In the midst of the political upheaval and myriad other crises we are currently experiencing, the need for a rational, science-based approach to health and climate issues has never been greater. In this installment of the Notebook I help you understand how to scrutinize and evaluate arguments about the environment so that you can be an informed consumer of all the information we are inundated with on a daily basis.
These days, being able to think critically is particularly crucial because we are increasingly exposed to corporate greenwashing, a type of marketing spin in which deceptive claims are made to persuade the consumer that an organization’s products and policies are environmentally friendly even though they are largely or totally harmful. Over the last two decades, corporate greenwashing has become very sophisticated, but you can learn how to pierce below the surface of their claims!
What is Critical Thinking?
By Alf van Beem - Own work, CC0
You need to have critical thinking
skills in order to evaluate whether
or not the writer of an article you
are reading has used critical thinking
in the process of composing the
article! Recursive? Yes! Important?
Critical thinking refers to a process of being receptive and curious while also remaining skeptical as you evaluate and analyze new information from all angles. If I am reading an article about climate change, for example, I need to learn something about the authors of the article. What are their motives? What is their expertise? I should also evaluate the evidence for their assertions. Is the argument based on actual data or on anecdotes and opinion? I need to study whether they are conducting a careful analysis. Are they offering convincing ideas or just manipulating my emotions? How clear and logical is their thinking? Do the conclusions follow from the evidence?
Critical thinking is something that all humans are equipped to do. Based on pioneering work by Jean Piaget, psychologists have shown that children develop the capability for logical reasoning by adolescence. For example, while young children need to see physical objects in order to line them up from tallest to shortest, teenagers can use inference to answer a question like the following: “If Kelly is taller than Ali and Ali is taller than Jo, who is the tallest?” Piaget’s argument was that the ability to think logically and critically is biologically programmed and that, barring terrible deprivation, it will be attained by everyone.
Threats to Critical Thinking
More recently, behavioral economists and social psychologists have highlighted the human tendency to use cognitive shortcuts in reasoning about everyday matters. Sometimes the shortcuts are reasonable timesavers that result in accurate understanding but in other cases they can produce biased or illogical results. Here are four cognitive shortcuts that are particularly likely to trip us up when we think about environmental issues.
Number 1: We are more persuaded by vivid anecdotes and examples than by statistical information.
Examples and anecdotes tend to make a big impression on us, particularly if they strike an emotional chord or refer to something we have experienced personally. We respond less immediately and viscerally to statistics, even though data from a large group is much more likely to provide valid information than a single example. For instance, if my friend crashes her car, I may decide against buying one of that make and model, even if Consumer Reports has conducted a thorough analysis and gives it a big thumbs up.
So beware of writers who rely on examples and anecdotes to make their case. And when you are the one trying to present an argument be sure to use the best evidence available. It’s fine to use examples to illustrate a point, but the example needs to be backed up by deeper evidence.
Number 2: We may reject valid information just because it does not fit in with our prior beliefs and understandings.
We like to think of ourselves as logical people whose ideas and values all add up to something consistent. When someone points out a contradiction between what we say and what we do, we feel very uncomfortable. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance.
For instance, I have read a lot about plastic pollution. I am very convinced of the seriousness of the problem. I certainly want to reduce my own plastic consumption. Indeed, I have started chipping away at the problem, and am happy to report that and am happy to report that I can’t remember the last time I bought a roll of Saran Wrap. But during the pandemic I have been ordering groceries to be delivered, and they come in a lot of plastic packaging. I try to find ways to reduce the stressful feeling created by the inconsistency between my beliefs and behavior, such as vowing to shop exclusively at the farmers’ market as soon as the pandemic is over.
So examine your own responses to new information with curiosity and skepticism! If you detect a tendency to resist new information that might be valuable and important, encourage yourself to explore the contradictions.
Number 3: We tend to mistake simple patterns of association as being evidence of cause and effect.
||Theory links all the processes depicted in this image.
Whenever you see two things going together in some kind of a pattern, it’s tempting to assume that one thing is causing the other. A classic example of this is that the number of shark attacks on swimmers is correlated with the sale of ice cream cones on the Pacific Coast. Does that mean that sharks are more prone to attack people because the people have eaten more ice cream? No, eating ice cream does not cause sharks to attack you. It is more likely that outdoor temperature is a hidden, or confounding, third variable. In other words, people are more likely to go swimming (and to get attacked while doing so) as well as to eat ice cream in hot weather.
Sometimes it can be OK to look at correlations for some evidence of causation. But the key is to have a good theoretical reason to support the notion of causation. Theory focuses your interpretation of correlations on sensible rather than arbitrary hypotheses.
For example, suppose the number of coal-burning plants is correlated with the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and with increasing air and sea temperatures. We can confidently point to the causal role of coal if we have good information about the type of gases emitted by burning coal and understand how these gases prevent atmospheric heat from escaping into space.
Number 4. If we establish that something is a cause of something else, we often jump to the conclusion that it is the only cause, or the most important cause.
Sometimes it’s hard to consider all the contributors to a complex and multidimensional problem. For instance, it has been established that the presence of lead in children’s bodies causes cognitive deficiencies. And we also know that many children in low-income communities have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. But it would be overly simplistic to say that low school achievement in these neighborhoods can be solved by removing all the lead paint (although removal would certainly be a good start, and the ethically responsible thing to do).
This oversimplifying phenomenon is clearly illustrated in efforts by the petrochemical industry to persuade consumers that plastic pollution is caused by inefficient recycling and that if we ramp up our recycling capability we will all be fine. Recent reports suggest that the plastic industry officials are engaging in critical thinking – they themselves do not believe recycling to be a viable solution! But they continue to promote it anyway as they seek to offset their profit loss from decreasing use of oil and gas with increased sale of plastic. In this case the industry is trying to take advantage of consumers’ tendency to feel satisfied with addressing a single cause of a complicated problem and distract them from other serious contributors.
How Do Emotions Enter the Picture?
I would argue that our emotions are frenemies with respect to our attempts to engage in critical thinking. We are emotional creatures and obviously not all emotions are bad – but we have to be aware of how they come into play when we are trying to engage in critical thinking.
|And what am I, chopped liver?
We have already seen some examples of how emotional responses can cloud our ability to think about an issue rationally. We can be seduced by a vivid example, and we resist new information that creates cognitive dissonance. But we will never be able to stamp out our feelings, nor should we. Emotions such as empathy are crucial to moving in the direction of social justice. If we can’t respond with empathy to pain and suffering we will not be motivated to take action. Indeed, the environmental movement often tries to arouse our protective and nurturing impulses with poignant photographs of animals in distress.
But sometimes we should set emotions aside and focus on the evidence and analysis of the issues. And we should remember that saving only the cute animals is not really the solution.
Another way in which emotions can enter the critical thinking process is via the phenomenon of tribalism.
Humans are in some sense pack animals. We unconsciously favor those most like us, those who belong to our group or tribe. Tribalism strengthens social cohesion and increases our propensity to sacrifice for the common good. However, tribalism can be maladaptive when it causes out-group stigmatism. And when there is a perception of insufficient or unequal distribution of resources, between-group hostility can easily arise.
Several points about tribalism are relevant for environmental advocates. First, we can resist tribalism when it undermines the formation of broad coalitions in finding solutions to our climate crisis. We should reject attempts by government leaders to stoke hostility among groups for political gain.
Also, we can be aware of the complex way in which tribalism has shaped our current media landscape. Social media platforms and cable channels have greatly exacerbated the tribalism in the ways that we consume news. We all select news outlets that we generally trust and respect. However, it is important to remain vigilant even with sources that we think are generally reputable. There can be strong disagreements among generally like-minded people, and it might take careful thinking to sift through the arguments carefully in such cases. Controversies regarding the culling of tule elk on Point Reyes and on the use of rodenticide in controlling house mice on the Farallon Islands are two cases in point.
Thank you for paying attention to this very important and challenging topic. No doubt we will need all our critical thinking skills as we continue to wrestle with our political and environmental challenges. I wish you happiness and good health in the coming days and will be back in touch with a new Notebook post in two weeks!
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book at www.wildflowerbook.com. Visit www.winterbadger.com to see more birds and other images.