John Nordin would love to argue with you.
He’d argue, in fact, that argument is a requirement for democracy. He doesn’t mean the yelling kind. He means the thoughtful kind, where one arrives well versed, well sourced and welcoming to others’ equally compelling points of view.
A senior lecturer in the Communication Studies Department of the University of Minnesota, Nordin teaches an undergraduate course called “Analysis of Argument” that helps young adults develop strong critical thinking skills. But young adults aren’t the only ones who could use guidance. Nordin, 63, of Lauderdale, talked about how we might all learn to argue well, instead of just loudly. Here’s his take on fake news, ancient Greece and what in the world he means by “epistemic closure.”
Q: How do you define critical thinking?
A: Let’s focus on two ideas: Is your claim supported with evidence? And, are the sources you’re using for your evidence valid? A lot of our debate today is just hurling claims at each other without any effort to support them. It’s claims of fake news and “gotcha” journalism and false balances and the non-reply reply. As for sources, one of the effects of the internet is that it allows you to live in a much narrower world. If I don’t like what someone is saying on Facebook, for example, I’ll unfriend them and I don’t have to think about them anymore.
Q: This sounds like confirmation bias.
A: The extreme version in academic circles is called “epistemic closure.” That means that your only criteria for deciding what someone is saying is true is if you already believe it to be true. This is dangerous because now you’ve become insulated from any argument that might challenge your point of view.
Q: Why aren’t we better critical thinkers? Are we just lazy now?
A: Developing critical thinking skills takes time. People are busy. Few of us can sit down for six hours to research an issue. Plus it’s hard to know where to start. If you want to hear the best classical music, you go hear a symphony orchestra. But there’s no similar way to say, “Where can I reliably go to hear the best reasoning?”
Q: What kinds of questions might someone practicing critical thinking ask?
A: Start with this: Is my claim one of fact, value or policy?
First, fact: Did this really happen? Are these numbers accurate? Sometimes you have to dig, such as into a government resource that’s under the radar, to find better numbers.
Second, value: This means asking, “What is the right thing to do?” Take the health care debate. On the one side are those who believe that we are responsible for our own lives. On the other side are those who believe that we cannot pick our DNA, and we’re all in this together. Both are valid points, so we should discuss what the proper balance is between them.
Policy: What is the impact of each of these facts and values? For example, what is the budgetary impact of the Affordable Care Act?
Q: Where might that three-step process lead us?
A: Thinking more critically could help us come up with compromises we could all live with. Unfortunately, compromise is in short supply. Just think about how much of our entertainment media is about two people fighting against each other. The values of civility. … I don’t know where it gets supported in the culture anymore.
Q: A recent study by the learning company MindEdge suggests that many millennials lack the ability to discern false information. You teach this demographic. What do you think?
A: I’m not sure if the 18-year-olds in my day were very good at discerning, either. But the environment our millennials live in today doesn’t encourage critical thinking. Students are reluctant to take a stand. They have fear of taking a position that the teacher doesn’t like. I’m trying to push them to take a stand and defend it.
It’s not that they don’t care, but it’s too big and too difficult. My students want to learn. I’m concerned that they don’t get much reinforcement for that.
Q: You were a debater in high school and college. How did that transform your view of public discourse?
A: You are required to debate both sides of an issue. That means you have to sharpen up your arguments. And debate is one of the few competitions where men and women compete against or alongside each other.
Q: Let’s say you’re going to a dinner party with people you don’t know. What is the best conversation etiquette?
A: Ask questions — real ones to promote understanding. Mostly, try to listen below the surface. Can you find some common ground? It is sometimes hard to do that. In those cases, it’s best to change the subject.
Q: You drive home your point with quite the academic field trip.
A: Yes, I try to take a group of students annually to Greece, but it depends on enrollment and whether they are able to fund their own trip. I take them to where ancient discourse and deliberation was born. I want them to reflect on some eternal questions of the liberal arts: How does a community govern itself? How do we develop our culture? What is the purpose of life? I show them that democracy means we talk to each other. We don’t just shout at each other.
Q: Do you think we live in as disparate of worlds as politicians or the media would have us believe?
A: Most people are just trying to pay their bills and watch their children grow up. If we could do more to walk a mile in each other’s shoes, it would make us more aware. Critical thinking is a requirement for greater awareness and for making democracy work. Some fraction of us have to be able to do this. We have to be able to find good information. If not, things fall apart.