Saturday, July 08, 2006

Wish Week Day 1: Logic Circles

In thinking about how the world can be a better place I have long had a list of things that I wished would happen – that I would try to make happen if I was in a position to do so. I have a birthday coming up, so I thought I would devote a week to describing these dream projects.

Wish Number 1: Logic Circles

I have a vision of a worldwide club made up of individuals who are interested in improving their own critical thinking and teaching critical thinking to others – particularly to children. Locally, this is a group of people who meet once a week for the purpose of studying the components of critical thinking, applying them to everyday life, and making sure that their children have these skills.

I use the name “Logic Circles” to describe these local logic clubs.

The Focus of the Club

I have searched the web and found that logic circles already exist, but none of them have the approach that I would wish for. Logic clubs tend to be placed where people get together to discuss logic the way that an astronomy club would discuss astronomy.

The “Logic Circles” that I envision would be much more focused on the use of critical thinking skills in everyday life. They look to improve the lives of those who are in the Circle and to help them improve the quality of life in their communities specifically by using the rules of logic and other aspects of critical thinking to find truth and avoid error.

Logic Circles would incorporate a moral aspect. They will be built around the idea that sound judgment is a virtue and sloppy thinking is a vice. This is an easy case to make. Intellectual recklessness is one of the most dangerous and destructive forces around. As we look through history, we can see that a great deal of the suffering that people are made to endure can be traced to some failure of critical thinking. At the same time, sound reason has brought many of the breakthroughs that have improved the quality of our lives. Where virtues tend to improve the quality of life and vice tends to do harm, critical thinking is a virtue while intellectual recklessness is a vice.

The Basic Structure

Logic Circles will have to be built around somebody who has had some training in logic. If a group of people are interested in a Logic Circle, but they do not know of anybody who has this type of training, they can take steps to make sure that some people in the club get this training. A group of people sitting around with the assumption that they are already good critical thinkers and that there are no formal rules for them to learn – who sit around and marvel at their own intelligence -- would not meet the moral or the intellectual requirements of the Logic Circles that I have in mind.

The Logic Circle should start to build a library on critical thinking. This library would contain introductory books on logic and the informal fallacies as well as other aspects of critical thinking.

The last thing that a Logic Circle needs is a commitment to meet on a regular basis in order for its members to study yet another aspect of critical thinking and, more important, try to apply these principles to problems in their own lives and in their communities.

Four Pillars of Critical Thinking

In my study of this issue, I have identified four major components of critical thinking that I think Logic Circles would have to focus on. They are:

(1) The Informal Fallacies: These informal fallacies range from the "straw man" and "red herring" to "false cause" and "hasty generalization." These are easy to learn, easy to teach, and a good first step for any Logic Circle. Its members should decide learn how to identify each of the Informal Fallacies by name and to recognize them when they appear in spoken or written arguments.

(2) The Scientific Method in Everyday Life: A lot of people talk about the scientific method as a part of formal science. I fear that this has created an impression that the scientific method is only for the professional laboratory, and that it has no application in every-day life. Logic Circles can work to correct this misconception. In fact, we use the scientific method every day mostly without knowing it, and mostly without honing our skills in ways that would allow us to use it well. For example, you have a plant. The plant is not doing well (observation). The owner takes all of the evidence he has available and he forms a hypothesis – i.e., the plant needs more sunshine. The owner designs an experiment – he moves the plant to where it will get more sunshine. The owner observes the results of his experiment to determine if he can turn the hypothesis into a theory. He then uses that theory to guide future action. “From now on, I will keep these types of plants where they will get more sunlight.” In addition to the basics of conducting a scientific experiment, Logic Circles would also focus on teaching what counts as good and bad data – the virtue of having a control (if possible), the lack of reliability for eye-witness testimony, testimony not collected behind some sort of blind, and testimony based on vague impressions such as “how do you feel?” (3)Rationalization: Rationalizations are mental tricks that people perform to make bad actions seem good. They are like the informal fallacies, but they apply specifically to justifications for action. For example, somebody who takes money from a cash register at work might use the rationalization, “That company makes a lot of money and exploits its workers; they deserve what I do to them.” A rapist might rationalize rape by thinking, “There was ‘No! No!’ on her lips, but I saw ‘Yes! Yes!’ in her eyes.” There are a few theories of rationalization floating around such as Sykes and Matza’s “Techniques of Neutralization.”

(4) Formal Logic: In this category, I place everything that a person would find in a standard Introduction to Logic textbook, except the informal fallacies, which I think can be separated out and made into a “starter” subject. This includes such things as the formal rules of propositional logic (modus ponens, disjunctive syllogism) to Venn Diagrams. This is a tough category for some people, but one which those who see the virtue of responsible cognition will see the need to master.


In order for these Logic Circles to function efficiently, they could use some help. In this vision, I see a use for a central organization that works to encourage the establishment and growth of these Logic Circles around the country and around the world, and to provide them with resources that will help them succeed.

These resources would include a central Logic Circles web site that provides the following:

(1) Reviews of books and web sites, and other resources for developing critical thinking. This will help the local Logic Circles to know where they can go for the resources that would be of the most use to them. There are a lot of books out there on introductory logic, informal fallacies, and other aspects of critical thinking. Are they any good?

(2) Discussion groups where Logic Circle leaders can go to ask questions of other leaders about how best to run their groups. They can compare ideas on projects that work or do not work. Perhaps one Logic Circle comes up with an interesting game to introduce children to the virtue of critical thinking. Another has created a particularly successful type of fundraiser. A third did something particularly useful in a membership drive. These ideas can go into a central web site for others to draw from.

(3) Uploading lesson plans. I envision these Logic Circles as spending, perhaps, 1 hour per week as a group actually learning some aspect of critical thinking. In one session they may learn the different variations of the argumentum ad hominem fallacy. In another they may study material and logical implication. If a Logic Circle leader creates a lesson plan for his group, he would then be able to upload it to the central web site for others to use. Creative individuals may create a video or flash file that explains the scientific method in a creative and entertaining way, and provide it for others to download and show in their groups. This central body of resources will lighten the load of any Logic Circle leader and make the task much less daunting.

Community Service

The Logic Circles of my imagination are not clubs where a group of people sit around in lonely isolation and discuss these principles of logic. They are community organizations with an interest in promoting (and providing the benefits of) critical thinking within their communities. Some projects that I would like to see these Logic Circles take on include:

(1) Establishing and maintaining a local community web site where they perform a local service much like does on a national level. The group would examine the claims of local politicians, newspaper writers, and television and radio news and talk program personalities, and reveal any fallacious reasoning in their arguments. I think it would be bad for any Logic Circle to become a partisan tool, so I would prefer to see a program where the group posts something like a “fallacious argument of the week” for the left and the right at the same time. This will help to maintain their reputation as people who are more devoted to truth than to partisan politics.

(2) The Logic Circle of my imagination would also work to establish the teaching of logic in the community in a number of ways. It could offer its own evening or weekend classes, including classes for kids presented in an age-appropriate way. It could seek to promote critical thinking classes in the local community college. However, I would most like to see them lobby to make logic classes at least optional, and preferably mandatory, in Jr. High and High School. No child has actually left school learning “how to think” if they have not left school with a working understanding of these elements of critical thinking.

(3) A Logic Circle could promote logic, particularly among kids, if it could arrange for some sort of contest. It could solicit prizes from local businesses, talk to a logic professor at a nearby university to devise a test, and then award prizes to those who score well on the test. A Logic Circle that is particularly adept at raising money might be able to offer scholarships.

Reflection and Application

There is one feature of these Logic Circles that I am particularly interested in. Whether a person is a Conservative or Liberal, there is a chance of being wrong. Those who fight global warming, or capital punishment, or oppose the minimum wage, all risk promoting something that may do more harm than good.

However, I do not see how a person who promotes critical thinking can go wrong. Whatever problems show up in the future, people need to be able to look at those problems intelligently and to come up with intelligent decisions. Improving critical thinking skills does not beg the question one way or the other on any of these issues. It does, however, give people the tools to evaluate the different options.

So, I think that a community of “Logic Circles” would be a good idea. To the degree that these clubs exist and grow, to that degree society as a whole would be better off. The participants in these Logic Circles will be better off as well. They will be better able to provide the tools of critical thinking to their own lives in order to make better decisions.

Not only will these people improve their own lives, they will improve the businesses where they work, the organizations they belong to, and even those around them who may come to them for advice. I truly see the invention and growth of the Logic Circles as a good way to make the world better than it would otherwise be.

So, the first wish of wish week is to see steps taken to create these Logic Circles.


Hume's Ghost said...

One of my pet wishes is something similar. I'd like logic/critical thinking to be a standard course in public schools the way math, science, literature, etc are.

Regarding the program to teach critical thinking, I believe SCICOP has a program that does that. I just got an e-mail alert about it actually.

Of course, their focus is on pseudoscience and the supernatural, though.

mathyoo said...

I think your Logic Circles idea is terrific! As someone near enough to you (Denver) to be considered "local"-if you are serious about implementing it, I'd be very interested in participating.

As a father of a 2 year old, I've become increasingly interesting in critical thinking skills and how to teach/impart them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Hume's Ghost

I can add to the list that a Logic Circle to do would be to raise some money to send people to a seminar such as the one you linked to, to come back with additional tools and information the group could use to promote critical thinking in its community.


Yes, I sincerely think that the Logic Circle would be a good idea. I am not a great organizer. If there are people in the Denver/Boulder (Colorado) area who would like to set something up, I would clearly like to participate. With 12 years of college in philosophy, I think I can offer some basic instruction in certain aspects of critical thinking.

Send me an email. Let's see what we can do.