Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Intro to Critical Thinking

I am appalled at the gullibility of the Bush-haters. In a repeat of the days before the 2004 election, a "scientific" study has come out before the election this year claiming that 655,000 Iraqis (100,000 from the 2004 study plus 555,000 since then) have died due to the conflict in Iraq since March 2003. I did some number-crunching and found that you would have to believe that an average of about 779 Iraqis have died per day since 2004. That's 5,453 per week. Where are all the bodies and/or graves? Why aren't Iraqi morgues filled to overflowing? In short, where is any physical evidence at all that this figure is the slightest bit accurate? I think there is none.

- Jason E Hubred, in a letter to the editors of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

First off, I'd like to thank Mr. Hubred for attempting to use critical thinking skills.

It's not actually easy, which is why educators all want to teach critical thinking skills in school - it really does take a while to get the hang of asking good questions and looking for good answers to those questions. So if you're someone who isn't accustomed to using critical thinking skills - perhaps you're a neo-conservative, or you're six years old - here is a handy three-step guide to basic critical thinking.

1. Look at a statement.

2. Ask yourself what might be wrong with that statement.

3. Check to see if your presumption is accurate.

I highlight #3, because that's the key - you have to be as skeptical of your own thinking as of those people you are criticizing. Your own thinking is just as capable of being prone to distortions, quick-and-easy answers without foundation in reality, and other such flaws as anybody else's thinking.

In this particular case, it's not hard to see where Mr. Hubred went off the tracks - he seems to believe that a death rate of 5400 people per week would overwhelm morgues, funeral homes, and other such support services. However, he's missing a few key points:

- Iraq is similar, in both size and population, to the US state of California: Iraq covers nearly 169,000 square miles with a population of about 26 million (estimated as of 2005), while California covers nearly 159,000 square miles with a population of about 37 million.

- In 2003, there were about 240,000 deaths in California.

See where I'm going with this yet?

There were about 4600 deaths each week in California in 2003. Do you remember any stories about how overwhelmed the state's funeral homes and morgues were? Of course not - in fact, the story was, in fact, the age-adjusted death rate in the US was at a record low.

Add in that Iraq is technically a war zone, and as such, not everyone who dies is treated by a mortician or taken to the police station for an autopsy - how many mass graves have you heard of in Vietnam, Kosovo, Darfur, etcetera, etcetera? - and no, it's not surprising that we're not seeing that kind of information.

And of course, even if that kind of data did exist? We still wouldn't see it - recall that the administration doesn't even allow photographers to show the coffins of dead US soldiers returning from Iraq; why would they publicize overcroweded morgues in Baghdad, assuming they even exist?

Now with all that said, Mr. Hubred does brush past a point that is worth making - the death rate in California may not be all that much lower than the death rate in Iraq among alleged war casualties, but who else is dying in Iraq? Are the 5400 war-related deaths per week in addition to another 4600 or so non-war-related deaths? Just how easy is it to seperate 'estimated war-related deaths' from other deaths?

Those are all interesting and valuable questions to ask. And Mr. Hubred doesn't bother to ask any of them - he's content in using his minimal critical thinking skills to assume he's made a bruising political point and leave it at that.

I don't avoid discussing politics because it's rude or conversationally dangerous to do so. I avoid it because too much of what passes for 'political' conversation is basically this kind of tit-for-tat first-grade level critical thinking. And frankly, most first-graders can think of more interesting things to talk about anyway.

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