for obesity?

  4. When were soft-drink machines placed in the schools?

  5. How much profit does each school realize by the sale of such beverages?

  6. How do the schools use these profits?

  7. Have there been any studies on the student population in the community correlating obesity levels with other health problems such as diabetes?

You collect data using resources at your town library, and in your search for evidence to support your position, you discover that according to the local health department, obesity rates for adults and children in your community exceed the national average and have gone up dramatically in the past twenty years. Rates of diabetes among young adults are also increasing every year. You also learn that soft-drink machines first appeared in schools in your district fifteen years ago. Other than regular physical education classes, the schools don’t have programs in place to encourage healthy eating. Schools receive money from the soft-drink companies, but you cannot get a clear answer about how much money they receive or how it is being used.

The data about the health of the community and the schoolchildren is powerful. You carefully cite all your sources, and your team believes that it is ready to make its case. You assume that the school board will make an immediate decision to remove soft-drink machines from school grounds based on what you have discovered. You cannot imagine another side to this issue, and you wonder how anyone could possibly object to removing from school a substance that, in your view, clearly harms children.

Little did you know that your position would meet stiff opposition during the board meeting. You were shocked to hear arguments such as the following:

  1. Students don’t have to buy these drinks. Nobody makes them.

  2. Students will be unhappy if their soft drinks are taken away, which will negatively affect their academic performance.

  3. The United States is all about freedom of choice. It is morally wrong for any agency of government to interfere with people’s freedom of choice, no matter what a person’s age.

  4. If we allow the school board to tell children what they can and cannot drink, pretty soon they will be telling children what to think or not think.

  5. This proposed restriction interferes with what is best for our country and therefore our children: protecting the free enterprise system.

  6. This proposed policy will lead to significant revenue loss for our school, which will result in higher taxes to make up the shortfall.

  7. There is no evidence that it is the consumption of soft drinks that actually causes obesity. Other sugary foods might be the problem.

  8. If students don’t have these drinks to purchase in school, they will sneak them in from home.

Understanding Your and Your Opposition’s Assumptions

To some extent, it’s unavoidable to have beliefs based on gut feelings or blind acceptance of something we’ve heard or read. Some assumptions should be examined more thoughtfully, especially if they will influence an important decision or serve as the foundation for an argument. What are the assumptions behind the opposition’s arguments? What assumptions lay behind the arguments you made?

How could you and your neighbors use critical thinking to strengthen your own arguments and respond to those of the opposition? What factual bases support the assumptions and arguments on both sides? Are there exaggerations on both sides? Do you detect the use of any logical fallacies on either side? How can you evaluate the facts? If your goal is to ban soft drinks from schools in your community and to address the issue at hand—childhood obesity—what additional evidence do you need to gather and what next steps should you take?

As this scenario suggests, well-meaning people will often disagree. It’s important to listen to both sides of an argument before making up your mind. If you hang on to the guidelines in this chapter, we can’t promise that your classes will be easier or you’ll solve community problems, but you will be better equipped to handle them. You have the skills to use critical thinking to figure things out instead of depending purely on how you feel or what you’ve heard. As you listen to a lecture, political debate, or argument about what is in the public’s best interest, try to predict where it is heading and why. Ask yourself whether you have enough information to justify what you have said.

Examine the Evidence

Critical thinkers are careful to check that the evidence supporting an argument—whether someone else’s or their own—is of the highest possible quality. To do that, simply ask a few questions about the arguments as you consider them:

  • What general idea am I being asked to accept?

  • Are good and sufficient reasons given to support the overall claim?

  • Are those reasons backed up with evidence in the form of facts, statistics, and quotations?

  • Does the evidence support the conclusions?

  • Is the argument based on logical reasoning, or does it appeal mainly to the emotions?

  • Do I recognize any questionable assumptions?

  • Can I think of any counterarguments? What facts can I muster as proof?

  • What do I know about the person or organization making the argument?

If you’re still not certain of its quality after you have evaluated the evidence used in support of a claim, it’s best to keep looking. Drawing on questionable evidence for an argument has a tendency to backfire. In most cases a little persistence will help you find something better.